Fans of Alan Partridge will find much to relish in Steve Coogan’s new autobiography. There are times when the voice of Alan honks off the page: “On another Sunday, Dad pointed someone out as we were leaving church. ‘That man told me how a toilet cistern worked when I was a child,’ Dad said. ‘He explained how simple the mechanics of a ballcock are. He opened my eyes to engineering.’” There are passages on how iPods work, the renaissance of the tram and the construction of car-parks. Often the phrasing is pure Partridge: “When Dad announced he was buying a Volvo, I said to myself, ‘Thank God!’”
In fairness to Coogan, he addresses this overlap several times. When he first started working on scripts for Partridge, he would simply channel his “immediate reactions”, say the first thing that came into his head. “Alan is a conduit for all my demons,” he writes. “Clearly he’s a bit like me.” The passages where he writes about perfecting Partridge’s voice, back story (“I immediately thought of ‘Naughty Norwich’ and fondues and BBQs…”) and wardrobe are a joy.
Easily Distracted is an oddly paced, intermittently fascinating read. The first part, which largely covers the successes of the last few years – The Trip, Philomena, phone-hacking and Alan’s return – but also jumps around from the early to late 90s, is a mess and smacks of score-settling. There’s a hint of Alan shouting “Needless to say I had the last laugh.” It gets better, funnier and more sincere, in Part 2 which covers his childhood and Catholic upbringing in microscopic detail. By Chapter 32 (of 48), he is only just sitting his A-Levels while the Partridge years are dispatched in six too-short chapters. His wilderness decade is dealt with in a single paragraph on the last page: “In the years following Alan’s success, my personal life descended into turmoil. And I had no idea where to go with my career. I was lost.”
So there is little scandal, barring one tale of a cocaine-induced panic attack he had when he was 26 years old and had barely begun his long-term relationship with the drug. Women have veils discreetly drawn over them at every turn. Lizzie, a girlfriend of three years, “was great. She was very organised so it was like having a PA as well as a girlfriend.”
Still, a vivid picture emerges of a happy and necessarily frugal (he was one of six) childhood. His father is particularly lovingly drawn – a man who made bunk beds from scratch, sneered at fashion, flirted with teachers and taught his son about mechanics and politics. As a boy, Coogan was anxious, “away with the fairies” and wet the bed until he was 12 years old. He was also a talented mimic from the age of fiv, when he would do such accurate impressions of car wheels screeching that his mother would tell his father off for speeding. Later he would lie in front of the television and record Fawlty Towers onto cassette then learn every part by heart.
He was clearly destined to entertain but only applied to drama school when he failed the exam for the civil service. At the auditions he “felt like Frank Spencer drowning in a sea of Mr Darcys” and that chippiness has stayed with him, from feeling out of his depth among the Oxford types on On the Hour, to feeling envious of Rob Brydon’s clever lines on The Trip. He is disarmingly honest about his professional jealousies.
What else? As a teenager he joined a “hugs and tambourines” Catholic movement called the Charismatics (“Now the closest I get to spirituality is watching Wheeler Dealers, in which cars are done up and sold for £5000.”) He worked at the local petrol station and would regularly fleece Bernard Manning (whom he loathed “because he brought northern humour into disrepute”) out of his change. Bruno Tonioli taught him how to walk as Pauline Calf. The Perrier is still the most exciting award he has ever won though by the time he did, he was already driving a “British racing green Mazda MX-5 with tan seats”. His relationship with Patrick Marber was utterly formative, but then they fell out over a pair of shorts and his timekeeping. He thinks the swimming pool attendant sketch on The Day Today (“In 1979, no-one died…”) is the funniest thing he has done. He is obsessed with Thomas More. He is in love with fast cars, unapologetically so. And he has, it seems, finally made his peace with his most famous creation. To borrow his own summing-up: “I suppose there is a corner of my mind that will be forever Alan Partridge.”
Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan is published by Century on 8 October
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