Heard the one about the comedian who wanted to do more than just make people laugh?
From stand-up comic to Spitting Image, Paul (and Pauline) Calf to Tony Ferrino and, of course, the many incarnations of Norfolk’s premier Pringle-clad DJ Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan has been excelling at the laughter part for nearly a quarter of a century.
“I’m a populist. I like to make as many people laugh as possible. I’m not some pretentious aesthete. Alan Partridge is something I like doing,” Coogan makes clear, but he’s also decided that there is more to life than laughter. Fed up with “joining in with the collective sneer”, Coogan wants to “add something to the sum total of human happiness in whatever modest way I can.”
It may sound like a mid-life crisis moment, but through both his latest film – Coogan co-wrote and starred in the Bafta-winning Philomena, the true story of a mother’s search for a son taken from her and sold for adoption by nuns – and in what he describes as his “hobby, of sorts”, Coogan is proving that he can do serious, and not always with a smile, rather well.
The ‘hobby’ has seen Coogan take centre stage, along with Hugh Grant, as one of the highest profile backers of Hacked Off, the campaigning body which is calling for the full implementation of Lord Leveson’s recommendations on regulation of the press.
Eighteen months on from Leveson’s publication, three years since The Sun splashed with ‘The Strange Mr Jefferies’ after Chris Jefferies was erroneously arrested on suspicion of the murder of 25-year-old Joanna Yeates, and over a decade since journalists employed by the News of the World hacked the phone of murdered teenager Millie Dowler, the press, politicians and campaigners are still unable to agree on what happens next.
“It’s the press’ interest to put as much distance between themselves and Leveson and hope by kicking the ball into the long grass people will forget what it was all about,” Coogan warns. “Some vested interests, some newspapers, are wilfully trying to go against the majority, the democratically agreed view. Leveson was an important public inquiry – and it’s not through yet.”
Steve Coogan is older than David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband. He jokes that political leaders, like “policeman”, are getting younger – though it’s the 42-year-old chancellor of the exchequer who leaves Coogan feeling most unsettled. “I do find it strange when I look at George Osborne,” Coogan, now 48, admits. “I think ‘I can’t believe he’s younger than me, he’s the sort of person that as a schoolboy I used to snigger at on the bus’.”
But the grown-up Steve Coogan wouldn’t snigger. Well, not as much as he might have done. Comedy, it seems, is leaving him a little cold.
“Comedy, generally speaking, depends on a kind of arch insincerity, if you like, which is how you get the comedy from it,” he explains from his home outside Brighton, a rare moment of rest between airport lounges and international flights.
“Also, cynicism and comedy sit side-by-side very comfortably. You become a little disenchanted with cynicism. It’s satisfying in the short term but it’s not particularly nourishing. It struck me that more often than not to be sincere and heartfelt was the less obvious thing to do and seemed to be unfashionable. For that reason I wanted to fly the flag for people who are sincere and also be optimistic, without being naïve – I think people equate sincerity with a kind of naïvety, which is wrong.”
So how to explain the new Coogan? Is this just the case of a man homing in on his 50th birthday?
“It’s certainly a bit to do with getting older, and not wanting to be disingenuous and not wanting to feel that you’re selling used cars,” he admits. “Not wanting to come across all Joan of Arcish about it all, but it’s nice to think that you’ve got some sort of sense of what is ethical.”
A cynic might see Steve Coogan’s ethically-driven battle cry for better press regulation as one motivated by revenge: his run-ins with the red tops – and a long running feud with the Daily Mail – have been keeping showbiz hacks in work for years. Coogan admits there is some truth in a lurid set of tabloid tales involving lapdancers, cocaine, and a bed covered in bank notes, but he has repeatedly insisted that what happened after hours, and behind closed doors, is nobody’s business but his.
In August 2011, armed with evidence that his phone had been hacked on behalf of the News of the World, Coogan started legal action against the paper. “It did feel a very lonely place to be and I was warned against taking on the might of Murdoch,” he recalls, but being brought into the Hacked Off fold has given Coogan a team to be a part of, even if he was wary about being the type of celebrity figure who “wants to go around campaigning” for non-celebrity causes.
“I understand that anyone who has a public profile for being creative, if they give their opinion on things that aren’t immediately connected with what they do, they open themselves up to ridicule. I’m not naïve enough to think that wasn’t going to happen, but having said that, you have to weigh up the negative of going ‘oh no not him again’ with any positive impact your involvement in something can cause.”
He accepts that “it can be a case of diminishing returns if you’re constantly going on about this that or the other,” but Steve Coogan is not prepared to let Leveson lie.
