Steve Coogan has Scotland pegged.
“My experience of the Scottish is that if they don’t like you, they’ll let you know. But, if they do like you, they’ll also let you know,” he says with a grin, just minutes into our interview.
In true Partridge style, it’s mildly insulting yet somehow utterly charming and, frankly, impossible to find fault with.
He’s quick to redeem himself, adding that he does enjoy hillwalking in our mountains up north. The Highland landscape, he claims, makes England’s Lake District “look rather pathetic”.
Refreshingly unrehearsed in his answers, Coogan has veered off in the midst of explaining the concept of his new live show, Stratagem with Alan Partridge, coming soon to Aberdeen. Apparently he – sorry – Alan pokes fun at Irish people during the performance, but not Scots; we’ve escaped unscathed, this time.
“Alan tries to be friendly to the Irish, but ends up putting his foot in it and insulting them,” the comedian explains, “And that’s always a tricky game to play when you’re doing comedy. You get it wrong, you completely alienate your audience in an instant.”
The tour, by the way, kicked off in Belfast, followed by two nights in Dublin. Tough crowd?
“They got it,” Coogan assures me, “They totally understood. Most people come along to the shows and they know who Alan Partridge is and what his vibe is.”
Many don’t remember life before Partridge
Well, of course they do. Originally created in 1991, Alan Gordon Partridge has been appearing consistently on our stereos and screens for more than 30 years. Synonymous with British comedy culture, the blundering character has achieved unequivocal cult status.
Confronted with the fact that there are now a huge number of Partridge fans who came into the world after Alan, Coogan seems genuinely dazed.
‘Alan’s not a bad man, he’s just not someone I particularly would want to hang out with’
“When I grew up, there were people like Morecambe and Wise and Monty Python, and I didn’t remember a time before them. They’d always been around, so part of the landscape,” he says thoughtfully.
“It’s really funny for me to think: ‘There are younger people who now look at Alan Partridge that way.’ It’s so weird, because I remember sitting in a room going: ‘Oh, I can do this kind of voice. What should we call him? Let’s call him Alan – that’s a sort of sporty name, isn’t it?’
“Years ago, I used to think: ‘I wonder if one day there’ll be people who can’t remember a time before him.’
“Alan, to me, is lots of things,” Coogan explains, “He’s not a bad man, he’s just not someone I particularly would want to hang out with, honestly.”
There’s a sense of fond exasperation in his voice, as though the two are brothers or old school friends; fundamentally different people, forever linked by some unbreakable bond. And, like brothers, they’ve had their ups and downs.
“Had I not had some success in other areas, I would have been less inclined to carry on with Alan because it felt like a burden,” he explains. “But, because I do it because I choose to do it, not because I have to, then I can really embrace it and enjoy it.”
Alan Partridge coming to Aberdeen
In three decades, Stratagem – written with longtime collaborators, Neil and Rob Gibbons – is Coogan’s first live show where he appears as Alan Partridge throughout.
Officially described as “a manifesto for the way we can move forward, a roadmap to a better tomorrow, an ABC for the way to be”, Coogan elaborates: “Ostensibly, it’s Alan trying to help people with their attitude to their lives.”
So, rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Linton Travel Tavern, Alan Partridge is a motivational speaker now?
“Yeah, like Tony Robbins in America,” Coogan replies, “I mean, I think it’s a load of baloney, most of it, but, you know, there are people who do go to those things.
“The fun part is that Alan tries to present himself as someone who understands these cultural differences that we all are aware of, as someone who can illuminate it to people. He regards himself as a good conduit or a good guide as to how to understand and navigate the modern world.”
Don’t censor comedy – but punch up, not down
Navigating the modern world of comedy, now more scrutinsed than ever, while playing a purposefully ignorant character has the potential to be tricky.
“I think, certainly when it comes to Partridge, there is a danger, like there always is, that if you say something which is prejudiced, you can reinforce that prejudice,” Coogan says.
