Parole Officer, The : Interview With Steve Coogan

He nervously stubs out a cigarette in the crystal ashtray in front of him. The labels on his faded dark jeans and mid-grey T-shirt are possibly designer ones, but the whole effect is of a "who gives a sod?" attitude to clothing - crumpled and not particularly very well ironed.

This is Mr Steve Coogan, millionaire, writer, performer, comic genius. TV and radio star, acclaimed by millions, and now featuring above the title in his movie Parole Officer, the (2001). He wrote it with his old mate Henry Normal, the writing talent (with Caroline Aherne) behind BBC TV's "The Royle Family".

Parole Officer, the (2001) is all about. .. well, a parole officer, called Simon Garden. Typically for a Coogan creation, he's socially inept, and totally useless at his job. His success rate is dismal - out of a thousand clients, Simon has actually convinced three to eschew a life of crime and to stick to the straight and narrow.

Moved - ignominiously - from Blackpool to a new job in Manchester, he witnesses a murder, is framed, and has to organise a bank heist in order to establish his own innocence. Who does he ask to join him in this dodgy enterprise? None other than the trio that he spent months persuading to steer clear of crime.

Parole Officer, the (2001) was shot, almost entirely, in Manchester - so it is not a movie that is filled with sun-dappled scenes or bright lighting. Coogan's co-stars are Lena Headey, comic Ben Miller (of Miller and Armstrong fame) and Steve Waddington.

Coogan was, in fact, born and raised in Manchester, one of six children - and his generous mum and dad also used to foster other youngsters. His parents have an Irish background, and are devout Catholics.

"We were always performing at home when I was a kid," he recalls. "I was always being asked to impersonate someone that we all knew - 'Do Aunty so-and-so'. I'd ring up friends and pretend to be someone else. .. .that sort of thing. We were a big family, that's for sure, but we weren't at all touchy-feely or tactile. It was more that we were always taking the mick out of each other, vying for attention and finding out who could yell the loudest. It was all done with a lot of affection, but it was very noisy, I'll give you that".

Coogan is not known for revealing that much about his private life. The occasional nuggets of information get dropped in here and there. He trained as an actor at Manchester Polytechnic School of Theatre, and started out on the stand-up comedy circuit while still at college - just to be able to get his Equity card. Coogan's luck was in, because he was spotted by a television talent scout, and appeared on shows like "First Exposure", "A Word in Your Era" and "Paramount City".

Ironically, his best work came from two areas where he wasn't seen at all. He provided a selection of voices for the groundbreaking Spitting Image (including Mrs. Thatcher) and was involved with a BBC radio show called "On The Hour".

There, he created a character called Alan Partridge, a minor media personality with delusions of grandeur, but actually restricted by talents of mere adequacy. This character took off to such an extent that he was given his own radio slot, the spoof chat show "Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge", and both shows transferred to TV - with huge critical and audience acclaim. In the late nineties the hapless presenter found himself relegated to the graveyard shift on Radio Norwich for the sitcom "I'm Alan Partridge".

But this wasn't the limit of his creations - he also brought us Paul and Pauline Calf, the appalling travelling sales rep. Gareth Cheeseman, and the "singing sensation" cabaret star Tony Ferrino, a legend in his own dressing room.

Coogan never finds time to sit still. He won the coveted Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Festival in 1992, went on a sell-out tour of the UK in 1998, was named the Variety Club Showbusiness Personality of the Year in 1999, and managed, throughout the decade, to scoop up and armful of other major awards.

"I know what my strengths and weaknesses are" says Coogan, who seldom seems to break into anything remotely like a smile. "I'm not George Clooney, and I'm not Bruce Willis, and I'm certainly not Laurence Olivier. I've got a certain amount of comic skill, which is what I try to tap into.

My character in parole Officer, the (2001) is a sort of liberal, armchair politician who doesn't actually DO anything - then he's very suddenly thrust into a position where he has to act, to become very physical, and live out every thinking man's fantasy of becoming an action hero. That's something that I think a lot of men will empathise with"

No, he says, he didn't want to bring Alan Partridge to the big screen - although he reveals that he did think about it. "It was mooted, yes. And it would have been a darned sight easier than creating someone totally new.

