Full disclosure. I don’t like Steve Coogan.
But when the Guardian asked me to interview the controversial funnyman, I jumped at the chance – and not just because I’ve been replaced by a younger presenter on the BBC’s magazine show This Time, and have time on my hands.
I have arranged to meet Coogan for lunch and let him select the venue. It’s a measure of the man that he chooses a location minutes from his house and over two hours from mine. First impressions are not good. I’m struck by how slight Coogan is. Although we look similar, Coogan cuts an altogether frailer figure – his shoulders noticeably narrower and he stands, what, two inches shorter than me? Then again, that may be his posture, crumpled by years spent hunching over a laptop computer or looking down on people (Coogan is leftwing). His head is also wider at the top than mine and his hair isn’t very good.
He is wearing a cream shirt, under a thicker shirt or light jacket – a “shacket”, which I have to concede is a good word. I find myself thinking of other composite clothes – a hoodigan, trorts, a scat, jeggings, before remembering jeggings already exist.
We peruse the menus. Is he pleased I’m interviewing him for the Guardian and not, say, the Daily Mail?
“I don’t particularly like the Guardian or the Daily Mail,” he says. “There are writers at the Guardian I like. It’s just their ‘witty’ columnists I find profoundly unfunny.”
I’ll have to take his word for it. I don’t actually read the Guardian, having never been able to get past the sheer smugness of its typeface.
“Is there anything the Guardian doesn’t want us to talk about?” he asks.
I shake my head. “If you want to express an opinion, they’ve asked that you stick to identity politics and wild swimming. That’s their safe space, their comfort blanket. And try not to mention left wingers writing about social mobility while sending their kids to private schools.”
The waiter arrives. I order the beef burger, described on the menu as the “ham” burger [sic]. Coogan orders the plant-based burger. Is this a metaphor for Coogan’s attempts to look like something he’s not? I ask him why he doesn’t order the beef burger, which is the same price and nicer.
Coogan shifts uncomfortably and changes the subject. “I’ve heard good things about your live shows,” he says, referring to my national Stratagem tour, which has garnered extremely warm responses. He’s trying to butter me up by saying my show is fantastic – the oldest trick in the book – but my journalistic skills mean I don’t take the bait. Besides, I have a job to do. Like all journalists, my main objective is to trick him into spilling something that will either get him cancelled or a regular column in the Daily Mail. So I fix him with a glare. Why does he bang on about press regulation? Surely the government should play no role in the regulation of the press?
Coogan rubs his eyes as if I’m the stupid one. “As the late, great [ex-Sunday Times editor] Harold Evans – frequently and rightly held aloft as the embodiment of campaigning ethical journalism – once said: ‘The misrepresentation of Leveson’s main proposal is staggering. To portray his main proposal for statutory underpinning as state control is a gross distortion.’ Most journalists didn’t bother to read the Leveson proposal because it was easier to just watch Newsnight to churn out their opinion pieces …”
This may rank as one of the unfunniest things Coogan has ever said.
“I’m talking about independent press regulation,” he drones. “Do we really want people like [ex-Daily Mail editor] Paul Dacre, who received gargantuan amounts of money from the EEC for his country estate where poshos and nouveaux can pay to shoot anything that moves, while actively campaigning to eliminate the very institution he’s taking money from?”
It dawns on me Coogan is using this entire exercise as a platform to air his demented views. “Have it your way,” I think, and reel him in by questioning him over the recent criticism of Ken Loach, #MeToo – and how he can reconcile the lurid tabloid stories from his tawdry past. I also touch on his enormous house – and whether he could be accused of champagne socialism.
Three perfectly placed banana skins – on which he’ll surely slip only to land in a very large cow pat, leaving him caked in cow shit and bits of banana.
I’m salivating at the prospect of bringing down this pompous arse. But as I lean forward to feign interest in Coogan’s deranged ramblings, my elbow somehow rests on my Dictaphone, pressing the pause button, meaning I fail to record any of his answers.
A shame, because almost everything he says for those 20 minutes is cancel gold dust.
We split the bill. The Guardian has given me a modest budget to cover lunch but I’ve spent almost all of it on egg sandwiches and crisps at the service station. I’ll be buggered if Coogan’s going to fill his face on my dime.
Later this year, Coogan will be playing Sir Jimmy Savile in a BBC One drama, The Reckoning, about the disgraced broadcaster and jogger. Most of us will find a perverse enjoyment in watching Coogan drive his good name into a wall by associating his brand with Savile. Why on earth does he think it sensible to play such an odious man?
“It’s just a role,” he shrugs. “Dominic West played Fred West, a multiple murderer. David Tennant played Dennis Nilsen. He killed men and ate them. Nilsen, not Tennant, I mean.”
Coogan is currently starring in Channel 4’s Chivalry, a comedy-drama (or “dramedy” or “coma”), dealing with post #MeToo politics; something he has no right to speak on. Last time I checked, he wasn’t even a woman. Maybe he is? It would explain the frail physique, in which case I fully support his right to speak out.
“Don’t you feel like you’re playing with fire?” I ask. “I’ve had my car and hair egged for making #MeToo jokes before now.”
