Coogan can't get enough of Norfolk
PUBLISHED: 10:15 27 June 2006 | UPDATED: 15:43 22 October 2010
As creator of Norfolk’s most infamous fictional resident he may not have done much for its image, but Steve Coogan has grown to love the county he once sent up so memorably. He tells JON WELCH why he picked on Norfolk, why the county holds such happy memories and why he looks forward to returning on Tuesday, with Rob Brydon, for a screening of new film A Cock And and Story, at Felbrigg Hall on Tuesday.
As Alan Partridge, he gave Norwich and Norfolk the kind of TV exposure they had not experienced since the heyday of Sale of the Century. In choosing Norwich as the hometown for his tragically crass broadcaster, Steve Coogan and his colleagues put the city alongside Basil Fawlty's Torquay and Hancock's East Cheam on the comedy map.
Next week Coogan, 40, returns to his best-known character's home county, this time for a special outdoor screening of A Cock and Bull Story, the BAFTA-nominated movie in which he starred alongside his friend Rob Brydon.
He and Brydon will be at Felbrigg Hall, the 18th century National Trust mansion near Cromer, one of the locations used in the movie, for the screening to launch the 26th Cambridge Film Festival.
Coogan spent seven weeks in Norfolk during filming and has fond memories. “It's just a wonderful, wonderful part of the world and a real revelation to me,” he says.
“We rented cottages, went to a village pub and it was bloody great - just a lovely place. I loved it. I want to holiday there.”
Before shooting the film, Coogan's time in Norfolk had been limited to brief trips, filming scenes for various shows as Partridge.
“I was completely unfamiliar with Norfolk, despite the fact that I made Alan Partridge live in Norwich,” says the Manchester-born comedian and actor.
“I know the North, but I don't know the East. Filming A Cock and Bull Story was a real eye-opener because it doesn't feel like any other county in Britain.
“Yorkshire and Lancashire are similar and Devon and Cornwall have similarities because they're adjacent, but Norfolk I think is very peculiar: it's out on its own, it has a unique quality.
“Geographically and topographically, it's flat. People talk about the big skies and I never really knew what they meant, but every morning I'd get up and go to set at 6am and there would be this fantastic sunrise.”
Something else grabbed him about Norfolk. “In the North, most of the trees have been chopped down in the 18th century for sheep grazing, but Norfolk has fantastic, magnificent deciduous trees.
“When I watch the film now it's like looking at a holiday photo album. In a good film, the location is like another character and in A Cock and Bull Story, Norfolk is one of the characters in the film.”
Coogan's admission that he had not spent much time in Norfolk comes as a surprise, given Partridge's frequent references to Norfolk places and some of the uncannily accurate observations about county life. Having never been here, how did he settle on Norwich as Partridge's home town? “When we were writing Alan Partridge we looked at a map of Britain for somewhere that looked slightly isolated,” he explains.
“It's somewhere people don't pass through; it's out on a limb. It's the rump of Britain, as it were, if I can say that in a polite way. We thought, 'That would be interesting. That's a place we've not thought about - let's have him come from there.'
“When you write comedy you're trying not to use places that have been used before, and Norfolk - Norwich, certainly - hadn't been used before. The North has been used, and Milton Keynes for many years was the butt of a lot of jokes, so you want to avoid those places that have been well trodden.
“Norfolk was, if you like, ripe for the picking.”
Did Coogan and fellow writers Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci research Norfolk at all? “We sometimes made reference to satellite towns around Norwich, but no, we didn't.
“It was just an idiosyncracy for Alan Partridge: it wasn't like we had some kind of beef with Norwich or Norfolk at all. When I was shooting A Cock and Bull Story one guy came up to me and said, 'Your accent for Alan Partridge is not a Norfolk accent' - he was having a bit of a go at me - and he was right, he was spot on. It's not a Norfolk accent.
“You cheat in comedy: Alan Partridge has a southern accent, and I'm a northerner, so there's a lot of flat vowels in there which are not Norfolk accent at all.”
A gifted mimic and former Spitting Image impressionist, Coogan surely could have had a good stab at a Norfolk accent? “I could have done, but it wasn't about that,” he says.
“Slightly flat northern vowels with a southern accent seemed to serve the comedy. It wasn't about satirising Norfolk. Norwich is not a cosmopolitan centre in the same way London is - and there are other towns like that, and we could have chosen other places to situate Alan - but it was interesting and unusual.”
Coogan also scotched speculation that Partridge was modelled on any particular broadcaster, even though Radio Norfolk's Wally Webb was once rumoured to be the inspiration.
“It was not based on anyone. It was an amalgam,” he says.
“You infuse a character: it's a recipe, you throw different things in - you need more than flour to make a cake. It's not that it's secretly based on this person or that person.
