By Pam Grady
They have been at it for 10 years now, actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, on working holidays all over Europe, first captured in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip (Festival 2011), and in three subsequent outings, most recently in The Trip to Greece (Festival 2020). They dine at the world’s best restaurants and stop in at historical sites, but mostly they bicker and engage in constant games of one-upmanship, particularly in the realm of celebrity impersonation. Their dueling Michael Caines have become the stuff of cinematic legend.
Steve Coogan has turned playing Steve Coogan into an art form unto itself. Coogan has played Coogan for Jim Jarmusch in Coffee and Cigarettes (Festival 2004) and even played himself interviewing himself in a promotional video for his 2015 autobiography Easily Distracted. But it is in his work for Michael Winterbottom that Coogan has honed his Pirandellian feat of blending life and art, without vanity.
“I don’t want to be someone who’s trying to spin this public image of me. I have had some negative tabloid press… but I don’t like to portray myself as somehow a nice, well-rounded person,” Coogan told The Guardian.
It is in Coogan’s indifference to how he or his characters might come across that fueled his initial career. Of Irish descent, he was one of six children raised as a Roman Catholic in Manchester. He studied acting at the Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama before embarking on a career as stand-up comic who became known for his gift of mimicry. He further supported himself doing voice work on commercials and on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image. In 1992, he and fellow Manchester Polytechnic alumnus John Thomson won the Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
A television one-off The Dead Good Show (1992) followed by a stint on the 1993 Channel 4 series Saturday Zoo introduced the world to two of Coogan’s striking creations, beer-sodden Mancunian Paul Calf and his sister Pauline (portrayed by Coogan in blonde wig and full drag, which typically consisted of a micro-mini skirt and stiletto heels).
It was on the radio, on the 1991 BBC show On the Hour, that Coogan introduced a character that has loomed large over his career, Alan Partridge, a TV presenter whose defining traits are insensitivity coupled with a complete lack of self-awareness. Coogan brought the character to television in the sketch series The Day Today (1994) before starring in his own show Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge (1994-1995), which was followed by a second series, I’m Alan Partridge (1997-2002); a feature film, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013), and assorted TV specials and videos, and even a comic autobiography, I, Alan: We Need to Talk about Alan (2011), written by Coogan, Armando Iannucci, and Rob and Neil Gibbons.
With Alan Partridge, Coogan’s fame was sealed and he began his assault on the big screen. He’d appeared in a few films, although it was his voice work as The Mole in Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (1996) that stands out among his early roles. His film career really started in earnest with The Parole Officer (2001), in which he played the titular character and co-wrote the screenplay. The following year, he began his long association with Winterbottom when he was cast in 24 Hour Party People as Tony Wilson, the real-life Mancunian TV presenter who founded the influential Factory Records and Manchester’s famed Hacienda Club – and also a man Coogan knew.
“I co-presented a regional TV show with him,” Coogan told Time Out. “There are elements of Alan Partridge about him. But he’s the left-wing, avant-garde Alan Partridge.”
In 2004, Coogan starred as Phineas Fogg in a remake of Around the World in 80 Days. Among his diverse portrayals have been a gay man who discovers he fathered a child in youth in Happy Endings (Festival 2005), an ambassador in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), as a film director in over his head in Tropic Thunder (2008), a high-school drama teacher in Hamlet 2 (2008), a complaining constituent in In the Loop (Festival 2009), a father caught up in a bitter divorce in What Maisie Knew (Festival 2013), strip-club owner Paul Raymond in Winterbottom’s The Look of Love (2013), and an obnoxious celebrity chef whose life is upended by a grandson he never knew he had in Ideal Home (2018).
With 2013’s Philomena, Coogan could add Oscar nominee to his list of achievements when he and co-writer Jeff Pope received a nod for Best Adapted Screenplay and, as a producer, Coogan shared in a Best Picture nomination. The actor starred in the film as well, playing Martin Sixsmith (on whose book Philomena is based), a journalist who helps an elderly woman (Judi Dench) find the son she was forced to surrender for adoption 50 years before.
With Stan & Ollie (2018), Coogan enjoyed a dream job, playing comic legend Stan Laurel, a performer he’d grown up admiring. The character the actor portrayed was an elderly Laurel treading the boards one last time with his old partner during a 1953 tour. Coogan received well-deserved BAFTA and British Independent Film Awards nominations for his performance.
He appreciated the turn to drama. While he continues to make comedies, as exemplified by The Trip movies, he has also sought to expand the range of not just what he can do but of how fans and filmmakers perceive him.
“The trick, says Steve Coogan, is to keep moving, branch out,” revealed an interview with the actor in The Guardian when Stan & Ollie came out. “Aged 53, he feels that comedy, by and large, is a young man’s game. He has been there, he has done it, and is shifting towards drama. ‘It’s fine to be biting, acerbic, and silly when you’re young,’ he says. ‘But when you grow up you need to act like a grownup.’ Then he catches himself and winces at his presumption. ‘Maybe that just means I’ve got flabby and middle aged.'”
Pam Grady is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle.