Steve Coogan's Stratagem with Alan Partridge: 'I feed off performing live, it’s life-affirming and visceral'
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And it all comes down to one question.
“We’re guided by Alan Partridge because there’s this fictional life we create for him,” explains Coogan, 56. “Currently, he’s on TV and is doing okay, so how would he behave? He’d puff his chest out and be a bit too arrogant and cocky, so we thought he could go on tour with a show trying to be all things to all men. Trying to impart his wisdom on how to process popular culture.
“Most media-savvy people in the spotlight know that, when the landscape changes, you have to change with it or you become an irrelevance,” Coogan continues. “Whether it’s racial politics, BAME, BLM, #MeToo, diversity, or identity politics, you have to get up to speed with it or you’re looked upon as obsolete, so Partridge would try to own that by making it his mission to educate other people. As if he’s somehow an expert which, of course, he isn’t.
“When you get seismic political or cultural changes which challenge stereotypes and replace old attitudes, that’s perfect for Partridge to respond to. It’s sort of like watching your parents - I say your, I mean ‘our’,” Coogan says, employing the royal ‘our’ before adding quickly “although I’m old enough to be your parent… But, I mean, for younger people, it’s like watching their parents grapple with the new world and I think that's why they like Partridge.
“And older people laugh because they see themselves grappling with that world, too.”
Few comedic characters have made people laugh quite like Alan Partridge. A persona Coogan once regarded as ‘an albatross’ around his neck, Partridge and Coogan alike have outgrown the concept of pigeonholing. Away from starring in Hollywood hits such as Stan & Ollie and Philomena or capturing hearts in series like The Trip, Coogan seems to relish returning to Partridge, be that via podcast, TV, or stage.
As a result, it’s not hard to detect a certain vim and vigour in Coogan as we discuss his latest show, Stratagem with Alan Partridge, which is currently touring across the UK and Ireland and which comes to Blackpool’s Opera House on May 17. Warm, polite, and genial, Coogan is generous with his answers owing to what is undoubtedly his sheer love for the comedic craft which goes into a Partridge live show after two years of lockdown.
“To stand in front of a crowd of several thousand is still a bit of novelty after Covid,” Coogan admits. “But I wanted to do something in front of a live audience again because it’s been so long since people have been able to come together. I’m always anxious before I go on stage but, when I’m actually out there, I think ‘oh, I know how to do this’.
“That’s good because it really keeps you on your toes and there’s nowhere to hide,” he continues. “You can’t fix things later in the edit, it’s there-and-then which is great because, when it’s really good and people are laughing, I feed off it. It carries you along. It’s life-affirming and a real visceral, unfiltered experience.”
Stratagem is a a show which ‘promises to inform, educate, and entertain in approximately equal measure’ whilst offering ‘a manifesto for the way we can move forward, a roadmap to a better tomorrow, an ABC for the way to be’ in a country ‘riven with discord and disease’. As the spritely promo material says, ‘wearing a head-mic favoured by TED-talkers, market hawkers, TV evangelists, backing singers, and carnival barkers, Alan combines all these roles and more.’
Proffering Partridge’s particular brand of wisdom to our ‘scissored isle’ - a nation of ‘warm beer and cold hands’ - at a time when it is more divided than ever, Alan is ready and willing to bring us all together, ‘whether you’re a pro-European who’s had the jab or you’re a Brexiteer who doesn’t believe in vaccines.’ So far, the show has been an unadulterated hit.
“The live show is knob jokes, basically,” says Coogan, tongue firmly in cheek. “Doing a live show isn’t like a podcast or a TV show: the comedy has to be broader and, in some ways, less nuanced. More vaudevillian; jokes with punchlines, which isn’t really Partridge, so you have to skew the character slightly whilst throwing some bones for the purists.”
What’s that writers’ room like, I ask. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m briefly talking to Alan himself. “You have to warm up; it’s sort of like an old car - you might have to recharge the battery before you start it if you’ve left it standing,” Coogan says. “But I’ve been writing with the Gibbons for 12, 13 years, so we have a language and we quickly find the rhythm.
“If I said some of the things Alan says, I’d be in a lot of trouble,” adds Coogan. “But we create a safe space where we all say ‘this man isn’t real’ and that frames the joke. If Alan says something misogynistic or borderline racist even, the audience are not laughing at misogyny or racism, they’re laughing at the ill-informed ignorance of Alan. They enter into the conceit so, when Partridge puts his foot in it, they get to laugh in that context.
“They accept the character even though Partridge punches down but, because Partridge is the butt of the joke, paradoxically, it means that I’m punching up,” he continues, now fully in his flow. “I’m mocking the Daily Mail-reading, slightly self-righteous, slightly more privileged people in our society who look down their noses at certain things and feel entitled.
“There was a misogynistic, macho sense of humour that came out of those Top Gear guys when Clarkson, Hammond, and May were hosting - this unreconstructed, post-modern machismo in their humour which I hated because it always punched down. Jeremy Clarkson would make jokes about people in council houses… well, great; he’s very privileged and went to a private school. That, to me, is contemptible comedy and sort of irresponsible, too.
“When I show Partridge having a crap sense of humour, that’s me punching up at people who are very rarely held accountable,” Coogan says. “And, what’s interesting is, when you mock people who themselves mock other, less powerful people, they don’t like it. They can dish it out, but they can’t take it, and you find that a lot with bullies. As soon as they get bullied, they run off and start crying like big babies.”
All of a sudden, it becomes clear why Coogan relishes playing Partridge so much: Alan is his comedic piñata, a totem punchbag whose unerring ability to put his foot in it is timeless.
“We’re constantly able to update Partridge because he can act as a filter for social norms,” Coogan says. “You apply Partridge to whatever’s going on now and just reboot him. We can see the world changing through his eyes.”