The impact, on a personal level, has been positive. People still shout Partridge’s “A-HA!” catchphrase at him in the street, but Coogan has impressed with his appearances on Newsnight, Question Time and in front of a parliamentary select committee, putting some distance between himself and his comic alter ego and moving on from what he calls the “ancient history” of his lively personal past.
But despite his efforts, the impact on the future of press regulation remains uncertain. Last month, Hacked Off published the names of more than 200 supporters, including JK Rowling, Michael Palin, Sir Tom Stoppard, Nick Davies, Salman Rushdie and Sir David Attenborough, to mark the one year anniversary since the publication of the Royal Charter – the government’s solution of a legislative “backstop” to Lord Leveson’s call for tougher press regulation. However, the Murdoch papers, the Mail, and the Telegraph titles, are refusing to sign, arguing that the charter represents state restriction on press freedom.
Instead they are in the process of creating the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), their own self-regulatory solution to succeed the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). Coogan, a genuine authority on the intricacies of press regulation, is appalled at what he calls a “busted flush” alternative.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we are on the right side. There is no nuance or subtlety in the opponents of Leveson’s findings. The misrepresentation of Leveson’s core findings as state regulation was a gross distortion,” he snaps.
“The Royal Charter declares that we believe in a free press as a core tenet of democracy and if people joined a Leveson complaint body it actually protects them against lawsuits. It’s a body which genuinely protects public interest journalism and the rights of people to have some redress. Not famous people, but people who are bullied and pilloried. Leveson was an important public inquiry and it’s not through yet.”
However, Ipso’s backers are already advertising the position of chairman – complete with a £150,000 a year salary – and hope the body will be up and running next month.
“This is an ongoing process. However much some people try to caricature it as being over and done with, it’s certainly not,” Coogan replies. “The body that was approved by the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, Ipso, is not Leveson compliant, and it’s important to remember that the Financial Times, the Independent and the Guardian have so far failed to sign up because of that reason. Most people who look at it for any length of time realise it’s just the PCC all over again.”
The Ipso faction were given some encouragement last November when Maria Miller, the culture secretary, suggested that, “there are opportunities for the press to be able to be recognised” if Ipso proved itself. Coogan is unforgiving in his assessment. “I think Maria Miller is really a busted flush. Any credibility she has went down the swanny a long time ago. From all sides. She’s a fairweather politician. I think she sticks her finger up in the morning and sees which way the wind is blowing and that determines her views and principles.”
Miller was quickly corrected by David Cameron, who declared that it would be a “mistake” for the press to refuse to seek recognition under the charter. Instead, Cameron warned that the press would be “risking that some future, less liberal, less enlightened government at the time of the next press crisis will hitch you with some hideous statutory regulation which I prevented.”
Coogan praises the prime minister’s “very finely crafted sentence – he’s managed to tick all the boxes”, but Cameron was wrong, he says, in his warning. “The people who want press regulation are not anti-freedom at all. The press have nothing to fear.”
“If the Daily Mail went to the wall, who would be there to stand up for the persecuted minority of people from fairly comfortable areas who are middle-aged and not coloured?”, Alan Partridge once asked, but for Steve Coogan no other paper causes him quite such discomfort, and no other editor such disgust as Paul Dacre.
He describes Dacre’s resistance to Leveson as a “kind of almost wilful sociopathic arrogance”, even if he is prepared to give the Mail’s editor a backhanded compliment of sorts:
“The one thing I would say in his favour, that I think elevates him in some way or, depending on your point of view, differentiates him from Rupert Murdoch, is I think Rupert Murdoch is all about business: it’s about the bottom line, it’s about shifting units and building his empire, unimpeded by any sort of regulation whatsoever. Morality and ethics are purely an academic concept to him. He is an amoral propagator of his own empire.
“Paul Dacre on the other hand, I think he genuinely believes all the xenophobic crap that he writes in his newspaper. I’ll let him have that.”
But the ‘xenophobic crap’ is read by more than 2m people a day, making it the fastest growing national paper in Britain. Coogan admits it is “very popular”, but insists that “popularity has never been any kind of defence” for him.
“The notion that purely by definition of its popularity it’s beyond reproach is a nonsense. This is not an anti-tabloid thing. There is absolutely room for a healthy tabloid newspaper industry that has a robust engagement with politics and is popular. As a newspaper it panders to people’s worst prejudices and people like to have their prejudices reinforced and that’s what the Daily Mail does – there are 60m people in the UK and 2m people buy the Daily Mail. I make that one in 30. That’s what? One in 30 xenophobes.”
