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My Arts: Steve Coogan

Could Steve Coogan be the next Doctor Who? He wouldn't mind. Meanwhile, he chats to Angie Sammons about other things that float his boat

Written by . Published on October 17th 2008.

My Arts: Steve Coogan

How friendly were you with Tony Wilson before you played him in 24 Hour Party People?
When he did Upfront with Lucy Meacock, about 15 or 16 years ago, I did about 12 shows as the resident comic doing a topical review of the week's news. So I got to know him quite well.

And you learned to do his voice during that time?
I could always do his voice from when he was a newscaster with Bob Greaves and Bob Smithies. And also when I was a kid he came around to my parents. My aunt was a make up artist at Granada and she had a party at my parents' house when she was 21, in 1976. And Tony Wilson came. I was in bed because I was only 11, but I remember getting up and peering through the bannisters and seeing him come in and thinking, oh God, there's Tony Wilson, he's famous. Then, weirdly, after 24-Hour Party People, he did a TV series about people from Manchester who had done well and he did a show on me. He went to my parents' house, in north Manchester and said: "I came to a party near here 20 years ago." And my mum said, "It wasn't near here it was right here." And he was like "I thought it looked familiar."

It's your birthday this week. What are you doing to celebrate the big four three?
I've got one day off from the tour, oddly enough, so I'll be going out with my brothers in Manchester.

The next day you've got Ipswich? Alan Partridge territory.
Yes. I know from last time I toured that the towns which don't really have a strong sense of their own cultural identity don't laugh as loudly. Ipswich, Southend, Watford...they are very polite... Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, they take the roof off.

I bet in Hollywood you've never had to dwell too much on the Ipswich sense of humour.
No. You switch to a completely different mode. When you get there you have to rewrite your material wholesale. The whole rhythm of the comedy in this country is so un-American. It's so provincial. I mean that's what I love about it. A lot of my comedy owes a lot to Les Dawson's which was witty, droll, but also very working class. I've done a couple of films in America where the humour is so generic and will travel. Here the live show deliberately lacks a bit of subtlety. Mostly, it's just old fashioned gags, and I quite like going back to that after so many years of doing subtle, well observed comedy. You always want to do the thing that you are not doing, and I've been doing a lot of film and TV and so I just want to get back to basics.

Does a live audience not frighten you after all this time?
Course. But that's good. Keeps you on your toes, awake.. There are a handful of gags that don't fly. I did one last week that was met with stony silence. I was almost laughing when I delivered the line. It was almost the quietest non-sound that I have ever heard, and I could hear the the other writers sniggering in the wings.

You've come a long way since Alan Partridge in 2002. Revisiting all these old characters must be like going out with an ex-wife or something.
A bit. They sort of feel like family members who you have a connection to, but you don't want to see all the time.

Speaking of which, you are from a large Irish Catholic family. Did you ever do the whole Catholic guilt thing?
No. I think that's a cliché, a lazy, reactive kind of Catholicism. There's an intellectual strain of Catholicism, liberation theology, which is incredibly left wing, the Marxist school of Catholicism, which doesn't get talked about in the press a lot because it's not sexy, they don't understand it and they haven't got the brains to deal with it. So they trot out this thing about guilt. Sometimes feeling guilty...I don't know if it is necessarily a bad thing. For example, all the merchant bankers in the world right now should feel a bit guilty.

So, some My Arts questions: What are your three essential music albums of all time?
Revolver/The Beatles. The Queen Is Dead/The Smiths; Blue/Joni Mitchell

What was the last record you bought, or downloaded, or whatever?
Ha, I've only just started doing that. But the last record I actually bought was Home Before Dark, Neil Diamond's album produced by Rick Rubin.

What was the first live gig that you went to?
It would be The Smiths at the Free Trade Hall in 1983. Supported by the Red Guitars who I knew well because I had been an altar server at the wedding of the lead singer. I got a backstage pass and hung out with Sandie Shaw and Morrissey.

