Who doesn’t like the sound of ‘a manifesto for the way we can move forward, a roadmap to a better tomorrow, an ABC for the way to be’? TV personality Alan Partridge’s heart is in the right place and his head mic is firmly in place but as he hits the road with STRATAGEM, “a live stage show that promises to inform, educate and entertain in approximately equal measure”, he’s guaranteed to put his foot in his mouth, repeatedly.
Not so Steve Coogan, who created and has been playing the popular exponent of the inadvertent social blunder since 1991, as he steps out from behind his persona to talk about the show which returns to Scotland this month after a recent sell-out in Edinburgh.
Minus Alan Partridge’s snap-on wig, lifestyle guru white turtle neck, bomber jacket and slacks and only just reigned-in irritation, 56-year-old Coogan is a much less scary prospect, articulate and relaxed as he describes the show.
“It’s Alan Partridge’s life coaching lifestyle guru guide to the modern world, where Alan helps people with their first world problems and helps them make sense of the modern world by imparting the wisdom that he’s garnered over the 60-odd years that he’s been on the planet.”
Ted Talk meets powerpoint presentation with musical interludes STRATAGEM WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE, presented by Phil McIntyre Live Ltd and Baby Cow Productions and written by Coogan, Neil Gibbons and Rob Gibbons sees the multihyphenate keeping up with the times and filling the show with interactive features. He talks to members of the audience, bearing in mind there’s not much room for responses with an ego like Partridge’s, and there is big screen interaction with assistant Lynn, as well as Martin Brennan, his Irish musician and chancer friend, also played by Coogan. He also uses the big screen to travel through time to talk to his younger and future selves, and there’s singing and dancing with cast members as Alan gets his groove on.
“It’s quite a technical show,” says Partridge. “There are lots of interactive elements and lighting and projection and VT inserts, and there’s dancing and singing so it’s a proper variety show. It’s not just Alan standing at the microphone. “
For all his annoying and patronising tics, Partridge is sincere in trying to deliver STRATAGEM and Coogan sums it up neatly.
“Alan’s message of hope, it’s quite uncynical. He’s trying to show how people can realise their full potential and not regard themselves as limited, so it sounds like quite an enlightened point of view for him, but in actual fact it’s not because he isn’t enlightened.
“It’s Alan making a pig’s ear of trying to help people in their lives. He deals with both people’s personal issues and wider culture wars that are going on at the moment, such as identity politics and the post-woke landscape, helping people interpret it and make sense of it.”
It’s territory Coogan also explores with great success in current Channel 4 comedy-drama Chivalry, created with co-star Sarah Solemani, and set in post-Me Too Hollywood, with appearances by Sienna Miller, Aisling Bea and Peter Mullan.
Now in his third decade playing Partridge, Coogan has seen the character evolve and develop as he tries to stay abreast of the zeitgeist.
“There are two things that have evolved,” says Coogan. “One is the way we write the character, making him more nuanced and less of a caricature, so he isn’t just a monster. He has weaknesses and foibles and insecurities and imperfections that make him more human, therefore however odious or ill-informed he is, he’s flesh and blood. He’s more like a real person now.
“The other thing that has changed is the world and our cultural landscape which is constantly evolving and therefore we’re able to draw upon that and behave in a way that reflects the way people like Alan have changed. For example, 30 years ago, what would have been regarded as a modern Conservative might not have been socially progressive but these days there are economically conservative but socially progressive politicians. Alan might have been more homophobic 30 years ago but these days he’s embracing modernity and different lifestyle choices. He’s always one step behind but he does try to keep up. And part of the humour is seeing him mishandle cultural evolution.”
For all his flaws, Partridge never retreats into cynicism or defeat, making him an ideal cheer-leader for the positive thinking brigade.
“No, he’s not cynical and that’s a redeeming feature,” says Coogan. “He’s earnest and not mean-spirited. He’s just clumsy and makes faux pas. There’s a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Malvolio, who’s very like Alan Partridge I think, a bit pompous but he’s not wicked or pernicious.
“I think people like Alan because he’s sort of like an uncle or maybe a parent who just doesn’t quite get it. And that’s fun because you can laugh at old-fashioned or outdated views about something from someone that you have great affection for.”
So we have Coogan’s take on Partridge but what does he think his character would think of him?
“I don’t think he’d like me,” he says and laughs. “Because sometimes I’m a bit opinionated and he would see me as … those phrases my mother used like, ‘a know it all, ‘too big for my boots’, a ‘clever clogs’. I think he would regard me as someone who is too negative. And Alan loves the establishment, wants to be part of the establishment, to hang out with royalty, get an MBE, and I’m a bit cynical about all that, so he would regard me as being ‘a party pooper’ I think.”
Fresh from the Irish leg of the tour, where Partridge has inadvertently insulted the Irish, Coogan is ready to witness a similarly clumsy assault on the sensitivities of the Scots.
“Alan tries to talk about Britain in a constructive way but he will unfortunately be accidentally insulting to the Scots. He would not quite understand them, probably be slightly scared of them and see them as slightly culturally alien, because Alan is a Little Englander through and through. So he would try to be polite, but just secretly a bit suspicious.”
