Lunch with the FT: Steve Coogan
In The Trip, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon undertake an arduous dining tour of northwest England. Playing exaggerated versions of themselves, the two fortysomething comedians crack pitch-perfect impressions of Michael Caine and Roger Moore, drive through stunning scenery and stop at fine restaurants where they plough through course after course of food and wine.
In one scene, after embarking on yet another elaborate taster menu, there is verbal sparring over the correct way to hold a wine glass and how best to assess the quality of Sauvignon Blanc. Finally, after much bickering, they taste it. “Now that,” says Coogan, holding up his glass with the practised eye of a seasoned critic, “is a glass of white wine”.
Today Coogan’s lunch is with the FT, the Lake District has been swapped for the Sunset Marquis hotel in West Hollywood and coffee, rather than wine, is his tipple of choice. “I’m off the booze,” he says in a soft Mancunian lilt when I ask if he will join me for a glass of something cold. We are the first diners in the open-air restaurant, reached through a lobby adorned with framed photographs of The Clash, Led Zeppelin and other rock legends.
The Sunset Marquis has witnessed plenty of hedonism over the years but Coogan won’t be tempted. “I have periods when I don’t drink and periods when I do,” he says firmly. Fair enough, I think, ordering a solitary – and not very rock and roll – glass of Viognier.
The 48-year-old has played many roles in his career: impressionist, comedian, actor, press reform campaigner and, most famously, Alan Partridge, an ageing Norwich-based radio host with a penchant for sports casualwear and Wings (“the band the Beatles could have been”). Now, after impressing critics on both sides of the Atlantic with Philomena, a film he co-wrote, produced and starred in, he has a new one: Hollywood contender.
Philomena is based on the story of an elderly Irish woman, who as a teenager has her baby son taken from her by nuns and given up for adoption; Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith, the former BBC journalist and spin-doctor on whose book the film is loosely based, and it is his developing relationship with Philomena, played by Judi Dench, that underpins the movie. There has been talk of an Academy Award nomination for Dench and, with arch-Oscars campaigner Harvey Weinstein distributing it in the US, the film, directed by Stephen Frears, is much fancied for the new year’s awards season. Indeed, not long after our lunch Philomena received Golden Globes nominations for best film and best screenplay (for Coogan and co-writer Jeff Pope). This happened in the same week that Coogan’s influence on comedy was recognised by the award for outstanding achievement at the British Comedy Awards.
The waiter arrives to take our order. Coogan opts for tuna tartare to start and then sea bass; I choose steak tartare followed by chicken Milanese. I ask if Philomena’ critical success feels like vindication after struggling to land big Hollywood parts. This year he has had leading roles as porn baron Paul Raymond in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love and brought Alan Partridge to the big screen in Alpha Papa but Philomena is his first film to get awards buzz stateside. Though the likes of Ben Stiller are big fans of his comedy, his film work in the US has, so far, been restricted to smaller parts in big studio movies such as Night at the Museum (2006) and Tropic Thunder (2008).
Indeed, this is his first time in the US in two-and-a-half years. “I did spend a lot of time here before but that’s only because I was . . . chasing something,” he says, rather vaguely. “A lot of actors come out here and see bright shiny things and it’s all seductive but . . . it’s just a bit boring.” At one level, he says, he likes Los Angeles “because it tends to be stress-free. Not only are you not thinking about what’s going on in the rest of the world, you’re not thinking about what’s going on in the rest of America. The stress levels are low because your brain rots.”
But he does not seem to have enjoyed trying to crack Hollywood. “You get advice: ‘You need to be in a comedy frat-boy movie.’ I got so jaded I went back to England. I wanted to find something I wanted to do and see if I could get it made, rather than what people wanted me to do. And that’s what Philomena is.”
