In 1953, Hollywood comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy embarked on a farewell tour of the British music hall circuit, dragging their luggage from one provincial hotel to the next. They pulled pints for the cameras, judged a beauty pageant at Butlins and reprised slapstick routines from their 1930s two-reelers. The tour was a hit but it was tinged with sadness as well. There are few sights so poignant as the exhausted antics of an ageing clown.
The trick, says Steve Coogan, is to keep moving, branch out. Aged 53, he feels that comedy, by and large, is a young man’s game. He has been there, he has done it, and is shifting towards drama. “It’s fine to be biting, acerbic and silly when you’re young,” he says. “But when you grow up you need to act like a grownup.” Then he catches himself and winces at his presumption. “Maybe that just means I’ve got flabby and middle aged.”
The jury is still out but I think maturity suits him. Coogan’s reputation was forged during his hectic 90s heyday, when he carried himself like a Premier League footballer, the cocksure comic striker behind witless Alan Partridge. These days, the hair has gone grey while the roles have turned more knotty, nuanced and tender. He was deftly affecting in the Bafta-winning Philomena, thin-skinned and whip-smart in Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, and he gives a lovely, limber performance in Stan & Ollie, a bittersweet account of the duo’s swansong British tour.
It’s hard to make a comedy from success. The best ones are about failure and bad luck and inadequacy
Coogan explains that he started his career doing the voices on Spitting Image, so impersonating Laurel came relatively easily (the diffident smile; the precise, flat vowels). The hard part was digging behind the facade, revealing the man behind the screen image. But he is wary of sounding too precious about this; God forbid he should come over all Daniel Day-Lewis. “I’ve never really been a method actor,” he scoffs. “I don’t think Mike Leigh would like me. If he wanted me to do a medieval melodrama, I’d still be wearing my underpants from Marks & Spencer underneath my costume; I don’t care what he says.”
There is a cafetiere inside the hotel room. Coogan insists on playing mother. He pours the coffee with a flourish but then struggles with the milk, which comes in a little carton that must be pierced with a plastic straw. His angle is wrong; the milk squirts out in a jet. For a brief, fleeting moment, he could be Partridge back at the Linton Travel Tavern.
On screen, Laurel played gormless underling to Hardy’s finicky little king. Off screen, though, the roles were reversed. Laurel co-directed the pictures and devised the bulk of the gags. He was at once ringmaster and clown, the artist and the clay, to the point where it became difficult to spot where the man ended and the character began.
Coogan suspects that this is a common confusion. “Look at Tony Hancock. Look at John Cleese with Basil Fawlty. What a comedian does is take their own essence and then channel it. Stan certainly did that. And I do it too, principally with Alan Partridge. He’s my way of channelling all my worst tendencies, my general ineptitude.” He pauses: “In fact, come to think of it, it’s not just comedians. Most movie stars are 80% versions of who they are off camera.”
On screen (and arguably off it, too) Laurel and Hardy were at once inseparable and at permanent loggerheads. They gave the impression of being as much tragic as funny, the inspiration for Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. And at times Stan & Ollie – directed by John S Baird with a script by Jeff Pope, Coogan’s co-writer on Philomena – feels more indebted to Samuel Beckett than to the comedy of Laurel and Hardy producer Hal Roach. It’s a dying fall of a film: a tale of dwindling resources and aching limbs and two men who suspect they are being edged inexorably towards the exit door. Coogan thinks that this is entirely as it should be.
“It’s hard to make a comedy from success,” he explains. “The best ones are about failure and bad luck and inadequacy. And this film is about the transience of all the success that went before.” Another pause. “Do you know that film Anvil: The Story of Anvil? It’s a documentary about a heavy metal band and their glory days are behind them and they’re flat broke. And I don’t particularly like the music. In fact, I sort of hate it. But what I was really moved by was their affection and unfailing loyalty in middle age. It’s only as they get older that they realise they love each other.”
If someone said I was boring, that would bother me. But if I’m no longer funny, well, then I’ll do something not funny
I wonder if the same might be said of The Trip. If not a tale of failure, exactly, Michael Winterbottom’s sitcom, initially on BBC Two, now on Sky Atlantic, brilliantly exposes the limits of success, the fragility of the male ego and the bond between two sparring partners whose relationship is closer than they would care to admit. Coogan and Rob Brydon play versions of themselves: affluent, status-conscious performers, each vying for the upper hand. Coogan likes to dismiss Brydon as a middle-of-the-road entertainer, a reliable footsoldier on the panel-show circuit. Brydon, in turn, suggests that his rival is a 1990s timepiece, a hedonistic antique like “Oasis or cocaine”. The Trip is partly scripted, partly improvised. It’s a comedy fiction, but there’s a truth to it, too.
Coogan pushes his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. “I remember Rob once saying to me: ‘The trouble with you is that you’re not funny any more.’”
Wait a minute … was this on camera or off? “God knows. It was in that sort of grey area in between. He was thinking: ‘What will really annoy Steve?’ And I remember thinking: ‘That’s not the worst thing you can say to me.’ I don’t think: ‘Oh my God, if I’m not funny my whole existence will crumble.’ It’s not my oxygen, being funny all the time. That’s a dysfunction. It’s just weird, to be honest. It would bother him more; that’s probably why he said it.” He grimaces. “I mean, if someone said I was boring, that would bother me. But if I’m no longer funny, well, then I’ll do something not funny. There are a lot of other things to be.”
