The price of fame for Steve Coogan has been the prying eyes of the tabloids. So why has the comedian taken on a straight acting role as Mike Gabbert, the newshound who exposed match-rigging in the Sixties? By James Rampton
Mike Gabbert's place in journalism's Hall of Fame is assured. Not only was he the first editor of the Sunday Sport, he also invented the word "bonk". His deathless motto was "good journalism is big tits in the open air". This standard-bearer for the quality press also pioneered foot-in-the-door exposes, laying bare, for instance, the sex and drugs and Mars Bars lifestyle of the Rolling Stones in 1967. But perhaps his finest hour came four years earlier when his muck-racking activities uncovered the match-rigging rife in professional football - a case not without contemporary echoes. Gabbert's efforts resulted in jail sentences and life bans for four players, notably England's then most expensive signing, Tony Kay.
His exploits are charted in their full glory in The Fix, a film to be screened on BBC1 tomorrow. The irony is that this man who doorsteps celebs is played by a celeb who has himself been the victim of just such doorstepping. Steve Coogan has in his personal life fallen foul of the sort of reporters who, like Gabbert, relish telling their editors: "There's filth there, and I want it badly."
Done up in the 1960s standard-issue tabloid hack's gear of shabby raincoat, shiny black suit and winkle-pickers, Coogan is pacing around between takes at the Lea Valley playing-fields in the East End of London. He is waiting to shoot a key scene in which one of Gabbert's cohorts attempts the first known example of entrapment with a hidden tape-recorder.
Initially Coogan seems wary of me before gradually opening up about the role. Once into his stride, he is as articulate as his famous alter-ego, Alan Partridge, isn't. He claims to have brought no personal animus to the role of Ur-Tabloid Man. "The tabloid press stink," he asserts, "but we've got the press we want and ask for. Short of living in a dictatorship - which I've considered, I've put out a few feelers - there's nothing we can do about it.
"But just because I'm not the biggest fan of tabloid journalists, I don't think it would be particularly healthy if my role was influenced by my own attitude," he continues. "If you go into a part because you've got a score to settle, then it's not going to be a particularly good performance." It would have been simple for Coogan to have portrayed Gabbert with a metaphorical tail, horns and cloven hooves, but his reading is more plausibly ambiguous than that. "Gabbert is not a very nice person, but the challenge was to make him something more than an oily, two-dimensional caricature. It's not as if he's turning someone over without justification. It's not as if he's turning someone over for sexual indiscretion," he adds with feeling. "What he's uncovering deserves to be uncovered, but it's also damaging to people. It's corruption, but Gabbert is only motivated by the fact that it'd make a good story. It's a grey area of morality - which I liked."
Coogan certainly doesn't attempt to ingratiate himself with audiences as Gabbert. Far removed from the laugh-a-minute humour of Paul Calf or Partridge, Coogan's performance in The Fix is designed to alienate. Obsessive, thick-spectacled, wiry-haired, his Gabbert doesn't crack a smile once in the whole piece. After Partridge, Paul and Pauline Calf and Gareth Cheeseman, it's another example of Coogan's rare ability completely to merge with a character. Before your very eyes, he becomes someone else. And you can't see the join.
The actor reckons that taking his first serious part was "a gamble, because I could have ended up looking like a complete prat. But it's not Oscar material, I wasn't doing a Dustin Hoffman, just a believable, unshowy part that was consistent with the other performers. For all that, carpers will still tut, `oh no, here we go again, another clown who wants to play Hamlet.' " Paul Greengrass, the writer / director of The Fix, maintains that doesn't apply in this case because "Steve is not a comedian who suddenly wanted to start acting. He was an actor first." Coogan did indeed train in drama at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre.
For Coogan, going straight was a simple matter of job security. "It just makes sound sense to try your hand at everything. Doing as many things as possible, I can afford to screw up and not worry about the mortgage."
Screw up he did, in the eyes of some critics at least, with his hit and miss series of characters in Coogan's Run, and his rather one-note spoof Latino singer, Tony Ferrino. Coogan, however, is well used to dodging incoming fire. "A few critics have had a pop recently, but they would have done whatever I'd done at this stage of my career," he contends. "It's almost irrelevant what it is. It's the rhythm of things. Even last year I was saying, `How long before the backlash?' It's transparent. One of the pitfalls of doing lots of things is that the critics can always say, `This is not as good as the others'."
The benchmark in Coogan's career remains the cringe-making chat-show host, Alan Partridge. Against all odds, the character remains popular, his catchphrases ringing out in saloon-bars across the country. "Even though he's a berk, people like him despite themselves," Coogan observes. "The Little Englander in him is in all of us." He returns later this autumn for a second series called I'm Alan Partridge. Staying one step ahead of the critics, Coogan and his producer Armando Iannucci have moved Partridge out of the chat-show studio. The new series takes up the story after he has been sacked from the BBC for assaulting a top exec with a turkey live on air. Deserted by his wife and children, Partridge now lives in a motel off the A12 scratching out an existence just below the B-list circuit.
"When something becomes successful," Coogan muses, "that's the time to do something else if you want longevity. If people start to see you trying to flog something, they get fed-up. People used to say the chat show is dead. Now they're saying the ironic chat show is dead. When Richard Madeley starts using Partridge's catchphrase, `On that bombshell', you know it's time to move on."
The only current fly in his ointment, as Partridge would put it, is people's eagerness to analyse his work. "I just do the characters and they're funny," he sighs. "Only afterwards do I read articles about them and discover they were deeper than I thought.
"Articles that deconstruct comedy are environmentally unfriendly to South American rainforests. It seems the antithesis of comedy to deconstruct it, and it's certainly dangerous for comedians to do it. Hancock went bonkers trying to do it."
Coogan thinks that he will maintain his sanity as long as he doesn't get swept up in the celebrity whirlpool. "The only danger would be if I lived in the Groucho Club," he argues. "This is going to sound pretentious, but for the stuff I do I need to make sure my experiences are as varied as possible. I don't want to spend my time going to opening nights. The other night I was invited to Elton John's birthday party. Why? I've never even met him. I like the fact that I can walk down the street and rarely get recognised. If that was taken away, I wouldn't have anything funny left. I need to protect that.
"Despite tabloid intrusions into my private life," he concludes, "I've avoided being in the opening spread of a Sunday colour supplement looking pissed with my eyes half-closed, a glass of wine in my hand and a facile caption underneath. My job is to comment on the world they're trying to suck me into. So I'm trying to make myself inedible."
`The Fix' is on BBC1, 9pm on Saturday. `I'm Alan Partridge' begins later in the autumn on BBC2
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