Man with the plan

Times are tough but luckily Alan Partridge is here to help with his new motivational stage show. And no, his plan doesn’t involve driving to Dundee in your bare feet

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We’re living in challenging times. First there was Covid, then fighting in Ukraine. Now we’re battling a crippling cost of living crisis and Piers Morgan’s back on the telly. If only there was someone who could guide us through this modern-day nightmare and into a brighter future – a person with the expertise of someone who not only successfully bounced back but managed to stay vocal in mainstream media for over three decades.

That man is, of course, Alan Partridge, the cringe-king alter ego of comedian, writer and multi-hyphenate Steve Coogan, the Manchester-born star who helped define 1990s Brit comedy by giving us one of our most treasured comic creations before taking on Hollywood.

In his new stage show Stratagem, the 56 year old once again summons the tactless TV host to help untangle the varied complexities of life in a faux TED Talk that claims to be, in Partridge’s words, “a roadmap to a better tomorrow”.

“It’s going really well,” says Coogan, speaking to us three shows into a  22-date UK tour. “While people have been listening to funny podcasts and watching YouTube clips, Covid has meant that being in a room together all laughing at the same time hasn’t happened for a long time so it feels quite cathartic, both for me but also for audiences.

“Especially with the war in Ukraine and all the horrible things happening in the world, it’s nice to know we can all still laugh at things. The more I do this – and I’ve been doing it for a long time – the more I appreciate that laughing isn’t just a trivial thing. It’s important therapy.”

“The more I do this the more I appreciate that laughing isn’t just a trivial thing.”

Born in Middleton in 1965, Coogan parlayed a passion for impressions into a thriving comedy career, appearing regularly on the 1980s puppet satire Spitting Image and stages across his native Manchester and beyond. Together with fellow local comics John Thomson and Caroline Aherne, Coogan quickly made a name for himself by crafting characters like Manc-slob parodies Paul and Pauline Calf but it was a collaboration with Brass Eye satirist  Chris Morris and producer Armando Iannucci on radio comedy On The Hour that birthed his most popular creation.

Starting life as a poor taste commentator with a unique skill for saying exactly the wrong thing at precisely the right time, Partridge has garnered a resume almost as long as Coogan’s. Cult hits like 1994’s Knowing Me, Knowing You with writers Iannucci and Patrick Marber, and two series of I’m Alan Partridge in 1997 and 2002 with Iannucci and Peter Baynham swiftly followed, shaping the comedic sensibilities of a generation of fans in  the process.

Temporarily putting the character aside while its writers pursued their own careers, Coogan focused on a string of big and small screen projects that eventually led to 2013’s Bafta-winning and Oscar-nominated drama Philomena, 2018’s critically acclaimed Laurel and Hardy story Stan & Ollie and 2019’s takedown  of the mega-rich, Greed.

Coogan as Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People

In between, he starred alongside comedian Rob Brydon in three helpings of The Trip, while a creative collaboration with sibling writers Neil and Rob Gibbons breathed new life into Partridge, resulting in movie outing Alpha Papa, BBC magazine-show spoof This Time and popular podcast series The Oast House. But for his next big outing, the newly-formed Partridge brain trust had something bigger in mind.

“It felt like a perfect storm of things,” says Coogan of his decision to take Partridge on his first tour since 2008. “One is that we never do Partridge unless we want to because the best way to write comedy is if you enjoy it and it makes you laugh. I say ‘we’ as in the ‘royal we’, which is me and my writers Rob and Neil. That’s the triangle that powers the character at the moment. We’ve done all this stuff on TV and radio and thought ‘let’s have Alan in a live space again’ because it felt like a long time since  I’ve done a live thing.”

For Coogan, Stratagem also provides a key moment to touch base with the public after a few years confined to screens. “Sometimes you feel a disconnect,” he says. “Having an unfiltered line of communication between yourself and an audience is sweet and enjoyable. It’s also unambiguous. They either laugh or they don’t and that’s what I like about it.”

