Considering his vast body of work over five decades, it’s almost a pity that Steve Coogan is indelibly linked to just one very famous character, Alan Partridge.
And he’s well aware of this fact, admitting in the past his frustration at being potentially typecast as the ABBA-quoting (“Aha!”), incompetent, egotistical radio and TV presenter he co-created with Armando Iannucci in 1991 and has reprised in a series of series and skits.
While Coogan has repeatedly returned to the pop culture icon with great success, he’s also been keen to show that there’s much more to his repertoire than the painfully unaware chat show host dressed from head to toe in “imperial leisure”.
As he tells Interview, “If I were only doing Alan, I think I’d have some existential crisis.”
So now’s a good time to appreciate Coogan in some very non-Partridge-like roles in two English-language features screening at SBS On Demand.
Stan & Ollie
One of Hollywood’s greatest comedy teams is brought to life in 2018’s bittersweet Stan & Ollie with Coogan as Stan Laurel and John C. Reilly as Oliver Hardy.
The 56-year-old English actor is a noted impersonator – and he perfectly captures Laurel’s accent and mannerisms – but he didn’t want his performance to cross over into celebrity cosplay.
“Impersonating someone is quite useful sometimes, but it can be fraught with danger and only skin deep,” Coogan explains to Collider. “I was anxious about that, and wanted to make sure that wasn’t the case. The other thing was the physicality, but I knew that if I put the work in, I could get that right.”
English-born Laurel and American-born Hardy joined forces in 1927, clicked immediately and became Hollywood superstars, going on to make 107 films together. Audiences couldn’t get enough of their clever slapstick routines, onscreen chemistry and loveable personalities.
The opening scene of Stan & Ollie sees the duo at the height of their fame in 1937 on the set of Way Out West. It then jumps forward to 1953 with their careers on the wane and about to start their swansong stage tour of the UK, with Hardy’s health failing fast and Laurel desperate to attract the attention of a London movie producer.
We quickly learn that, contrary to his downtrodden idiot persona, Laurel is the brains behind the operation, driven to put the duo back on top. As the pair does publicity stunts while playing in front of half-empty theatres, long-held animosities surface once their wives join them from America.
“It’s hard to make a comedy from success,” Coogan tells another journalist. “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.”
The tour was the last time Laurel and Hardy worked together. Ill-health continued to plague Hardy until his death in 1957 aged 65. Laurel refused to work with anyone else, quietly retired and passed away in 1965 aged 74.
What shines through most in Stan & Ollie is the love and affection the two men have for each other, maintaining a friendship that not only weathered time, but also old resentments.
Stan & Ollie is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
In The Loop
Fans of Coogan should also check out his performance in the 2009 political satire In The Loop, directed by his old colleague Iannucci. It features a superb ensemble cast led by Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouthed and terrifying Malcolm Tucker, the British Prime Minister’s Director Of Communications, reprising his role from The Thick Of It, the TV series that spawned the movie.
With the UK and the USA teetering on the edge of conflict in the Middle East, a verbal gaffe in a radio interview lands government minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) in hot water and directly in Tucker’s firing line. Despite his blunder, the PM sends Foster to Washington, DC where he becomes an unwitting (some might say witless) pawn in the backroom politicking between the pro-war hawks and anti-war doves. Bullying, deceit and the manufacturing of fake evidence are played out on an international stage with Tucker knee deep in every dirty deal.
Meanwhile, back in England, Coogan has a pivotal role as one of Foster’s irate constituents, sweary battler Paul Michaelson, whose problems with a collapsing wall in his mum’s backyard winds up having huge ramifications for the hapless politician. Iannucci said he used Coogan for the small but impactful scene because it needed someone who could “do a comic tour de force in an instant”.
“Within seconds, I realise how much I’d forgotten how spontaneously hilarious he is,” he writes in The Guardian. “The words and actions and improvised asides flood out.”
Coogan knows his pursuit of interesting roles – and the desire not to be trapped in an Alan Partridge-sized box – carries the risk of failure.
“Otherwise, you just play safe, all the time,” he elaborates in Collider. “If you’re creative, you can get very bored, very quickly, so you need to roll the dice.”
In films such as Stan & Ollie and In the Loop, Steve Coogan’s willingness to take chances has paid off.
In The Loop is now streaming at SBS On Demand.