He’s equally dismissive of MailOnline, a website so popular that it clocks just short of 12m visitors a day. “Well, you know, paedophilia is pretty popular too,” is Coogan’s dismissive response of what he calls “Mailbait”.
He is scathing of a “website that has all the photographs of 12 and 14 year old girls and talks about their bras and how fast they are growing up and all the rest of it. It clearly has an appeal that goes beyond just the curious. That’s hugely popular and all for the wrong reasons. It’s at best creepy and at worst sinister.”
He thinks that “increasingly with Dacre it’s like shooting fish in a barrel”, but it’s hard to know if the shots ever hit home: Paul Dacre is rarely seen or heard in public. If Dacre could be tempted into a televised debate in the style of the Nick Clegg-Nigel Farage bust-up, would Coogan take him on?
“I would – and not in terms of braggadocio,” he replies without hesitation. “I’d just like to see him defend some of the things his newspaper does.”
Back in September, at Steve Coogan’s Brighton home, a small gathering of Labour MPs loitered around a tasteful cheese board. John Prescott held court in the garden; former Liberal Democrat MP – and now Hacked Off employee – Evan Harris did the introductions. Hugh Grant left unfashionably early; Alastair Campbell arrived fashionably late. With diaries packed full of breakfast meetings, most guests called it a night well before 11pm. Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman gave a speech. Coogan did too. The scene was a long, long way from the Mail’s tales of Barbarian behaviour.
Coogan clearly gets a buzz out of moving in political circles. The day after the Hacked Off soiree, he sat in the Brighton conference centre to watch Ed Miliband’s speech. He’s been a guest at the Liberal Democrat conference too.
“In one way it’s enjoyable but I don’t get paid for it,” is his assessment of his part-time political pursuits, with Coogan describing himself as a “defender of the political process, however flawed it is. It’s rewarding to be engaged.”
So should Russell Brand be taking to the airwaves to declare his pride in not voting? “I understand it,” Coogan cautiously replies. “The paradox, of course, is when Russell says that, he is engaging with the process.”
Unlike Brand, however, Coogan won’t engage on Twitter. The @accidentalpartridge account has more than 100,000 followers, but Coogan is wary of the “double-edged sword” of instant online conversation. “I’ve been wont to send angry emails that people in my life have sat on me… that 24 hour cooling off period before you buy a gun, Twitter sort of works against that in some ways. Technology means that we’ve all got the equivalent of verbal diarrhoea. Reticence is something to be savoured.”
But in person, Coogan has plenty to say about politics and politicians, even declaring an unfashionable admiration for their work.
“I don’t do this blanket thing about politicians. There are many I don’t agree with politically but I think are thoroughly good company, and people I like on a personal level,” he says. “Generally politicians do get a raw deal because it is unfashionable to be engaged in politics, especially for young people. Although they are in some ways responsible for the apathy, I also think that generally speaking – and this is a generalisation because there’s some complete bastards out there – politicians do have the greater good at heart even if they might take a pragmatic approach.”
He describes his own politics as “left of centre,” a position based on “general principles and emphasis”, while he has “flirted with the Liberals on certain issues and reserved my judgment, and been quite angry, with the Labour Party on other issues.”
His father is a member of the Liberal Democrats, and in his youth Coogan has “delivered leaflets for the Liberals while voting Labour… I don’t know what that says.” He’s even got time for the “certain Conservative politicians” who he finds “engaging and principled… I agree with their general approach to certain issues.”
Would he take it a stage further and embrace politics as a full-time pursuit? “At the moment I like the fact that I can say stuff and the worst I can expect is to get a drubbing in the Daily Mail, and I can cope with that,” is a reply which doesn’t rule out the prospect of a Lord Coogan of North Norfolk.
“If I started to engage with the process and I had to worry about playing the political game so much that I started to disengage with it, that would worry me. But I like being involved in issues that are part of the national debate. The pros outweigh the cons. Apathy and ambivalence I loathe more than anything.”
So has Ed Miliband secured the Coogan vote for 2015? “It’s very much qualified support I give to the Labour Party,” Coogan replies. “I’ll be interested to see how they deal with a number of issues, not least whether they stand up to the bullying press barons and stand up for the people who have been disenfranchised from any system of redress.” He then adds, in a moment of pure Partridge: “I try to be pragmatic, not dogmatic.”
He’s says both Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg “have shown some backbone in standing by the main findings of Leveson”, but complains that “certain politicians are worried about annoying those sections of the press because they think they depend upon them to be re-elected.” Whether David Cameron has done enough to support a system of press regulation that would allow him to “look the victims [of phone hacking] in the eye”, as the prime minister had pledged, “remains to be seen.”