For Stan Laurel, born in Lancashire and raised on music hall, the 1953 British tour was a homecoming of sorts. In his own way, Coogan is similarly circling back to his roots. He was born in Middleton, north of Manchester, to a large Irish Catholic family. He says that the older he gets, the more Irish he feels.
I think I’ve always had a political dimension. My family was political. I remember being told that Jesus was a socialist
“I’d like to claim I was a horny-handed son of toil,” he says. “But it was a more lower middle-class or upper working-class background.” His dad worked as an engineer for IBM; the family was solidly socialist and prized education above all else. “I mean, we didn’t have a colour TV for such a long time. Even though the people on the council estate did have one and my grandmother got one straight away from Radio Rentals. So we didn’t have a colour telly, but we did have the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And so we were very aspirational as a family. There was this notion that, all being well, all of us kids would eventually end up as teachers.”
By his early 20s, however, Coogan was already earning a decent living as a voiceover artist and standup comic. He joined the ensemble cast of Radio 4 comedy On the Hour (which subsequently morphed into BBC Two’s The Day Today) and won the Perrier award at the 1992 Edinburgh festival fringe. He became hugely successful at an indecently young age. I’m guessing his showbiz lifestyle made him the black sheep of the family, but he says that this was never really the case.
“In terms of my profession, there was a precedent on my father’s side. My grandfather ran a dancehall in the 50s for Irish immigrants, when they were subject to the same prejudice as Jews and black people. You know, it was the era of ‘No blacks, dogs or Irish’. There was a certain ghettoisation in Manchester back then. Middleton had a lot of Irish people and it was right next door to Prestwich, which had a lot of Jewish people. But also, Catholicism isn’t puritanism. Catholicism allows you to get drunk and have a nice time. And if you’re from a working-class background, you’re expected to sing for your supper. Everybody does a turn. So it wasn’t that me being a performer was frowned upon. Quite the opposite, in fact.”
The way Coogan tells it, his career has been shaped by an ongoing creative friction, even a niggling uncertainty about exactly what kind of artist he aspired to be. During the course of his career, he has bounced between what he refers to as his “Manchester gang” (Caroline Aherne, Jon Thomson, Craig Cash) and the “Oxbridge gang” (Armando Iannucci, Patrick Marber, Chris Morris); between big, bland Hollywood fodder and small, smart British productions. Partridge, I suspect, provides the man with his lynchpin: a popular character who has been allowed the space to take on a finer texture. Coogan says that he still loves to play Partridge and still laughs when he watches his antics on screen.
So he’s basically saying he laughs at his own jokes? “Well, yeah,” he says, briefly rattled. “Because I don’t see it when I’m doing it. So when I watch it back in the editing suite, I feel the same delight as the audience would. I see Alan as Alan. I don’t see him as me.”
During his 20s and 30s, Coogan was a favourite tabloid pinata. We thrilled to tales of how he liked nothing better than to snort rails of cocaine and then have sex with lap dancers. These days, he is a more sober, thoughtful figure, banging the drum for press regulation and writing op-eds calling for a second EU referendum. The change has been so striking it feels like a reinvention. I can’t quite work him out. Has Coogan grown more serious with age? Or was he always like this but elected to hide it?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I think I’ve always had a political dimension. My family was political. I remember being told that Jesus was a socialist. But I was also very ambitious. And I started earning a lot of money early on. And I became apolitical. I thought: ‘Oh, sod all that.’ And it went to my head. It was like a sort of delayed adolescence.” Another pause: “But then you realise that all this stuff is transient and that you’re middle aged and that one day you’re going to be dead. And so you might as well make an effort to engage in some way.”
I last met him when Philomena came out back in 2013. Back then, Coogan was a bracing, combative interviewee. He saw every question as a potential ambush and moved to thwart any perceived journalistic angle. Today, though, he seems more comfortable with the process, more at ease with himself. It used to be that he felt he always had to have his guard up. Now he accepts that he can sometimes afford to let it drop. He’s middle aged and a mass of insecurity and contradictions. He suspects that, on balance, that’s not such a terrible thing to be.
“And actually I think acknowledging your own fallibility makes you a better artist and a better person,” he says in a rush. “It’s fairly obvious to me that the real wisdom lies in seeing people’s failings and trying to understand them. Because the alternative is that very childlike, Donald Trump thing of believing that admitting any weakness is fatal. What was it Bukowski said? All the clever people are full of self-doubt and all the stupid people are very confident. That’s the era we’re living in now. That’s the era I don’t want to be a part of. So all you can do is try to go about things differently. Do interesting work and don’t be a cunt.”
Coogan gulps for breath. His eyes widen and then he rocks with laughter. “There you go, that’s my big artistic statement,” he says. “Do interesting work and don’t be a cunt. Took me the best part of an hour. Got there in the end.”
Stan & Ollie is in UK cinemas on 11 January.