The film has comic moments, such as Philomena recounting to Sixsmith the entire plot of a romance novel she is reading, but it is also very moving, which is new territory for Coogan. “I think it’s to do with getting older,” he says. “Being funny and cynical is great fun but you start to crave something more. What I’ve discovered is to use comedy as a tool to sugar the pill of medicine that’s worth taking.”
Our starters have arrived and he takes a forkful of tuna. “What I learnt from Michael [Winterbottom], is if something is a problem, make it part of a solution. So if I’m worried the film is going to be too schmaltzy and syrupy, then have your character say that. If I’m worried the film is going to be about evil nuns, have the character say that. If I’m frustrated because I think I should be getting better parts and am worried about not being successful, then just put that into The Trip.”
Philomena is also about religion: the title character retains her Roman Catholic faith despite the horrors she has experienced. Coogan was brought up Catholic but says he is now an atheist. “Atheists get a bad rap,” he says. “I remember growing up, the word ‘atheist’ was almost like saying, ‘Child molester.’ ” He laughs uproariously.
He was raised in Middleton in Greater Manchester, the fourth of seven children. His older brother Martin, a musician, was a big influence, he says. “What he taught me more than my parents was not to go with the crowd. Don’t worry if other people don’t like what you like. I remember at the age of 12 refusing to go and see Grease because it was too commercial.” He howls with laughter again.
He studied drama and began doing impressions in clubs and bars. “It was weird because I wanted to do edgy stuff and I remember thinking, ‘This isn’t really me but it’s the only work I’m getting so I might as well do it and somehow edge sideways over the next 25 years.’ ” In 1989 he performed at the Royal Variety performance, where he was introduced by Jimmy Tarbuck. “I met Princess Diana twice,” he tells me. “The second time I met her, the next morning they announced her separation [from Prince Charles] and I remember my friend saying, ‘What did you say to her?’ ”
We have finished our starters and the main courses have arrived. He eyes my chicken. “I should have got that, he says glumly, looking at his rather meagre piece of fish. “I’ll go home and have some pies. They don’t do pies in LA.”
By 1991 he was working with Armando Iannucci and Chris Morris on BBC Radio Four’s On the Hour, a spoof news programme that evolved into The Day Today on BBC2. “We were the young turks and sort of full of ourselves but we had every right to be. It was exactly the kind of comedy that I would want to watch on TV. I would put on The Day Today and say, ‘Watch this, it’s fucking brilliant. And I’m in it.’ ”
On the Hour marked the first appearance of Alan Partridge and the end of Coogan’s days “doing voices”, although one of the big draws of The Trip is watching his and Brydon’s ultra-competitive impressions. I ask about the sequel, where the pair retrace Shelley and Byron’s travels in Italy. It will premiere at the Sundance film festival next month and, as before, both men play with the public perceptions of themselves (Coogan the tortured comic genius, Brydon the happy-go-lucky family man).
“It’s basically the same as the first one,” he says. “Except it’s in Italy. It’s sunnier, the food is better, the scenery is better. We even do some of the same impressions that we did in the first one. My favourite one is the Richard Gere, where he pauses and looks into the middle distance in the middle of a line.” He pulls a Richard Gere-solemnly-concentrating face.
There are also impressions of Christian Bale as Batman and Tom Hardy as Bane from The Dark Knight Rises. “We show that the greater the actor, the less intelligible their dialogue is. Then I do a third assistant director trying to persuade them to speak more clearly. And Rob takes the piss out of me.”
Over the past couple of years, Coogan has become one of the more unlikely public faces of Hacked Off, the lobby group pushing for reform of press regulation in the UK (the other is the actor Hugh Grant). He has found himself on programmes such as the BBC’s Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman, whose voice he used to impersonate on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image. “I didn’t really want to get involved, to be honest,” he says. “I just got fed up with shouting at the TV.”