He hasn’t yet mentioned Nigel Farage, a politician firmly opposed to Leveson but whose sports-casual attire and fondness for a pint of bitter sees him stray repeatedly into Partridge territory. Even Armando Iannucci, one of the writers behind Partridge, describes Farage as behaving like “Alan’s single uncle.”
Coogan sounds almost fond of the UKIP leader. “It’s interesting isn’t it? Of course I find almost all of his views objectionable, but you can think that at a Christmas party he might be an avuncular, entertaining presence. I think that’s possibly part of their success. I mean, I might have broad political sympathies with Tony Blair, but l’m not sure I’d want him at my Christmas party.”
A confusing part of Steve Coogan’s insistence that his private life remains private is his habit of playing versions of himself on screen. In A Cock and Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom’s 2005 film, he plays ‘Steve Coogan’, a cynical actor with a colourful personal life. It’s a role, or a version of it, which he has resurrected for The Trip, in which he joins Rob Brydon playing ‘Rob Brydon’ as the pair set off on an unstructured, comedic-gastronomic tour of northern England.
Later this year The Trip returns for a second series, this time set in Italy. “The food is better, the scenery is better. I hope my fellow northerners don’t take umbrage with that because I do love the north,” Coogan explains. Otherwise “it’s more of the same” as the fictionalised Coogan and Brydon attempt to outdo each other with their range of impressions while endlessly eating enviously well.
It sounds an unlikely recipe for success, but the programme won multiple awards and huge critical acclaim: at last year’s British comedy awards Richard Curtis described it as one of the greatest television programmes of all time.
“Rob and I were always reluctant to do it at first,” Coogan admits. “We just thought it would be a narcissistic, self-indulgent exercise in self-parody, but thankfully it’s a bit more than that. It’s also about grappling with the meaning of life in a way which hopefully transcends the small self-obsessed world of entertainers and it does that. It’s thoroughly enjoyable.”
But however enthusiastically Coogan grapples with the meaning of life, embraces worthy causes, political campaigns or more serious writing projects, there’s a grinning alter ego who can never be ignored. Coogan appeared to tire of Partridge in the past – he once called a stand-up tour “Steve Coogan as Alan Partridge and other less successful characters” – but the older, wiser Coogan is comfortable with Alan at his side. Whether in the form of a TV series, a repeat of the Mid Morning Matters with Alan Partridge online format, or a sequel to last summer’s Alpha Papa, Partridge’s big screen debut, Alan will be back.
“I had a bit of an epiphany with Philomena. I discovered I could talk about difficult subjects while using comedy. That whetted my appetite so much that I want to do more things like that. But paradoxically the more successful I am with drama, drama that’s funny as opposed to comedy, the more likely I am to do another Partridge. As long as Partridge is a string to my bow – if it’s all I do I find that a bit depressing – I’ll never abandon it. I’m sure there will be another incarnation of Alan at some point. It’s always better to do that stuff when you want to, not when they tell you to.”
In fact, switching to Alan can come as something of a relief for his increasingly sincere creator. “I did the Partridge film straight after I did Philomena. It was madness to shoot and it was very disorganised because I’d spent all my time on my grown-up Judi Dench film, but it was hugely enjoyable chaos. It was nice to go back to doing stupid jokes and having my trousers fall down and very unsophisticated stuff like that.”
For now, however, Coogan is all about sincerity. He’s going to step up his involvement in the Philomena project in an effort to release adoption files, and hopes his film will result in a positive ending beyond the credits. “We didn’t set to out destroy or attack the church in a purely polemic way, there’s a kind of olive branch in the film,” he explains, adding, while laughing: “I’m all about olive branches.”
Except, perhaps, when it comes to certain owners, publishers, and editors – and the politicians who refuse to take them on. “We’re at the stage now, I think it was John Major who said that it’s no longer the press that are drinking in the last chance saloon, it’s the politicians,” Coogan warns. “This is the opportunity to reform and make effective self-regulation which enables the victims to be protected and have a voice.”
So is there really more to life than laughter for Steve Coogan?
His obituaries will inevitably begin and end with Alan Partridge, but the one thing he wants to be said of him is that, “the things I say, however much they might irritate people who disagree with them, are sincere and not part of some agenda. And I hope that people are not cynical about me.”
Depending on what happens to press regulation in this country, and depending on what paper you read, those obituaries will vary widely. A bit of criticism would suit Steve Coogan nicely. The comedian who wanted do more than just make people laugh would clearly have packed a particularly powerful punchline.