Back in 2002, when 24 Hour Party People was released, New Order’s Peter Hook described Steve Coogan’s casting as Tony Wilson as ‘the biggest twat in Manchester being played by the second biggest twat in Manchester’. That’s pretty harsh.
But Coogan in particular has done himself no favours in this respect. His character creations, from Alan Partridge to Paul Calf, have usually been crass, boorish, self-absorbed figures – and that includes the occasions, such as A Cock and Bull Story and The Trip, when the character he’s been playing is a lightly fictionalised version of himself.
On the quiet, though, he’s always seemed to be an admirable sort with an undeniable talent who has only grown in stature in recent years. So it’s highly intriguing to see how he chooses to present himself in his autobiography, though, as he remarks, it’s not unlike those awkward moments when 70s star impressionist Mike Yarwood would declare ‘.. and this is me!’ and perform a song straight-faced.
Curiously, the opening section covers his most recent career – that is, his risky move into much more serious territory with Philomena, the fine Alan Partridge movie Alpha Papa (which could just as well have been subtitled This Could Go Either Way) and, to a lesser degree, his involvement with the News International phone-hacking court case.
The style throughout is chatty, choppy and rangy – conversational, basically – which works well, though in part this may be down to the circumstances of him co-writing it with journalist and author Amy Raphael. In truth, though, tackling his mature work at the top of the book is a bit baffling, and possibly a little needy. Perhaps it’s just the comedy star’s curse of being over-eager to be taken seriously when the comedy work is actually seriously good in its own right.
The rest of the book, which shifts to a straight chronology, is much more satisfying overall, with plenty of evocative tales from his busy Middleton childhood, early ventures into performance and eventual rise to fame via Spitting Image, early character work, live shows and falling in with Armando Iannucci’s crowd. In all honesty, it’s never as striking or well-written as his best on-screen work (his gifts as a writer might be underrated generally) but it’s infinitely more engrossing than your average Celebrity Autobiography for the Christmas Market. Saying that, the bland, underwhelming cover makes it look exactly like an entry in that particular field.
Several things recur throughout such as his warm relationship with his Dad, his gratitude to early collaborator Patrick Marber, his often conflicted relationship with his most famous comic creations, and many thoughts on religion and politics. It threatens to become rambling and bitty at some points, but is never quite allowed to. In fact, it all adds to the pleasingly casual chattiness. There are no major dramatic revelations here, beyond acid asides about people already revealed by the tabloids, and his account of his rise to fame is often raw in its honesty.
It’s a quirk of book’s structure that it ends with Coogan on a high from the initial success of Alan Partridge, the role which made him a household name. But as his most recent years are recounted in the opening section, there’s a whole slice of his career which isn’t covered at all, and it’s unclear whether this is being put by for a second volume. Either way it’s a shame that he only makes brief mention of the mighty, undervalued Saxondale and indeed of the success story of Baby Cow, the production company he formed with fellow traveller Henry Normal back in 1999, which has since gone on to become one of the major forces in British television comedy. Possibly Coogan feels that Normal deserves more of the credit for this success but, either way, it’s a story that deserves to be told (and if you’ve ever wondered where the company got that curious name, think back to Coogan’s early career and remind yourself what a baby cow is called).
In short, this is not quite as good as it could have been, but it’s very far from being a disappointment. Perhaps most strikingly, in true Mike Yarwood ‘and this is me’ fashion, it’s not trying to be funny at all, and rarely raises more than a wry smile.
Coogan puts his cards on the table early on, stating flatly that ‘I am a serious person. I like to do funny things’. In that respect, the fictional I, Partridge from a couple of years back, which Coogan co-wrote, was more openly enjoyable. But this is certainly an intriguing, enlightening insight into the thoughts of a figure who’s now become one of the most singular, likeable stars of the day. And no, most assuredly not a twat.
By Andy Murray
Easily Distracted by Steve Coogan is available now in hardback and ebook from Century