“I think most sports presenters are slightly naff in a way that Alan is, so take your pick. It was never based on an individual.
“There are lots of presenters you spot - Richard Madeley often does Partridgesque things - but no one can claim exclusivity on the naffness. I think the crassness of Alan Partridge as a presenter is an illness that's quite contagious and lots of radio and television presenters suffer from it - a kind of verbal diarrhoea.”
For the moment, though, Alan Partridge is on hold. Coogan is keener to talk about his latest series, Saxondale, currently showing on Mondays on BBC2.
Coogan plays Tom Saxondale, a former roadie turned pest controller with anger management issues. “He is based on about four people I know, all mixed up together, with a bit of me thrown in as well,” he explains.
“Just basically 50-something guys into their rock music: can tell you who played on this album, that album; aren't really into modern DJ culture; they're still sort of trapped in the 70s in terms of rock music and they can't really relate to the modern world.
“I thought there was a lot of men like that: baby boomers who are ageing and having difficulty relating to the world.”
Coogan says it was important for him to develop a new character. “Years ago I did these other characters called Paul and Pauline Calf, before I did Alan Partridge. People would say 'Oh, do more Paul and Pauline' and I'd say 'I'm working on this radio presenter'. 'why are you doing that? That's a waste of time. Concentrate on Paul and Pauline Calf.'
“You have to have faith in it, and I did that and it worked out. So now I'm in a situation where people say 'Do more Alan Partridge!' and I say 'No, I'm working on this new guy' and I'm hoping in 12 months' time people will appreciate the new character and it'll just be seen as a smorgasbord of characters.” He's very pleased with both character and the show. “The series is something where you don't get the instant hit you did from Alan, because I think the comedy's more sophisticated and the character's more real. You have to invest in it a bit more: you have to stay with it, because there's a lot more pathos and sadness as well as the comedy.
“I think the series as a whole will have a cumulatively positive effect, and I'm hoping people see it that way. If you just try and take one episode in isolation it's not quite as immediate as Alan.
“The one thing I'm very pleased about and works very well is that Alan Partridge was always the butt of the joke. Alan was never genuinely witty, but this character is quite clever and very funny, but he's also the butt of the joke in the same way that Alan was.”
A Cock and Bull Story was Coogan's fourth movie: he'd previously appeared in The Parole Officer, 24 Hour Party People and Around the World in 80 Days.
“My film career's been a bit of a curate's egg, to be honest,” he says. “Some things I've done I think are very good, some not so good. Generally, I'm quite happy: I think I've done some very interesting work, I've been very privileged to work with some amazing directors.
“Television is what I grew up with, what I love and good comedy on television is fantastic. I was a telly generation person, grew up in the 1970s - so all that sort of stuff matters to me. I have a certain empathy with making comedy for the BBC because it still has a romantic appeal for me, believe it or not.”
Coogan's future plans include some live dates: he rates his sell-out 1998 UK tour, culminating in a ten-week stint at The Lyceum in the West End, as the highlight of his career to date.
As for his best-known character, Coogan says: “There will be maybe an Alan TV special, or maybe an Alan movie. Certainly Alan will return in some way at some point, but will there be another Alan Partridge television series? No.”
COCK AND BULL AT FELBRIGG
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, stars of A Cock and Bull Story, will be reunited on Tuesday July 4 at a special open-air screening at Felbrigg Hall, one of the locations used in the movie.
The film is based on Laurence Sterne's “unfilmable” 18th century novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, and has been described by The Guardian as “The best film ever, ever, ever”.
The event is organised by The Cambridge Film Festival, in association with Screen East, The National Trust and Revolution Films, the production company that made the film, headed by award-winning director Michael Winterbottom and his producing partner Andrew Eaton. Drinks will be served in the Walled Garden from 7.30pm, with the film to commence after dusk.
Winterbottom said: “We had a lot of laughs filming at Felbrigg, one of our favourite ever locations.
“The open air screening is a great chance to meet up with all our friends who worked on the film and remind ourselves of happy days. All this with the help of film festival director Tony Jones and his team.”
Tickets for the screening are £10 each (including a glass of Pimm's) and are available from The Cambridge Film Festival box office on 08707 551 242.
t The EDP has a pair of tickets to give away to the event, courtesy of Revolution Films, as well as five runners-up prizes of A Cock and Bull Story DVDs and special posters for the screening, signed by Michael Winterbottom. To enter the competition, simply answer the following question: who wrote the novel on which A Cock and Bull Story is based?
Send your answer either by email to email@example.com, or on a postcard to A Cock and Bull Story Competition, Features Desk, EDP, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich NR1 1RE to arrive by 11am on Friday, June 30. Please include a full postal address and daytime telephone number. Normal Archant competition rules apply.
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