Steve Coogan: He's back and funnier than ever

He is taking a break from Hollywood to star in Sunshine, the latest slice of life from the writers of The Royle Family. And Coogan's rather good, finds Gerard Gilbert

In the end it probably comes down to what you think of Steve Coogan as an actor. How much comic light and warmth emanates from his new BBC series Sunshine will most likely depend on how Coogan manages to tone down the extreme character traits of, say, Alan Partridge and sublimate himself to the requirements of an ensemble piece. Forget Hollywood, this is Stockport, and perhaps Coogan's greatest challenge to date.

Sunshine comes courtesy of Royle Family and Early Doors co-writers Craig Cash and Phil Mealey, and Coogan plays a "lovable" but dim chip shop worker with a gambling problem. "Bing" is an average guy with a weakness for a flutter. There are no exaggerated tropes to play with, no prop blazers or wigs – just Coogan on his own, his thespian nakedness accentuated by the fact that he is surrounded by the typically low-key naturalistic writing and ensemble performing associated with Cash and Mealey.

Before talking to the stars, I raised my concerns over a pint (what else, with the creator of Early Doors?) in Manchester. Mealey was taking time out from the editing suite. While agreeing that Coogan's previous comedy incarnations have all been "heightened" and "a bit of a caricature", he also points to the comedian's recent work in America as evidence of a fast developing acting ability. "He's one of the best things about Tropic Thunder [Ben Stiller's recent satire on movie-making] and great in Hamlet 2 [in which Coogan plays a failed actor-cum-drama teacher staging a sequel to Shakespeare's Danish tragedy; it opens here in November]. And in Sunshine, I think Steve will be a revelation to people. He takes risks in this – you'll see more of a person."

Yes, you do – eventually, although the opening episode is like watching someone groping their way out of the urge to caricature, made all the more obvious by the unobtrusively excellent playing all around him. There's some terrible business with his teeth – Coogan protruding them like Ken Dodd at a gurning contest – before he breaks through to something more touching and human: Bing, having spent his family's holiday money on a disastrous chance-of-a-lifetime bet, alone and in close-up. You almost feel like cheering for the actor.

"Bing is like a lot of working class men in the 21st century," reckons Coogan of his character. "He's struggling to be the kind of person he wants to be but is being pulled by an addiction. Bing's addiction is gambling, and he becomes a sort of Jekyll and Hyde character. He is a good person who ends up being a not particularly good father."

The challenge is to be likeable as well as a bit of prat, while Coogan's cringeworthy gallery of characters – from Partridge to Saxondale – have usually got by with just the latter. But hold on, you might ask, what is Coogan, with at least four major movies either in pre- or post-production, doing slumming it in a BBC comedy drama? Was it just a matter of helping out his old friends in the North? Nothing of the sort, says Mealey.

"Steve knew the script was knocking around and asked to see it. He rang the night after he read it and agreed straight away. He told Craig 'This is where I come from' and 'Some of the lines I can hear me own brother speaking'."

This is the first time that Coogan has been directed by Cash but the pair go back a long way. "I met Craig probably about 20 years ago," says Coogan. "He was friends with Caroline [Aherne]. I was at college with John Thomson and there was myself and Caroline, and Craig was around. He was a DJ on radio in Stockport radio and I used to go on his show. Craig would ring me up and ask whether I'd come on for free and just say funny things, late at night, which I did a few times."

Comedian Henry Normal – Coogan's partner in Baby Cow Productions – was also part of the scene, "a little kind of Manchester thing going on," as Coogan puts it. "Dave Gorman was on the fringes of it as well, and we'd all do gigs at the Green Room and the Streets. Henry worked with Craig on the first series of The Royle Family, so we're all kind of interconnected as a Northern scene."

Cash and Mealey go even further back. "We used to stack shelves together at Tesco's in Stockport," says Mealey. "I've known Craig for 30 years and Caroline for 20." And he's keen to scotch the accepted legend – repeated in his Wikipedia entry – that Mealey was only drafted in to co-write Early Doors after Aherne disappeared to Australia following alleged script differences with Cash.

"Early Doors was never a Craig and Caroline project," he says. "Craig and I had always had this idea that wouldn't it be great to write a working-class Cheers. After Caroline went to Australia Craig suggested we finally write it. I had quite a decent job at the time – as an engineer – and my wife had just had our second child. So I hesitated, but my wife said, 'come on; you've got to do it. I don't want to be sat with a 60-year-old man who's regretting never giving it a go.'"

After Early Doors, Cash and Mealey wrote The Royle Family: the Queen of Sheba, the 2006 swansong of Liz Smith's Nana and one of the most poignant and realistic depictions of death seen in TV drama – let alone in a sitcom.

"All the great sitcoms, Only Fools and Horses, Cheers and old things like Dad's Army, they always mixed the funny with the poignant," says Mealey, who has now formed his own production company with Cash. "It's called Jellylegs," he says. "It's an old Stockport expression for being nervous. You'd go bowling and say 'don't go jellylegs'."

If Cash and Mealey are feeling "jellylegs" about Sunshine, it may be because it's debuting on prime-time BBC1 – fine for an established work of genius like The Royle Family, but rather more nerve-wracking with a new show. On the subject of the Royles, as soon as editing on Sunshine is complete, Jellylegs will be sitting down with Aherne to produce a Christmas special for Britain's most sedentary family. "It'll be pure laughs this time," says Mealey. "No more deaths; we don't want to be the Dr Shipman of comedy."

Sunshine is a different beast from either The Royle Family or Early Doors. Each episode is twice the length and it's more comedy drama than sitcom. There are plenty of very funny lines, and a running joke about Piccalilli that will have manufacturers of the yellow chutney telephoning their PR departments. And it's not all about Coogan's character Bing. In fact, it's an inter-generational saga involving Bernard Hill as Bing's father George – a doting granddad to Bob's son Joe but, it is slowly revealed, a man with his own demons.

"We always thought we didn't want a Werther's Original type of granddad," says Mealey. "We wanted people to think that he had an edge in his younger days and you wouldn't want to cross him."

Says Hill himself: "When you see him younger, in the 1970s he's got lots of rings on his fingers, and he's a pretty different sort of personality. He's got sideboards and all that and you see him shuffling cards really well. What I've tried to do is make him responsible to some extent for Bing's personality problems – he was an absent father more at home in the pub. So he's skipped a generation and he's gone for the grandson to redeem himself. I think that's quite common."

Hill... Yosser Hughes from Boys from the Blackstuff. "Ah, another Scouse icon," I blurt out, thinking of Ricky Tomlinson in The Royle Family. "Bernard's actually from Manchester," corrects Mealey. "Everyone thinks he's from Liverpool."

Other cast members include the excellent Lisa Millett as Bing's long-suffering wife Bernadette, while Cash and Mealey play Bing's drinking mates. "All in all, there's nine of us from Early Doors in Sunshine," says Mealey. "Well, if it works for Woody Allen..."

'Sunshine' starts on BBC1 next Tuesday at 9pm

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