And the last?
Devo at the House of Blues in LA.

What newspapers/magazines do you read?
The Guardian, until it starts to irritate me, then The Independent and then The Times. Doing comedy, you have to be up to speed with pop culture, so I sometimes force myself to buy a tabloid, The Mirror. When I've been in America, I come back and I think “who are these people?” Like I didn't know who Gok Kwan was. Now there are three or four jokes about him in the show.

Would you go as far as celebrity magazines like Heat in your research?
No, it think they rot your brain. You can get sucked into them, like fast food.

...Giving you a knowledge you don't want?
Yes. When I come back from America, they are all talking about who is on Big Brother and I'm thinking, “You know what, I really don't give a shit.”

What was it like working with Larry David (Coogan played a psychiatrist in an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm)?
Good, a bit nerve-wracking. I had to audition, you know. I had to prove how funny I was in front of him. Then he gave me the part. He's very funny and knows what he's doing but it's very hard because it's all improvised. You have to be careful that you don't try too hard to be funny, because you can end up being very un-funny. Somebody told me afterwards that he'd had a lot of people fired because they were desperately trying to be really funny and impress him, and I was thinking, “Thank God I didn't know that.” What word do you most like the sound of?
Jensen Interceptor. It's a car. I think I might buy one, just to be able to say “I drive a Jensen Interceptor” and then sell it again. Did your Brendan (the ex-Top Gear presenter) teach you that one?
No, no. I know far more about cars than he does.

Which website do you visit most often?
This is very sad, but lots of used Mercedes and classic car websites. I find it very relaxing.

What was the best television show ever made?
The World At War was the most important TV series ever made because it was made in the mid 1970s, only 30 years after the end of the Second World War, so a lot of the people in it were telling stories first hand and were not particularly old. They were working in jobs, ex-Nazis, victims of the Holocaust... It had a freshness and will stand as a document when we're all dead. It will serve in a way that goes beyond entertainment. Something that serves humanity, I think.

What is your best film?
Kind Hearts and Coronets. I can quote long extracts. I like dark, twisted humour, done with a little bit of style. I like Dennis Price in it. He's a killer, but you are on his side.

What book in childhood made the biggest impression on you?
I liked Boys Own and Valiant kind of stuff which were all science fiction and set in the future. Everyone was obsessed with the year 2000, and thinking we'd all be having holidays on the Moon. I remember thinking, "in the year 2000 I'll be 36, so my life will be just about over."

Who or what makes you laugh?
The Mighty Boosh...Simon Peg. So does Ben Stiller.

Do you always watch comedy with your work head on, with a technical eye, or can you accept something as just funny without making any analysis?
Yes, you watch a joke and if it's funny, you think “I wish I'd thought of that.” And if it doesn't make you laugh, you think “I've still got a job then”. But the nicer one is the first of the two. I genuinely enjoy comedy if I don't know how to do it. Which is why I like the Boosh so much. I like it because I could never think of that. What I do live is not original, there's a bit of edge in it, but really it's just broad, knockabout stuff.

What single creative work has the biggest emotional effect on you.
I might be seen as a bit of a philistine with my musical tastes, but I really love everything by John Barry. It's got everything, part classical, part rock, Hammond organs, mandolins. So evocative and cinematic. And yet he's from Yorkshire, John Barry. He's got a strange accent: half Yorkshire-half LA

Which entertainment figures/creative types do you most admire?
Noel Edmonds, ha ha, joke. Paul Abbott, Russell T Davies. And Ben Stiller who strives to do everything well.

Speaking of Russell T, would you audition for the role of the next Doctor in Doctor Who, or say yes if they approached you?
Yes. But I'd have to go away and think about it for a little bit...

Well yes. I mean, you don't want to appear to be too keen.

Steve Coogan appears at Manchester Apollo on 3 November

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