“Generally speaking, I think people understand the context of him getting it wrong. And, also, it’s like all of us; it’s human to sometimes snicker at things that we shouldn’t do.
“I might write something that I initially think is funny, and then I go: ‘You know what? That reinforces that really hateful point of view. I’m not going to do it.’ That’s actually quite a healthy process.”
Still, censoring comedy – even the stuff he doesn’t personally like – is counterproductive, Coogan argues. Comedians do have a responsibility not to stir up or perpetuate discrimination, he says, but it’s better to lead by example than to lecture.
“I’d rather direct my comedy ire at the people who are powerful, and hold them to account and punch up. But that’s not to say I think that everyone should do exactly what I do,” he concedes.
“You can’t make people have love in their heart by putting a gun to their head. It’s just done through education and by behaving a certain way, not saying: ‘You need to do what I say.’ Behave the way you want people to behave.
“That’s very idealistic, I know that,” he adds.
30 years on from the Perrier Award
While the realisation may only just be dawning on him, there’s no question that Steve Coogan is now as influential and everlasting as the classic British acts he grew up watching. And, despite Alan Partridge’s Norwich roots, the journey really got started in Scotland.
‘It sort of changed the direction of my professional life, that month in Edinburgh’
He won the prestigious Perrier Comedy Award in 1992, 30 years ago this summer, at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – almost always a catalyst for greatness in the industry.
“It sort of changed the direction of my professional life, that month in Edinburgh,” Coogan admits.
“The excitement of winning that [award] was far more than for any of the subsequent things that I’ve been fortunate enough to win. They’ve never quite matched the excitement of when you’re 26.”
His voice softening, he repeats himself almost incredulously: “I was 26.”
Now 56, it’s a testament to Coogan’s talent that he has avoided becoming a one-character wonder. In fact, he seems to have evaded typecasting entirely, regularly swapping comedy for drama, as writer, actor, producer and, soon, director.
Serious acting, he says, is a pleasure.
“Being able to be focused and singular on something is a joy, even playing dark roles.”
Playing Savile wasn’t ‘a joy’
One such portrayal is Coogan’s starring appearance in the BBC dramatisation about the life and crimes of Jimmy Savile – an upcoming project both highly anticipated and much criticised, called The Reckoning.
“I wouldn’t describe playing Jimmy Savile as a ‘joy’,” Coogan clarifies, “But, I would describe it as being a fascinating process and professionally engaging, even though it was also disturbing.
“Everyone involved in that production was resolutely professional and sensitive about the entire process. Lots of the victims came along to see us shooting. It was done with many of the victims’ cooperation.”
Clearly, Coogan seeks a balance of light and dark when it comes to his work.
“I worked on a series called Chivalry [last year], which has a witty tone to it, but it’s a serious subject. And, then, The Reckoning is interesting, I think, and informative and educational, but it’s dark,” he says.
“It’s symbiotic. When you go from that to doing Alan Partridge, it’s a relief.”
Laughter and good people still bring hope
It’s gratifying to learn that such a seasoned comedian still relishes prompting and hearing laughter just as much as those laughing adore being amused by him.
“One of the great things about being on stage is seeing thousands of people all laughing at the same thing. It’s sort of glorious. I’ve never been complacent about that,” Coogan tells me.
“Part of the reason I’m touring is that, after Covid and everything, there’s this disconnect; we’re all disconnected.
“The other night, there were eight thousand people, in Dublin, all laughing at the same time. They clearly won’t agree on everything. And, yet, they’re all laughing at the same thing. That’s really unifying.”
Despite considering it all a load of baloney, Steve Coogan ends our conversation on an inspirational speaker-esque note. Perhaps he is momentarily letting Alan drive.
Still, coming from the successful yet humble and infectiously likeable Coogan, it doesn’t sound cheesy. It sounds… well… life-affirming.
“You can have a bleak view of humanity, or you can have an optimistic view of humanity,” he says.
“For all the bad people, there are really good people, and you shouldn’t forget that. They’re what give you hope in all this.”