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Sunshine

SunshineSunshine, BBC1's new comedy drama starring Steve Coogan, is set in Manchester. And a Manchester-based series entitled Sunshine can mean only one thing: incessant rain.

Thus it is high summer, and the entire cast and crew are sheltering in caravans at the unit base beside a graveyard in suburban Manchester as it tips down outside. "This is our punishment for calling this series Sunshine," co-writer and actor Phil Mealey says wryly. "Next time we'll call it It's Pouring Down, and then it'll be sunny all the time."

Steve Coogan stars with Bernard Hill in Sunshine
"At least you know you're up north," says the show's other writer Craig Cash – best-known for co-creating BBC1's The Royle Family. "I think we should call our next series Don't Forget Your Thermals."

Yet, in spite of the weather, the show is far from a damp squib. In fact, Sunshine is a warm melange of the touching and the funny. A three-parter, which also features Lord of the Rings star Bernard Hill, it centres on "Bing" Crosby (Coogan), a loveable if feckless Manchester binman whose happy-go-lucky demeanour conceals a dark secret: he's hooked on gambling. As his addiction cartwheels out of control and he steals the money that his wife has been saving for a dream holiday to Disneyland, his whole family threatens to implode.

Bing's colleagues mock him about his many creditors. "I hope they don't all meet up one day," says one of them, Bob (played by Cash). "You'll have more people chasing you down the road than Benny Hill." Cue a mass chorus of the Benny Hill theme tune inside the bin lorry. The scene sums up the bittersweet tone of the whole piece: it's simultaneously serious and silly.

Coogan is said to dislike publicity. But as we chat while he waits in his trailer for the rain to halt (so that he can film a scene in which Bing turns up late to watch his son play football), he's open and friendly. Thankfully he doesn't at all come across like his most famous alter ego: the excruciating, deluded chat show host Alan Partridge.

Going over to the breakfast bar – it's a very Partridge kind of caravan – Coogan asks, "Shall I be mother?" as he brews us a pot of coffee. Raised in Middleton, the 42-year-old is Mancunian to the bone – which he needed to be, in order to create one of his most popular comedy characters, the student-hating "Manc", Paul Calf.

Coogan begins by stressing that after a long period in Hollywood (during which he has made films such as the new Ben Stiller comedy Tropic Thunder and Disney's Around the World in 80 Days), he was itching to come home. "I feel a really strong emotional bond with this city," he says. "I wanted to do something connected to where I'm from. I also have a long history with Craig [Cash]. During my early years in the business, he had a radio show in Stockport, and he'd ask me, ‘Would you come over and do your funny voices for nothing?' That was 17 years ago, and we've been friends ever since. He has this classic, eloquent Northern brevity. He can express so much with just a few pithy words."

Coogan, who is currently touring the country as Partridge, says he immediately felt as if he had grown up with Bing.

"I understood exactly where Bing was coming from – my grandfather used to work on the bins," he says. "We're still a class-obsessed country, and I share with Bing the curse of being lower middle-class. That's when you know enough to know what you don't know."

As its title indicates, Sunshine goes against the recent trend for comedy to be dark and sarcastic. This is not a sneer-com; indeed, it is defiantly un-cynical. "We avoid cynicism because we write about the world we want to live in and not the world that we do live in," explains Phil Mealey. "Sunshine celebrates all the great qualities about people: community, family, love. It may not be fashionable, but there's no shame in that."

Mealey has worked with Cash before, on the BBC2 sitcom Early Doors and on The Royle Family's Bafta-winning 2006 Christmas special, subtitled The Queen of Sheba, which revolved around the death of Liz Smith's character, Nana. The pair are working with their friend Caroline Aherne on another Royle Family special, to be shown this Christmas. This one will be different, Cash assures us.

"We have one golden rule: it has to be out-and-out funny, there must be no pathos whatsoever," he says. "In our local pub, they put up a big screen for The Queen of Sheba, and the landlord complained to me that he had sold no beers because all the punters were in tears. We've done heavy, so this time let's have fun from start to finish. I'm sure the landlord will be pleased – his customers won't all be jumping into the canal like they were last time."

In the meantime, the makers of Sunshine are hopeful that it will be recommissoned. The question is whether they could lure Coogan back for a second run.

"Every time we do a series, our stars jet off to Hollywood," says Cash in a mock-strop. "After the first series of Early Doors, James McAvoy went off to make movies in LA with Angelina Jolie. They don't want rainy Manchester any more. Hollywood or Moss Side in a downpour? It's not exactly a chin-scratcher, is it?"





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