Born and raised in Manchester, now living in Sussex “with all the other retired Liberals”, Coogan started out as a comic and impressionist, before working as a voice artist for the satirical puppet show Spitting Image before winning the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1992 with long-time collaborator John Thomson, so unlike Partridge, Coogan is comfortable in Scotland. He also spent several weeks in Edinburgh in 2021 making his new film The Lost King, a comedy-drama directed by Stephen Frears and written by Coogan and Jeff Pope about the 2012 discovery of King Richard III's remains in a Leicester car park. The film will star Sally Hawkins as Edinburgh-based amateur historian Philippa Langley, and Coogan as her husband John.
“Yes, 30 years ago I first played here and as the years go on, your formative years you recognise more as defining moments. I’d been doing comedy since I was 20, but at 26 in Edinburgh I won the Perrier and I've got great affection for that time. It was an experimental, you’re finding your feet. I was throwing everything at what I was doing and it was an exciting time.
“My life so far has been a really interesting adventure. I feel lucky about things I’ve won and been fortunate in that I’ve been recognised in the way that people who do very important stuff are not recognised, but nothing has been as exciting as winning the Perrier Award, the Fringe Comedy award, in Edinburgh.
“I can still remember the excitement of it like it was yesterday. It was really tangible, electric, in a way that really nothing has been since. And especially in the Edinburgh Festival - it feels like the world ends at the outskirts of Edinburgh, like nothing beyond that really matters, so it’s a bit special.”
“I remember the very first show we did at the old Gilded Balloon on Cowgate. I got changed amongst crates of beer in a side room and that was all part of the experience and fun and exciting. We got six people at the first show and then a week later, you’re packed out. Just through word of mouth… no social media in those days, and a couple of good reviews. You can go from zero to hero in a short space of time. That’s what was so exciting.”
How about cross-over characteristics, does Coogan think she shares any with Partridge, given that along he was created by him and producer Armando Iannucci for the 1991 BBC Radio 4 comedy programme On the Hour?
“When I’m being rational, no, but when I’m feeling pressurised or short-tempered then I might say something that wouldn’t be out of place if Alan Partridge said it. There is a Venn Diagram where Partridge and myself overlap. The only difference is when I say something that is slightly prejudiced or a huge generalisation I know I ought not to be saying it, whereas Alan doesn’t.”
Partridge famously hails from Norwich, but with a middle name of Gordon, is there a Scottish link?
“I don’t know. I’d have to ask the archivist. When you create a fictional character that has a long story the more you have to manage that narrative. You can’t just willy-nilly throw in new facts. I don’t think we really explored his genealogy but you’ve just given me an idea.”
As well as writing the new Alan Partridge live show in lockdown and making The Lost King, Coogan has more recently been filming The Reckoning for the BBC, in which he portrays Jimmy Savile. Why was this something he wanted to take on, and was it a difficult choice?
“Why do it is quite simple. Because it is an intelligent script by Neil McKay who wrote the Moors Murders and about Fred West so he knows about tackliing difficult subjects. It was done in collaboration with the victims, many of whom visited the set, so it was a sensitive, intelligent script that looked at the whole man. There’s inevitably a dilemma that if you look at someone who behaved badly you are elevating them by virtue of giving them airtime, but the fact is we do that with the greatest monsters, like Hitler, it’s just that more time has passed. Things are better talked about than not talked about.
“I did a film called Philomena that looks at some of the excesses and misjudgments and mistakes of the Catholic Church in Ireland, and that was not welcomed initially but in retrospect, most people realise it was a good thing, a sort of bloodletting and that sometimes you have to confront difficult subjects and then you can move on. You have to go through a painful process of looking at why something was allowed to happen. You can’t just demonise someone and caricature them, you have to see how that person emerged, how they were accommodated, how they were allowed to thrive, how they were protected, enabled. You only understand that by looking at the whole person.”
With The Reckoning, a four-part series due to air in the autumn, Coogan hopes it will be vindicated by the way it has been made.
“It’s better to talk about things than not talk about them. If you just say we don’t want to talk about that, that might feel good in the short term but then you’re destined to allow those things to happen again.”
In his long and varied award-winning TV and film career, from the likes of24 Hour Party People to long-running spoof travel show The Trip with Rob Brydon, Coogan has played both fictional and real people such asDCI Clive Driscoll in Stephen (2021) and Stan Laurel in the 2018 film Stan and Ollie, with John C Reilly, Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda.
“I have played lots of real people; it’s just the way it’s turned out. I quite like doing it. Stan Laurel was a nice man, so it was quite good to play someone like that. Also I played DCI Clive Driscoll – who investigated the Stephen Lawrence murder [Stephen, 2021] and he is one of the decent people who walk on this planet and that was enjoyable. It’s more of a challenge to play a decent person, but quite a relief too. And when you play someone who’s real, it’s easier because someone has done the research for you by living a life. It’s all there, you’re not inventing something, you’re looking at something that already exists.
“The Lost King, about Philippa Langley who found the body of Richard III, that’s another true story. When you look at real stories and meet real people, it’s wonderful to talk to them. Part of the pleasure of writing is meeting real people, talking to them, listening to their stories. That’s the joy of writing I think, to discover those little nuggets of humanity by talking to someone. So the film was the result of conversations I had with Philippa. And she lives in Edinburgh, so yeah, she’s coming along to see Alan Partridge.”
Aha! As Alan Partridge might say.
STRATAGEM WITH ALAN PARTRIDGE, a live stage show starring the award-winning multi-hyphenate Steve Coogan is coming to Glasgow SSE Arena on 24th and 25th May, Edinburgh Playhouse on 26th May and Aberdeen P&J Live on 27th May. Tickets on sale now at alanpartridgelive.com