As writers, the Gibbons are skilled at finding the hilarity in the mundane specificity of Partridge’s world and alongside Coogan they’ve given the character new depth – one that’s been mined in spoof memoirs co-written by the trio. But with outrage culture, identity politics, government scandals and TikTok, is it harder or easier to write a ridiculous character in an increasingly ridiculous world?

“I’d say both,” replies Coogan. “On the one hand there’s a certain censoriousness these days. In the old days it used to come from the right but these days it tends to come more from people I associate with, which is people from the left side of politics. There’s lots of good reasons for it but it’s not altogether entirely healthy and sometimes things are done for good reasons but they aren’t always entirely right. There needs to be more nuance in how we have these discussions but strangely, comedy is still one of those spaces where, if you do it properly, you can still do things.”

Does this cultural red tape affect the creation of the Alan-verse? Coogan’s quick to confirm the opposite.

“He sort of feels like a real person now and almost has a life of his own, like Pinocchio when he loses his strings,” he laughs. “You summon him up and then he does it for you and as long as there’s a changing world – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – there’s always something new to say.”

Of course, Coogan’s character is no stranger to navigating timely topics – like the #MeToo movement, which features in episodes of the BBC’s recent Partridge vehicle This Time. It’s also a tightrope Coogan himself deftly walked in Chivalry, the new Channel 4 comedy-drama  co-written with his Greed co-star  Sarah Solemani, in which he plays a  film producer forced to navigate a  super-woke director, played pitch-perfectly by Solemani.

“You need to play with fire in a way,” asserts Coogan, discussing his attraction to comedy’s sensitive bits. “You need to walk over the hot coals of subject matter that people find difficult and if they laugh at them, you get a free pass – but yes, it is challenging. There are all sorts of new protocols emerging and things we’re not supposed to say but in actual fact, people find it more enjoyable in some ways because it’s almost a relief. People think ‘Oh, thank Christ I’m allowed to laugh at something’, so it actually works in the reverse.” That said, the actor’s quick to remind us that this technique only works if comics adhere to what he calls “good governance”. He says: “I don’t like to pick on people who are disenfranchised or marginalised, I like to pick on people who have money. People in power who regard themselves as unassailable – those are the targets that good comedy should take on.”

With that as your mantra, anyone’s open game. “You can laugh and make comedy about any subject. It’s all to do with what the intention around it is and what your motivation is. Is it to challenge small-minded thinking or reinforce it?  It should always be to challenge the way we think.”

As for whether he’s concerned about actually putting his foot in his mouth one day, Partridge-style: “Does cancel culture make me worried? No. I think with all of these movements you can end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater if things are not considered. Unfortunately because of social media, arguments often descend into acrimony and attrition where you have to choose a side – and that’s never good for democracy and very bad for art because all good art is about the grey areas: nuance, paradox, contradiction, internal and moral conflict. That’s where you find the best drama and the best comedy. When our ideals don’t match our actions, it’s called being a human being.”

These are topics he’ll no doubt have to revisit when promoting The Reckoning, his upcoming two-part series in which he plays disgraced radio host and sexual predator Jimmy Savile. Although little is known about the project, it has been revealed that survivors of Savile’s horrific crimes were consulted and reportedly even present on set during the show’s shoot, which brought Coogan back to the city where his career started, albeit one that now looks very different.

“When we made 24 Hour Party People, the Northern Quarter was still basically empty, derelict factories and warehouses and now it’s transformed,” he says, comparing his recent Manchester  shoot with his time spent filming  Michael Winterbottom’s 2002 film, in which he played Factory Records icon Tony Wilson.

“I got out of the taxi, looked around and didn’t know where I was. There were so many new buildings, I was completely disoriented and my head was spinning.  I was thinking: ‘What the hell’s going on? I grew up here, why don’t I know where I am?’”

But although his surroundings had changed, Coogan was glad to see that the city’s hardy spirit had remained intact. “Manchester has modernised and retained its Northernness, which is important. I like the fact we still celebrate our rich industrial, creative and artistic cultural heritage.”

Stratagem tour dates include M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool, 11 May; AO Arena, Manchester, 13&14 May; Bonus Arena, Hull, 15 May; Opera House, Blackpool, 17 May; and First Direct Arena, Leeds, 28&29 May (

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