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Arts: All he needs is laughter... and respect

Comedy has made Steve Coogan very rich, so why does he let a few critics annoy him?
IN ONE of the many memorable encounters from the spoof chat-show Knowing Me, Knowing You, a soul-baring new-wave comedian tells Alan Partridge: "I want to be funny - but with dignity". The king of sports-casual leisurewear replies: "Go on, do your Frank Spencer."

At the end of Steve Coogan's current show, he sends himself up, appearing as "Steve Coogan", a soul-baring new-wave comedian. And he says he wants "large groups of people to find me funny" while none the less craving critical respect: two Baftas this week, for Best Comedy Performance and Best Comedy Programme, suggest that he is managing both.

His love-hate relationship with what he calls "arty-farty intellectuals" emerges when he mentions that I'm Alan Partridge was voted best TV series of 1997 by BBC2's Late Review, "a show I really can't stand". As Alan might say, he's not just a "one-trick Partridge", yet most of us continue to identify him with the great man - a legend in his own roadside motel. This irks Coogan, despite the fact that the character is often spoken of in the same breath as revered Britcom greats such as Basil Fawlty, Captain Mainwaring and Blackadder.

There is the inevitable Partridge segment in the show, but he also plays Tony Ferrino, Ernest Moss, Duncan Thickett and both Paul and Pauline Calf. He has been the voices of Neil Kinnock, Margaret Thatcher and Mick Jagger on Spitting Image, has appeared in straight roles on TV and the "legitimate" stage and won countless awards as a stand-up comedian.

Yet the urge to say "Go on, Steve, do your Alan Partridge," remains irresistible.

Alan first appeared as a hapless sports reporter on Radio 4's On The Hour, was promoted to the dizzy heights of Pringle-clad presenting on BBC2's The Day Today, became an overnight sensation as the Wogan wannabe in Knowing Me, Knowing You, but then tragically fell from grace as a divorced Radio Norwich jock in I'm Alan Partridge.

Coogan, his fans will be relieved to hear, still "does" Alan. Even if he wanted to, he could never kill him off. Loadsamoney, Stavros and Smashie might all have been swiftly disposed of by Harry Enfield, but Coogan's tragi-comic creation refuses to hang up his Argyll sweater, bilberry blazer and driving gloves.

He lapses into Partridge-isms without even thinking. He compares his former collaborator on The Day Today, Chris Morris, to a concept car, for example ("Sorry, that was what Alan would say"). And while springing to the defence of his Latin crooner Ferrino, he adopts Partridge's belligerent tones.

"Look, 80 per cent - no, in fact it was more than 80 per cent - of reviews said he was great. But the Guardian did a snotty review. I could get out all the cuttings and be pedantic and Alan-ish about it..."

"It would be churlish of me," he sighs, "to say my characters are nothing like me. I would never claim to be completely rational and well-adjusted. There are bits of me in all of them. Besides, Alan is not a monster or a fascist. He's a little-England right-winger who likes the Daily Mail."

And, as with Coogan himself, loathes the Guardian. "It's their unquenching thirst for deconstructing everything which I hate. They've extended pages of nothingness, talking things into a soup. I really can't stand "Pass Notes", with its glib attempts to be funny. And the guide section is the most annoying part. It must have been written by computer, net-surfing, sci-fi nerds who are into cartoons like the Simpsons and King Of The Hill. I just wish all this post-modernism would go away."

The "Ferrino flop" write-ups clearly got to Coogan. Up until the Lisbon Lothario's launch, he had known nothing but praise: Spitting Image and the London Palladium in his early twenties, an Edinburgh Perrier Award in 1992, On The Hour and The Day Today team and then universal acclaim for that chat-show host.

His insecurity is puzzling. In Britain, all successful performers will, at some point in their career, fall foul of the critics. If 80 per cent of reviewers thought Ferrino funny, does it really matter what a few "elitist snobs", as he calls them, think?

"Yeah, I suppose I said before I don't care, yet clearly I do. The thing is, you want everyone to think you're great all the time. But in Britain, if there is unbridled success - a slight mistake - people go for you. The tabloids had a pop. They didn't like me because I didn't talk to them." In fact, they deemed him a sex-addicted love-rat ("A millionaire who owns a host of flashy cars and has a stream of glamorous women battling to appear on his arm," as the Sunday Mirror put it).

His mandatory backlash period ended years ago, yet the gainsayers still rile him. "They talk a load of rubbish really," he says. "I felt relief rather than pleasure when the reviews for I'm Alan Partridge were so good. You can't stop these backlashes, it's all about schadenfreude. But I became insecure and paranoid. I thought they were really saying: `Damn, it's actually good.' That's how I read them. With a tour like this there's no ambiguity. You can't deny the fact that 2,000 people were laughing throughout the night. There's nothing to match adulation from large groups of people."

His end-of-show appearance as "Steve Coogan" is, he explains, an ironic homage to Mike Yarwood's legendary and-this-is-me finale. He enjoys sending himself up as a prima donna. "You know the sort," he chuckles, "an obnoxious, precious performer." The type of comedian who want to be funny, but with dignity.

Steve Coogan is on tour until 2 July. Telephone 0171-420 1000 for details.