Coogan, who has been at the sharp end of numerous sex-and-drugs tabloid stories, was among those whose phone was hacked by the now defunct News of the World and I wonder if this explains his passion to reform the system. “That’s not why I’m doing this,” he says, indignantly. “In the great scheme of suffering in the world, what happened to me is pretty small. I did feel affronted but there’s an element of, ‘It’s none of your business. Is it in the public interest? No, it’s not.’ ”
He tells me about his support for the new regulatory system outlined by Lord Justice Leveson, who led the 2011 public inquiry into the phone hacking scandal. Among Leveson’s recommendations was a new independent body, now enshrined in a royal charter, which will act as a legal “backstop” to the newspapers’ own system of self-regulation. Most newspaper publishers have refused to sign up to the royal charter. Coogan says they have “behaved like recalcitrant teenagers”, and accuses them of moving the goalposts after “tacitly agreeing” with Leveson’s initial proposals.
“In Hacked Off all we want is effective self-regulation, just not more of the same,” he says. “It’s a few enthusiasts versus five very powerful people who more or less control all newspapers.” The fight, he says, is “David against Goliath”.
I point out that not all the opponents of an independent regulator are big media owners: Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye, is also among those opposed. “I think he’s wrong,” says Coogan flatly. “He’s fallen into the way the vested interests have framed the debate.” For those who argue that new regulatory curbs will hinder the ability of newspapers to hold the powerful to account, he says: “To lump it all together is very simplistic. You know, ‘If the Sun can’t report me having my trousers down, then the Guardian can’t report on corruption.’ It’s bollocks.”
Alan Partridge, that voice of middle England, once mused: “If the Daily Mail goes to the wall, who would stand up for the persecuted minority of people from comfortable areas?” And Coogan has reserved much of his criticism for the newspaper and its editor Paul Dacre. He says he has received support for his stance with Hacked Off. “Lots of people have privately said, ‘Good on you,’ but they don’t want to stick their own heads above the parapet. They don’t want Paul Dacre monstering them.”
I point out that the Mail did give Philomena a glowing review. “If I’m being cynical, it’s an underhand technique to make me put my guard down,” he says with a laugh. “Look, newspapers are made up of individuals. Does the Daily Mail annoy me? Yes. Does the Guardian annoy me? Yes, but less so. Sometimes it annoys me with its smugness. But the Daily Mail is far more damaging.”
Our plates have been removed and I ask Coogan what he thinks of fellow comedian Russell Brand’s recent foray into activism and his calls for a revolution. Will he, too, be storming the gates of parliament with a pitchfork? He exhales. “Errr. It just doesn’t suit me, that look. Russell Brand carries it off with much more aplomb.” He says he is sympathetic to Brand but doesn’t agree with his rejection of party politics: Coogan is a long-time Labour party supporter and recalls how, as Alan Partridge, he interviewed Tony Blair on stage in Blackpool at the 1996 party conference. “I was late for the flight so I had to get changed and put my make-up on at Heathrow and board the flight as Alan Partridge. With my sports jacket and bag I looked like every other middle-ranking businessman on the plane.” He pretends to ask for a drink from a flight attendant. “Can I have a coffee please?” he says in Partridge’s voice. “No one batted an eyelid.”
As the bill arrives, I ask Coogan about the current generation of comics. He recalls sitting in a car outside his family’s house in Ireland, talking on Skype to his writing partner on Philomena, while watching through a window his relations laughing hysterically at the popular Michael McIntyre on television. “Not my cup of tea,” he says, as we get up to go. “It’s the comedy equivalent of Phil Collins. I prefer the Sex Pistols and The Clash. But lots of people like Phil Collins. Who am I to say they are wrong?”
Matthew Garrahan is the FT’s Los Angeles correspondent
1,200 Alta Loma Road, West Hollywood, CA 90069
Bottle mineral water $7.00
Glass Viognier $13.00
Steak tartare $23.00
Tuna tartare $19.00
Chicken Milanese $17.00
Sea bass $28.00
Total (incl tax & service) $142.08