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Life after Partridge

Now that its contract with the BBC is over Steve Coogan's production company is looking to spread its wings. John Plunkett talks to the comedian and his writing partner

Monday October 6, 2003
The Guardian

Steve Coogan is hung over. But with good reason. Last night he hosted a benefit gig at London's Dominion Theatre in the guise of his three most famous creations, Alan Partridge and Paul and Pauline Calf.

So what time did he get in? "Don't ask," pleads his assistant. The sixth floor of a building between a souvenir shop and Pizza Hut on Oxford Street is an unlikely location to plot a comedy revolution. It is the London base of Baby Cow (as in Calf), the independent production company that Coogan set up with his writing partner Henry Normal in 1999.

Four years and 40 hours of programmes later, including Marion and Geoff, Human Remains and Paul and Pauline Calf's Cheese and Ham Sandwich, it has just come to the end of its second two-year development deal with the BBC.

Freed from its "first look" commitment to the corporation (and a clause which prevented Coogan from appearing on a rival channel), it is ready to take on the world. "It means we can now go to Channel 4 with things specially tailored for them. We find that exciting," declares Normal, co-writer of The Royle Family and The Mrs Merton Show.

"It's been a steep learning curve but we've learned very quickly," says Coogan of the company's four-year history. "What has resonated most loudly is the labyrinthine kind of manoeuvring you have to do to get an answer."

"You can get a 'maybe' very quickly," jokes Normal. "And you can get a 'definite maybe' fairly soon after that." But the BBC remains high on the indie's agenda, and has just ordered its most high-profile commission to date, The Big Impression Goes Madrid, in which impressionist Alistair McGowan will devote an entire episode to David Beckham's on-off (and finally on) transfer to Real Madrid. It is scheduled for Christmas Day at 8pm on BBC1.

It has not always been so straightforward. "When the company started there was this temptation to see it as a vanity project," recalls Coogan, who met Normal at a cabaret in Ashton-under-Lyme in 1986. "There was definitely the view that as creative people you can't be responsible and therefore you can't make it in a grown-up industry."

So were broadcasters reluctant to see him give up the starring role? "All the time. You'd say, 'I've got this idea for a programme' and because of the lack of imagination of a lot of people in TV, their response is 'Is Alan Partridge in it?'

"That's something we've had to get past. It was a huge sigh of relief when we did Human Remains [starring Julia Davis and Rob Brydon for BBC2] because it was very well received and I wasn't in it." BBC2 controller Jane Root wanted Coogan to take the main role in Baby Cow's comedy drama Cruise of the Gods. Coogan, who wanted Rob Brydon, eventually got his way and ended up taking a supporting role.

If the pair have a mission, it is to bring back primetime comedy to a mainstream audience. "There is a certain snobbishness about being too accessible," declares Coogan. "When Henry and I wrote the live show [The Man Who Thinks He's It in 1998] we did it in a very broad way. It was quite immediate, comedy that maybe doesn't stay with you but makes you laugh when you are there. The Guardian described it as depressingly popular.

"But you can like different kinds of comedy. I like Monty Python but I also like the Two Ronnies and that has been neglected - something that is mainstream but is genuinely funny. At the moment there is this niche kind of quality comedy on BBC2 and then there is ..." "And then there is Jim Davidson," interrupts Normal (the pair have a habit of finishing each other's sentences).

Coogan: "There's no sliding scale. People at the BBC think, well we don't like him but I suppose that lot do so we'd better put him out." Normal: "And try and guess what the working class likes." Coogan: "It's almost contemptuous."

Cue Baby Cow's The Sketch Show for ITV, which went on to win a Bafta but was originally turned down by the BBC. "It's tempting to think there is someone at the BBC bashing their fist on the table saying 'why did we let that go?'" says Coogan. "But no one cares enough."

King of Fridges, a comedy drama starring Richard Wilson, was also turned down by the BBC and picked up by ITV. Written by Tim Firth, who scripted Cruise of the Gods, it will air next year. "It's the sort of thing we'd like to be doing on the BBC," admits Coogan. "I'm really pleased with it. It's not immaterial, but whether people watch it or not won't alter the fact that I know it's a good piece of work. I could sit down with my grandparents - if they were alive - and know they would enjoy it."

Not that Coogan is entirely insensitive to his critics. A Guardian review that accused him of failing to take risks with his live show so incensed him he turned it into a running gag in the subsequent video. "Everyone gets pissed off by negative reviews. I try to turn my angst into a joke."

Of their shows currently in the pipeline, several are for BBC3, including From Bard To Verse, in which a parade of actors and comics recite Shakespeare, and a bizarre sitcom called The Boosh with stand-ups Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. Nighty Night, a comedy drama starring Julia Davis and Angus Deayton, and Paul and Pauline, the first series to star the eponymous Calf siblings, will air on BBC3 and BBC2. They are also working on a sketch show with Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer, and developing projects for Radio 4. Normal has nothing but praise for BBC3. "It gets knocked just like Channel Five did three or four years ago, but it's doing something different." So why the bad press, then? "They shouldn't have done Dom Joly. Full stop."

"No comment," says Coogan, puffing his cheeks out. Inevitably, the shadow of Partridge looms large over the Baby Cow offices. Even on the sixth floor. But last year's second series didn't have the impact of the first, and suffered in comparison to Ricky Gervais's The Office which preceded it in the same BBC2 slot.

Some viewers also complained about an "intrusive" laughter track. Coogan is unrepentant. "It was recorded before a live audience and when an audience laughs that's the noise they make, right? The Office, brilliantly, did without it and we did debate it, but [I'm Alan Partridge] is a sitcom, simple as that.

"I thought The Office was genius, I am one of those people who go round saying did you see that bit in The Office and act it out in front of them. I believe Ricky Gervais did the same with Partridge ... No, I have nothing to support that whatsoever." Partridge may return - albeit in a one-off - but their Baby Cow commitments mean that Coogan and Normal will spend more time overseeing other people's scripts than writing their own.

"There is a pattern and a formula you become familiar with over the years, through trial and error and bitter experience, that tells you what will work," says Coogan. "It's like music," interjects Normal, striking up the double act again. "There are rhythms you know if you do it in a certain way, you will get the laugh."

"I always think a good tune is a melody you didn't know you wanted to hear," returns Coogan. "You seduce people with a little bit of the familiar and then you knock them over the head with a big comedy mallet."

Following the success of 24 Hour Party People, which Normal executive produced, Coogan will star opposite Jackie Chan ("I prefer to think of Jackie Chan starring opposite me") in a big budget Hollywood version of Around the World in 80 Days. He will also appear in the title role of Pepys, a lavish costume drama for the BBC. But if he is having a problem balancing his commitments, Coogan's not showing it. "I just did a $120m big family adventure film which does exactly what it says on the packet. But I balanced that by doing a Jim Jarmusch film [Coffee and Cigarettes] in New York. So I'll keep the trendies off my back and bring home the bacon."

"Back of the net!" as Partridge would say.

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