Aha! Has Steve Coogan got his mojo back?
The man behind Alan Partridge returns, with Rob Brydon in tow, for the surprisingly charming The Trip.
It was once remarked of playwright Alan Bennett that he owes his reputation as Britain’s leading social satirist to his Northern accent: if he was a southerner, the lower middle-class, grammar-school educated Oxford graduate would’ve been called a snob for his cuddly portrayal of the working class, and derided as a jealous petit bourgeois in his mockery of the upper class. Instead, that distinctive Yorkshire drawl made him suitably authentic to the literary audience of Middle England as a working-class outsider: his sense of humour and concern with the minutiae of life made him a palatable kind of quiet radical.
Steve Coogan may have taken some time in the past few years to reflect on the way in which Britain likes its Northerners: poor, downtrodden and resolutely down-to-Earth (ie, humble and undemanding). Everyone likes to see a Northerner try to better himself, but they don’t half love watching them fail. So after Coogan made a success of himself in the early Nineties with comic creations such as drunken working-class caricature Paul Calf and self-deluded provincial DJ Alan Partridge, we’ve all had the pleasure of watching his attempt to break into Hollywood die on its arse. A rumoured coupling with a hard-bitten seductress (Courtney Love), scandalous accusations of drugs and debauchery (he was somehow implicated in Owen Wilson’s suicide attempt) and a succession of flops such as Around the World in 80 Days and Hamlet 2 (no, really…) told a familiar story of a humble Northern lad making it big, forgetting his roots and coming down to Earth with a crash.
That Coogan is now back on these shores with a new show, The Trip, and has even resurrected old trusty favourite Partridge for some short internet-based episodes, seems to confirm that his American experiment has come to a humiliating end. Like all stars in search of redemption from the fans they deserted, he’s willing to send himself up for the pomposity and show that he has learned his lesson: the first episode of The Trip saw him begging his agent for ‘just one good film’ and the second saw him dreaming of hanging out with Ben Stiller and finally having the success that he sees as his due. Having laughed so cruelly at perennial wannabe Partridge for his dreams and pretension, Coogan’s new sketches have more than a touch of poignancy to them. Alan self-deludedly hoped to escape graveyard shifts on regional radio for London’s glitterati; Steve thought he could do better than being the man behind Alan. Now they’re both back where they started: hello darkness, my old friend.
Of course, the reality is actually more complicated than that. It benefits artists and actors to emphasise that they are nothing like their creations: imagination and creativity are supposed to be the point. We’re generally expected to believe that comedians are as monstrous, buffoonish or self-loathing as they claim – and they can get away with it all if they make us laugh. Comedy is tragedy plus timing. It should come as little surprise to discover, then, that there was more than a little Steve Coogan in Alan Partridge. Coogan’s failure in the States masks the huge success of his production company (run with Henry Normal) Baby Cow productions, which can claim credit for nurturing such recent hits as Gavin & Stacey and The Mighty Boosh, alongside overlooked gems like Nighty Night and I Am Not An Animal.
Unlike many other comedians, Coogan has never been frightened of showing off his learning without drifting into the dreaded cod-intellectualism of Radio 4 comedy. A Cock & Bull Story was a comedy about making an unfilmable period adaptation on a shoestring budget. Familiarity with Lawrence Sterne’s deliberately ludicrous novel Tristram Shandy would have added to the humour, but even if you hadn’t read the book, you could still get the joke (pretentious artistes being very serious about making crap, and squabbling like kids). Although it was something of a mixed bag, the attempt harked back to the early days of comedy when it was considered okay to talk up to your audience and expect them to follow. That Baby Cow’s latest production, featuring Coogan, based on a selection of Anton Chekhov’s short stories is about to be screened on minority channel Sky Arts while BBC2 limbers up with James May’s Man Lab tells you everything you need to know about cultural priorities.
Sunday night viewers of BBC2, however, will be able to enjoy a repeat of The Trip. The show has a frankly unpromising set-up: Coogan and Welsh comic Rob Brydon play versions of themselves touring the country, reviewing restaurants for the Observer and reprising their squabbling double-act from Cock and Bull. Coogan jokes about his failing film career and love-rat reputation, Brydon finds ways of (yet again) wheeling out his impersonations of Tom Jones and Ronnie Corbett. So, once again, we are treated to that rapidly wearying format: the real-life angst of the ageing and only moderately successful celebs. And one of them is Steve Coogan.
But despite all this, the show does have a certain charm. Partly because the central joke is not that Coogan & Brydon, despite their fame and riches, are just like you and me, but that the quibbles of middle age are the same the world over. A scene in the first episode where the pair competes over who can do the best impression of Michael Caine was as pitiable as middle-aged accountants comparing salaries, cars or houses, but made absurd and funny because their job requires them to do good impressions of Michael Caine.
Importantly, after the gentle yet impotent Saxondale and the neutered Hollywood blockbusters, Coogan has regained the comic cruelty which made the original Partridge so excruciatingly funny. The difference is he’s directing it at himself, rather than a version of himself – although the risk is, without that protective distance of character, he may start to pull his punches. Or maybe be too hard on himself: comedy is a man in trouble, and all that.
It is worth observing that Coogan’s most successful film role to date was as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People. Wilson was a jumped-up pretentious Northern boy who was just about aware enough of his own absurdity to drag others into his equally absurd ambition. Wilson, in the end, put Manchester on the musical map. Based on the new Partridge webisode, and the promise of The Trip, Coogan may yet prove his best days are not behind him.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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