Is Steve Coogan the Sellers of the Nineties?

The interview STEVE COOGAN, COMEDIAN TALKS TO BEN THOMPSON: True comic genius, and a little bit of petty spite, have earned Steve Coogan the accolade of "the Peter Sellers for the Nineties"

if a secret poll was conducted among all those of the British show-business persuasion as to who they would most like to be, the name Steve Coogan would probably come somewhere near the top. The comic characters which the 30-year-old former impressionist from Manchester is best known for creating - genial psychopath Paul Calf and his sexually hyperactive sister Pauline; Norwich-based sports reporter turned national chat-show host Alan Partridge - are still not quite household names. It's the quality of the recognition they get that counts: to know them is to love them.

Steve Coogan, so the conventional wisdom goes, is "the Peter Sellers of the Nineties", but what does that actually mean - that he will die young and have a very annoying daughter? The only thing you have to do to understand what the fuss is about is watch Coogan in action. The intensity of his commitment to his characters, and the perfect balance between compassion and cruelty in his meticulous observations, are a wonder to behold. His new series Coogan's Run sees him in a number of new guises. As well as the sacred Calfs, the six, half hour films - all located in the fictional Northern town of Ottle - will feature Coogan as a pub singer, a salesman, a handyman, a quiz fanatic and an obsessive museum curator.

At the press launch for the series, the naturally diffident Coogan plays the unaccustomed role of his celebrity self with commendable elan. Is he happy still to be on BBC2? He'd rather have a few people really like what he does, than have a lot of people quite like it. How did he feel about Paul Calf's harrowing nude scene in the series opener Get Calf? Coogan admits he went to the gym a few times before filming: "It might not look like progress but you should have seen the 'before' picture."

Given the laser-guided accuracy with which Alan Partridge pinpoints media inanity, you might expect the assembled representatives of the press to be on their best000 behaviour. This would be a grave error. "So Steve, who rides in the passenger seat of your Ferrari?" is one typically thought- provoking inquiry. At Coogan's side during the Q&A session is Henry Normal, the Mancunian poet and co-creator of Paul and Pauline Calf. Is Henry Normal his real name? "No," Normal replies politely but firmly, he made it up to preserve his privacy. Without a trace of irony the follow-up question shoots back. "Well, what is your real name then?"

The press pack having finally folded itself away, Steve Coogan allows himself a moment's anxiety. "With Alan Partridge we get to explore all these fictitious personalities that represent real ones. For it to work, we've got to try to be above it all." But how far above it all is it possible to be when you're a celebrated participant in the process you're satirising? "It is a very difficult game to play," Coogan concedes. "Ultimately," - he eases, grinning, into Partridge-esque verbal overload - "I'm King Canute ... but I'm King Canute with armbands on. I've got a fighting chance, if not of pushing back the tide, at least of staying afloat for a while."

One of the ways Coogan has been keeping his head above water recently is by co-starring in a full-scale Monty Python reunion, as Mole in Terry Jones's Wind in the Willows. "When I was sitting with John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Jones I really did have to pinch myself," Coogan admits, "because I was the boring sixth-former quoting Monty Python sketches, and the one thing that doesn't happen to boring people who quote Monty Python sketches is ending up in a Monty Python film. I told them 'I am your worst nightmare'."

Presumably this was the sort of scenario he would have dreamt of as a humble denizen of Manchester Poly's drama department in the Eighties. "I remember thinking 'I can't wait for college to finish'," Coogan says. "There were a few holier-than-thou people who turned up on time for every lesson and were heavily into Brecht and Stanislavski. I couldn't wait till they had to start auditioning for baked bean ads. I was quite happy for us all to be thrown overboard to see if we could sink or swim, because I felt at that stage that I could swim ... and then I applied the armbands and now I'm in the King Canute situation."

There is a vengeful edge to a lot of Alan Partridge's most piquant exchanges. "Sometimes we are motivated by petty spite," Coogan admits. " 'I don't like this person so let's create a character a bit like them'." In the midst of the Knowing Me, Knowing You writing process, Steve was to be seen brandishing Loaded magazine and fulminating about the absurd macho fantasy it - and especially its cover-star Gary Oldman - seemed to embody. A suitably Oldman-esque character was duly humiliated on Alan's sofa. And Coogan was duly photographed, a couple of months later, at a Loaded party.

"I know", he concedes, "it is terrible." Coogan's accent broadens Pauline Calf-wards. "But I am a dichotomy." He certainly is. Having subsisted happily for years on voiceover work, he now turns down offers reputed by unreliable sources to be well into six figures ("Every man has his price," Coogan tells the press conference, "and mine is enormous.") Brought up in a large and by all accounts very contented Catholic family, Coogan is driven by a relentless "work ethic thing" which sounds distinctly Protestant. "It might not be," Coogan insists, "there is guilt involved."

Does he find it hard to relax? "I went on holiday to Thailand recently, and played a lot of Connect 4 with Ladyboys." Connect 4 is a superior hi-tech derivative of noughts and crosses. Ladyboys, as you might have guessed, are "men who have breasts." "They're incredibly good at it," Coogan enthuses, "I'd put one counter in, and immediately they'd go chunk with the next one. They knew every permutation! I played nine games and was lucky to win one." This all sounds very jolly, but presumably they weren't playing for the fun of it? "You have to pay them of course," Coogan admits. "You could buy sex off them too, but I preferred the halfway house of paying to play Connect 4."

Coogan was not that seamy and sinister figure, the lone Connect 4 tourist. His girlfriend Anna, a solicitor, was with him to add a veneer of respectability. As he is late for an appointment with Armando Ianucci and Patrick Marber, co-authors of the keenly awaited Alan Partridge Christmas special, Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, he kindly offers me the chance to take her place in the passenger seat of his Ferrari. It is a ludicrously flashy vehicle - huge and scarlet - which it takes ages to manoeuvre out of the car park. He's only had it a few weeks, but he's already been pulled over several times by the police.

"They follow you all the time," he grumbles, "You have to drive like a district nurse." He noses his way forcefully out into the traffic. "People think there's no way you'll pull out because you'll be too scared of denting your Ferrari, so you have to say 'No I'm not, I don't care if I dent my Ferrari'." The demonic look on Steve Coogan's face as he flings the car into a tiny gap reveals the shocking truth: he is not doing this for the purposes of comedy. When he is driving, does he ever see people looking at him with hatred in their eyes and forget why it's there? The affable and unaffected and extremely complicated Steve Coogan smiles: "Oh no, I always know why it's there."

8 'Paul and Pauline Calf's Video Diaries' and the first series of 'Knowing Me, Knowing You' are out now on BBC videos. 'Coogan's Run' starts on 17 Nov, 9.30pm, BBC2.

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