As a bit of a fan, Steve Coogan’s first appearance on these shores has been bizarre to observe. Revered in the UK as a result of over twenty mostly fantastic years on television and latterly film, Coogan was until recently almost anonymous in Australia. Initial publicity touted his turns in the Michael Winterbottom movies 24 Hour Party People and Tristram Shandy – A Cock and Bull Story as a reason to go and see him, but these were critical and not commercial successes. Coupled with the fact that the shows in which he made his name have never been shown on free-to-air TV and his low profile is easy to understand.
And yet, it goes further. There is an irony in the fact that for a long time Coogan fought to remain out of the public eye to the point of obsession. His characters involved use of wigs, make-up and prosthetics, many intended to make him look older than his years. He didn’t do interviews or quiz shows either, something which created a Peter Sellers-like air of mystery in the UK. Robbed of a story the tabloid press filled the vacuum with tales of lurid excess; fast cars, cocaine, a rampant ego and wild encounters with Hollywood stars including getting Courtney Love pregnant and supplying Owen Wilson with drugs. The line between truth and tittle-tattle has remained a little blurry, especially following a stellar performance in Jim Jarmusche’s Coffee and Cigarettes in which he sent himself up as an insincere careerist arsehole.
Whatever the reasons (and they could be purely commercial) Coogan has been on a bit of a charm offensive since his arrival in Australia. I was embarrassed for him at having to sit through an appearance on Rove (MacManus unable to help himself from introducing his guest with a big ‘A-ha!’ – the 1994 catchphrase of the indomitable Alan Partridge. Laughable really, since Rove himself is actually a worse TV talk show host than the purposefully terrible Partridge. Coogan also fared well on Spicks and Specks and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. However, it’s by his Melbourne Comedy Festival shows that Coogan will be judged, so I’m happy to report that his reputation can only have been enhanced by his time here.
The show at the Forum (a great place to watch anything) was set up like a coiled spring, with the first half comprising three characters and complete costume changes to build up the energy and excitement before launching Partridge onto us in all his awful glory for the bulk of the second half. The whole show was nicely punctuated by Partridge-like miscellanea about the theatre announced over the sound system.
Up first were Coogan’s first famous creations, Paul and Pauline Calf, pre-chav icons of the early nineties transported straight from the Manchester estate on Shameless. Despite drawing big laughs from the audience, both felt more like a journey back in time than anything from 2009. Paul is a student hating, beer swilling troglodyte from John Major’s Britain where he still appears to be, both in dress and manner. It seems like there’s nowhere for him to go, especially when Coogan trots out some of the same gags he did a decade ago. Paul can still raise laughs with the odd well timed fart-noise but he should probably be put to bed (in a drunken coma one assumes) for good.
Less so his sister Pauline (Coogan in mini-dress and prosthetic boobs) who, despite a bit of older material, proved that you can’t keep a good woman down. Where Paul is stuck in his time warp, Pauline has changed with the times, becoming stronger, more independent, a mother and changing her hair (and underwear) to match Jennifer Aniston’s. Her gags are old (essentially Pauline is a happy go lucky tart, happy to sleep with anyone and even happier to discuss it) but they are still relevant as attested by the crowd reaction.
One character who has improved over time is Tony Ferrino, the Portuguese lounge singer cross between Julio Iglesias and Tom Jones. Coogan’s first flop persona in the UK, Ferrino seems to work better in a live audience than on the TV. He also benefits from a very funny five minute video back story, telling a Rutles style mock-biography which brings the unfamiliar up to date. There are other Coogan characters I would rather have seen (the wonderful complex world of Tommy Saxondale, roadie turned pest controller for one) but Ferrino was a pleasant surprise and probably offered more of a show than Saxondale could have.
The star of the show, and by star I mean STAR in big gold letters with heavenly trumpets is of course Alan Partridge. Partridge is by far one of the best characters to have come out of British TV comedy, perhaps bettered by Basil Fawlty and only then because Cleese’s was such an iconic, gangly and manic performance. Both men share a genius for acute embarrassment, but what Fawlty offers in physical comedy Partridge counters via his non-gift for the English language. His doomed searches for clever words, meaningful metaphors, cutting ripostes, witty put downs and especially his hyperbolic descriptions of the mundane make Partridge endearing (pity is a strong emotion when you see a grown man so desperate and in need of help) and unwittingly funny. His yearning for the trappings of stardom sits uncomfortably with his total lack of empathy with a public who he generally treats with contempt, especially those listening to his radio shows.
Coogan knows Partridge intimately and knows the right buttons to press to ignite the crowd. Unlike with the Calfs, his respect for Partridge is shown in the effort that has gone into updating him and moving his life story on. Alan Partridge in 2009 is a self-appointed life coach and self-help guru, showing the path to a successful life, which has so obviously eluded him. Using a Wii-style motion-sensor glove to operate his laptop presentation Partridge blunders into the 21st century, accidentally revealing the contents of his hard drive to the audience – a nice mix of kinky porn and stills from the Antiques Roadshow. The performance makes nice use of the laptop as a gimmick, especially when Partridge is bored during a radio phone in and absent-mindedly starts checking his emails, unaware that the audience can see his every word.
There is always a temptation for any actor to ditch a strong character to save their own soul and sense of self. Amongst the holy trinity of socially awkward Fawlty and David Brent lived mercifully short lives, but Partridge is more subtle than them both. Perhaps as a result of their extended break, Coogan thankfully seems aware of how potent and funny his creation remains, something which everyone in the Forum audience could attest to. May rumours of an Alan Partridge movie prove true.
Coogan seems far more comfortable in his own skin these days and closed the show with a jaunty Mary Poppins-type number about those tabloid rumours called Everyone’s a Bit of a Cunt Sometimes. Despite interviews in which he suggested that he probably wouldn’t perform the song because Australian audiences might not get all the references it proved a great finale and a more interesting riposte than having to explain himself to journalists. Tellingly it was a humble and make-up free Steve Coogan who took his ovation at the end and left quickly to huge applause from an Australian audience who definitely knew who he was.