Steve Coogan excels at playing slimy pricks. His character Alan Partridge is a vain, self-centered D-grade celebrity. A character on the television show Coogan’s Run, pushes a fellow computer salesman to suicide through his Machiavellian speechifying. As “himself” in the movie Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story, Coogan hogs the spotlight and considers cheating on his wife. Overall Coogan’s soft pasty features, with an upper lip that easily rises to a sneer, give him the look of an arrogant low-level aristocrat in need of a good beating.
This might give the impression that Coogan is most successful playing a type that is comfortable to him or that he is at least limited in his dramatic scope. One of the pleasures of The Steve Coogan Collection, a mammoth DVD compilation of much of his work for the BBC, is to showcase the depth and range of Coogan’s talent in acting, writing, and producing; his highly tuned wit; but most of all the sympathetic foundation and emotional resonances that he brings to his seediest of characters. (And some of them are actually decent people.) The set was released in the United Kingdom last year and is now being released in the United States, much appreciated for American Coogan fans that had to take what they could get of his television work on BBC America or through YouTube posts.
As a child, Coogan had a talent for impersonations. He later went to drama school in Manchester and it was this combined development as a comic – a sharp eye for impressions with the backing of solid dramatic skills – that seems to have provided the basis for his work.
His first two notable comic creations were Paul and Pauline Calf. Paul, according to a short feature included in the set, was invented by Coogan at bars during his college years and later refined with the help of his frequent collaborator Henry Normal. Paul is an almost perpetually drunk jobless outer Mancunian who hates “stoodents” and is always pining after his ex-girlfriend Julie. (His rough North American sketch character equivalent would probably be the Canadian hoser.). His sister Pauline is snappier with big hair.
You can closely track the evolution of these characters over the course of several disks: through a background documentary, old stand-up club footage, a few television specials, and the complete run of Paul and Pauline’s stand-up appearances on the television show Saturday Zoo in 1993, where they first gained wide prominence. (It would be nice if the set was put together in chronological order to more easily observe how Coogan’s writing and performing has developed.)
Through the stand-up appearances and then the later “video diary” television specials, one can see how Coogan initially leaned heavily on noticeable character tics like Paul’s smoker’s cough and catchphrases (“bag of shite”), familiar in sketch comedy acting, and then gradually began to deemphasize these tics to create subtler characterizations. Though Paul is a lout, he is revealed to be vulnerable, lonely, and fond of his friends and family. Coogan also experimented with presenting the Calfs in various formats through the faux documentary of the video diaries, the comic monologues of their stand-up appearances, and through the single-camera style of the show Coogan’s Run. Playing with different modes of storytelling and their expanded possibilities in comedy and character presentation would continue to be a hallmark of Coogan’s television work.
Around the same time that Coogan was playing the Calfs, he was developing Alan Partridge, his most well-known character and a brilliant conceptual gambit. Nobody who has caught any of the Partridge television shows—Knowing Me, Knowing You and the two seasons of I’m Alan Partridge—needs convincing as to its comic greatness. But seeing the Partridge work collected together, it is amazing to realize how thoroughly Coogan used his vain, petty entertainment “personality” to play with mass media and create a complex alternate fictional realm for his character.
He first developed the character on a radio show, where Partridge was a sports announcer from Norwich. The character got his fictional big break with the BBC television talk show Knowing Me, Knowing You…with Alan Partridge, whose run of six episodes shows him gradually running the show into the ground and alienating everyone he works with. Over the course of a Christmas special, Knowing Me, Knowing Yule, he further inflames the BBC’s head of programming.
In his first appearances, we see Partridge working entirely within the talk shows and television specials that he is starring in. The series I’m Alan Partridge takes him outside his work with a single camera sitcom that picks up with Alan in 1997, back in Norwich, working the night shift at a radio station and living in a hotel. Over its two seasons he suffers a nervous breakdown and attempts to claw his way back to some sort of professional respectability.
With I’m Alan Partridge Coogan mixed dry humor, tight sitcom plotting, and an improvised performance style that would later be taken up by Ricky Gervais for The Office. This set includes a bonus disk of behind-the-scenes footage and additional Partridge appearances and is most interesting for the inclusion of a full improvised scene—between Partridge and his assistant Lynn (Felicity Montagu) – and then it’s much shortened final edit, a fascinating glimpse into Coogan and his collaborator’s working methods.
Subsequent to the Alan Partridge series, Coogan achieved a measure of international fame as film actor, appearing in Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story and the Night at the Museum movies. In 2006 he returned to British television with another character portrait series, Saxondale, about Tommy Saxondale, a libertarian former classic rock roadie who struggles to balance his nonconformist urges with the contentedness of suburban living.
There is a little bit of bite, but more warmth and maturation in Coogan’s approach to Tommy and Tommy’s gradual acceptance of his foibles and life’s limitations seemingly mirrors Coogan’s gentler character treatment. Though the show gets thematically repetitive in the second season, Tommy is the character I most enjoy spending time with. It is less laugh-out-loud funny due to the more subtle approach, but this subtlety and the layerings brought to Tommy makes him Coogan’s most fully realized character and his most underappreciated work.
Though none of his other characters or series approach the heights of the Calfs, Partridge, and Saxondale, the additional material included in this collection is of a consistently high quality with a variety of inventiveness.
Of the six episodes that make up the horror anthology series Dr. Terrible’s House of Horrible, about half are duds. But working more tightly within genre and familiar narrative constructions, Coogan reveals a lovable dorky side in this ode to supernatural storytellers ranging from Hammer studios to Tales From the Crypt and classic British mysteries.
Coogan’s Run is a similarly uneven six-episode series chronicling the residents of the fictional town of Ottle. Each episode concentrates on one character (all played by Coogan) and loosely parodies a film referenced in the title. (Get Calf, featuring Paul Calf, apes Get Carter.) Over the course of the series, a complicated, tonally diverse, and sympathetic portrait of the characters emerges, primarily in the shallow, oblivious computer salesman Gareth Cheeseman and the town’s handyman Ernest Moss, a quietly canny preserver of the community’s “traditional” values.
The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon is an utterly silly one-off, the fake British premiere of a cheesy Portuguese lounge singer, but even here Coogan impresses with his attention to detail, and the musical numbers are all carefully conceived. (I loved the Eurovision Contest flashback of “Papa Bendi”.)
The Steve Coogan Collection reveals its eponymous hero to be one of the unquestionable greats of modern comedy. Alan Partridge is the link between, and the equal of, Basil Fawlty and David Brent. Coogan’s flair for impersonations recalls Peter Sellers, but with a deeper emotional resonance that often eluded Sellers and without the whiff of egotistic indulgence that has struck multi-character forays by comics like Eddie Murphy and Mike Myers. His work is always grounded in a respect and allegiance to solid technical polish in writing and storytelling and it shows in the highly entertaining 25 hours of material included in this set.