Alan Partridge at the New York Film Festival

Steve Coogan on his most popular unpopular character.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Scott McGehee and David Siegel with their What Maisie Knew star Steve Coogan after the press conference for Alan Partridge.
Scott McGehee and David Siegel with their What Maisie Knew star Steve Coogan after the press conference for Alan Partridge. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Find out what Sidney Lumet's Dog Day Afternoon bank robber Al Pacino and Billy Wilder's Ace In The Hole reporter Kirk Douglas have in common with Steve Coogan in Declan Lowney’s Alan Partridge.

In Scott McGehee and David Siegel's What Maisie Knew, released earlier this year, Steve Coogan portrayed a New York art dealer father, effectively glib, anemically funny, with muted changes on his face when he realises how deceptive he is to his child, tempting you to detest him in a different way. His facade remains a socially acceptable grimace while slowly the mirror of his daughter Maisie (a fantastic Onata Aprile), becomes unbearable. "There's no mommy in England - there's a whole ocean… " he breaks off and the worthlessness of all his interactions wash over him. It is some of Coogan's best film work.

In Alan Partridge, Steve Coogan says his character has developed in two ways.

Film Comment Editor and New York Film Festival Selection Committee member Gavin Smith spoke with Steve Coogan, aka Alan Partridge, following the press screening.

Gavin Smith: All of you involved in the film are amazed that it's in the New York Film Festival. Why is that?

Steve Coogan to Gavin Smith: "I was quite shocked that you wanted it."
Steve Coogan to Gavin Smith: "I was quite shocked that you wanted it." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Steve Coogan: Well, because it's broad comedy… I was quite shocked that you wanted it.

He went on to explain the longevity of the character.

SC: We haven't saturated the audience with the character… He's sort of my bête noire, Alan. He's like an annoying relative that you quite like to see on holidays but you don't live with him. When you write for a character it becomes very intense. Being in a room with Alan Partridge for, like, seven months, is really quite annoying. So you have to walk away. And after a while you start to miss him.

Coogan also talked about the problems putting the character on the big screen.

SC: What you have to do is try and make it in some way cinematic but at the same time not lose that small world quality. So you're trying to square a circle. If you make it too outlandish, you lose the essence of the character. If you make it too small and parochial then it won't justify itself as a film… One of our reference points was Dog Day Afternoon (1975) because that film has a big siege… The other reference point was Ace In The Hole (1951) with Kirk Douglas. The essence we took from that - Kirk Douglas is a reporter and there's a guy trapped in a well [trapped in a cave]. He's trying to spin the story and keep the guy in the well to capitalise on it and make himself famous. We used that with Partridge.

He stopped the filming to rewrite scenes.

SC: The film was actually a nightmare to make… I was rewriting scenes late at night for next day's shoot. It was an incredibly pressurized experience...

Making it funny … I had to say: Look we need to make this less inventive cinematically… so that people could catch the comedy.

Tim Key as Simon with Partridge: "He's sort of my bête noire, Alan."
Tim Key as Simon with Partridge: "He's sort of my bête noire, Alan."

Following the conversation, I had the chance to inquire into how Steve Coogan sees Alan Partridge now.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I have not been familiar with this character until today. So, I am wondering if there is development in his humiliation over 20 years?

Steve Coogan: Is there development in his humiliation? I don't think there is development in his humiliation. It's a character that had a profile in the UK for 20 years. The character has developed, he has become more rounded, less caricatured. Just because otherwise I get bored of it. You refashion something, reshape it, improve it. I think the character early on actually was very much a farcical character. He was very funny, because you just laughed at him and his foolishness. What has developed over the years was giving him a little bit empathy, however stupid he is, and giving him some sort of vulnerability which wasn't there at the outset. The character definitely has developed - in two ways. One, the character has actually become more rounded. There are two new writers on the character now. They helped develop him and make the comedy more resonant. And the character has changed also because people do change. Early on he was quite right-wing. Now he's right-wing but he developed a different sensibility. Same way that, you know, some Republican politicians don't mind gay people. Years ago, that wouldn't have been the case. Alan has to reflect the change in the social mores.

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