He thinks for a second. “While some think humour trivialises important issues, I think it can sugar the pill and allows people to open up to discussion they wouldn’t otherwise have. It creates a safer space where …”
I’m not even going to write the rest of the sentence. It’s absolute twaddle.
Coogan once personally described me as a small-minded Little Englander; the apotheosis of everything he loathed about England. I’m therefore surprised when he invites me on to his home, a large country pile with its own bluebell meadow that he’s rewilding. Groan.
As he shows off his integrated coffee maker, I look round casually to see if he has any shit ornaments or something to slag off, but a lot is similar to my own house. A Bafta trophy sits on a shelf. “Yeah, I’ve scooped seven or eight down the years, plus a few nominations.”
His faux-casual boasting is painfully transparent. The guy probably has every award and nomination indexed in a fucking ledger somewhere.
“Then there’s the two Oscar nominations for Philomena back in 2014 – one for writing, another for producing.”
“Except it’s quite a long time since you’ve been nominated in either of those categories, isn’t it?” I needle.
On the table sprawls a copy of today’s Guardian. As is the left-leaning Guardian’s wont, they are running a story about Boris Johnson’s lockdown parties, when they could have been running stories about how he was getting on with the job.
Coogan chuckles a horrible chuckle. “The fact that these spineless Conservative MPs are caught between a rock and hard place – unsure whether to ditch or support Boris to save their skin – is frankly delicious, and puts a spring in my step every morning. I get a warm, fuzzy feeling just thinking about it.”
What an unpleasant man. Most of us get a warm, fuzzy feeling from roasting marshmallows over a fire, watching a labrador chase a stick in the home counties or espying David Cameron nibble some of Alex James’s cheese at a Chipping Norton fete. But not Coogan. He revels in the discomfort of his enemies. I feel sorry for him. In fact, I don’t. I want to give him a clout. If I did, it would get an even bigger round of applause than those Hollywood liberals gave Will Smith.
“Why don’t you stick to comedy?” I ask.
“Why don’t you stick to broadcasting?” he counters. “You’re on tour pontificating about things you know nothing about – life coaching or whatever.”
“I’m a broadcaster,” I reply. “Pontificating about things we know nothing about is what we do. Why do you think we all have podcasts?”
Besides, life coaching is something I know about. Stratagem (or New Ways of Thinking in a Post-Covid World) is a life-management system that improves the quality of people’s lives in association with bet365 and P&O. Simply Google “positive reviews of Alan Partridge Stratagem” and you’ll see reams of reviews extolling a thoroughly enjoyable evening where I educate, inform and entertain (something the BBC used to do).
He wanders over to look out of the window at his massive garden. My chance to lob another grenade. “Look at this place. You’re a champagne socialist!”
He shifts uncomfortably, hopping from one foot to the other – although he might just need the toilet.
“I prefer to think of myself as a Tennent’s Trotsky,” he grins, batting away my metaphorical grenade with a metaphorical badminton racket. It is a lame joke, unfunny and weak, and clearly designed to deflect.
Coogan’s accent swerves between unreconstructed northern and reconstructed received pronunciation, from Hilda Ogden Mancunian to George Osborne, depending on whom he’s trying to impress.
“Yeah, well, you never sound like you’re from Norwich,” he counters. “I’ve literally never heard anyone from East Anglia with anything like your accent.”
The two aren’t remotely comparable. A Norfolk accent is broadcasting anthrax, and left me with no choice but to employ a dialect coach who trained me to permanently drop it, through intense tutoring and very small electric shocks.
“Coogan, you haven’t answered the question.” I repeat in full: “Look at this place. You’re a champagne socialist!”
Coogan sits, head in his hands.
“Alan, what you don’t understand is – I don’t have all the answers. I doubt things. To write good drama, good comedy, you need to embrace doubt and paradox. The truth comes from the conflict of the human heart. I’m creative.”
The arrogance! The only other person I’ve heard describe themselves as creative is my accountant and he’s in prison now.
“I’m just trying to figure things out,” he continues. He looks close to tears, so I go over and hold him in my arms.
“I don’t think Little Englanders are all bad,” he murmurs. “They have community, an innate sense of decency.”
He holds my hands in his and kisses me. It is full on. Tongues, noises, the lot.
After two or three minutes, I push him away. “What are you doing?!” I screech.
“I’m sorry. I can’t help it.”
“Right that’s it,” I sneer. “I’m going to tell everyone.”
Coogan has fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I flattered him and was kind to him, knowing he’d try to kiss me. It’s the oldest journalistic trick in the book.
“I’m sorry, I just thought we had a connection.”
“I think I’d better go.”
“Yes. Sorry about the kiss thing at the end.”
As I drive back to East Anglia – Fleetwood Mac blaring over the car stereo – I can’t stop laughing. If only Coogan was on social media, I could slag him off some more and make an inference if he didn’t respond, just as I’m sure this article will get slagged off in the comments below. And although it pains me to admit it, he is quite a good kisser.
• Alan Partridge is a broadcaster, newscaster, sportscaster, podcaster and thoughtcaster, based in Norfolk. He is currently on tour. Steve Coogan stars in Chivalry, Thursday, 10pm, Channel 4 & All 4. Additional reporting by Neil Gibbons, Rob Gibbons and Rich Pelley