"But I sat and wondered what I would really gain from doing that - I thought that it would be pretty ill-conceived, and that I'd achieve (personally) a lot more from bringing a new character to life."

"I had a vague discussion with Duncan (Kenworthy, the producer) after he'd made Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994), but that was about it. We both felt that any project had to include something new, so I worked, finally, for about four months getting the characters right, and getting to know each of then."

"Duncan certainly didn't have to twist my arm to do it. I find that as a writer I never hijack ALL the funny lines - I am forced to share them out. But I do get all the best ones - I'm generous, but I'm not stupid!"

"What you see on the screen is what was actually (mostly) in the script. .. .. there were one or two times when Ben wanted to tweak a sentence a bit, and because he's a very talented writer and performer in his own right, we listened to him, and some of his suggestions got in. You've got to do that. He was watching everything that was going on like a hawk, and now he's all fired up to make his own movie. Bloody good luck to him, too!"

"There were also a few scenes that I was very fond of that were cut totally from the finished movie. You get a bit peeved at the time when that happens, but then you trust your director (in this case, it's John Duigan) and you get over it."

And yes, he admits, there were test screenings to get the balance right. "You feel an awful lot of pain when you don't get the laughs", he says. "I needed a lot of guidance from John, but he made all the right decisions."

"It's now better and has more pace. John says that he'd surprised that more films don't get tested before they are released - I agree with him". He admits: "It was a very steep learning curve for me - for a start there's a lot more dialogue in a film than there is in a TV show. It's far more difficult and challenging making a movie than it is making a TV series."

There's one action sequence that is very reminiscent of a Bruce Willis action pic - where Steve and his companions "travel between two tall buildings on a thing strand of wire. Yup, that was me, I did it myself - nothing to report except a sense of exhilaration and some minor bruising".

"But what's a few bruises? Believe me, if you fall off a chair for a scene a few times, you can hurt ourself just as much - if you don't know how to do it properly. Oh, and that sequence on the huge roller coaster at Blackpool? That was me, too. That was far more scary, because heights and I don't agree that well. .. the shot involves Simon being very sick over some Brownies in the cars behind. The kids were wonderful, they were told that something nasty was going to happen, so that when it did, those reaction shots from then are NOT acting! And Simon's supposed to be scared of the thing, too - so that's not a lot of acting on my face either! "

"But I think that the hardest thing for me was actually that I wasn't hiding behind the full mask of a character like Ferrino, or Pauline Calf. I was a bit more myself in this film. And I wondered if I could sustain that for ninety minutes instead of the more usual (for me) half an hour."

"I'm quite good at annoying people if I go on and on without stopping, I think. I wanted to engage and to be likeable to the audience - and that's a lot more difficult than being an annoying prat I've. tried, with Simon, to pitch him at a certain controlled level of performance. There's always the temptation on a movie screen to play a role too big. " He grins: "it's not so inconclusive that I could have turned out to be something like him - not in Probation, maybe, but possible as a teacher. I wanted to write about someone I could have been. "

"There's certainly some sense in not over-saturating the media, I know that, so I am judicious about what and how much I do on screen. If I feel that something is worth doing, then I will, but I don't want to get to a point where the public are all moaning 'Oh gawd, it's him again!'. It's a balance between that, and trying to keep the profile at a good level".

He confesses that he used to pray "God, make me rich and famous and I promise that I will be nice to people". Well, he's not extremely rich and extremely famous, and yet sometimes Coogan can be a tad on the crusty side. Unless, of course, we're confusing a dry sense of humour with a slightly abrupt manner? Levity is not his manner, in the flesh. His wife divorced him, after a string of infidelities, and he didn't like the way that the press covered the story. All he said was "I'm not gay, put it that way. .. .. .. "

Now he sees his four-year-old daughter Clare, and mixes with the Soho House crowd in London - writer Patrick Marber, Henry Normal, Armando Iannucci and actress Chloe Sevigny. He gets back to Manchester (they nearly all live in Middleton) to see his family, and he has two homes, one in Archway in London, and a seaside retreat in Brighton, where his enjoyment is often taken on the pier. .. playing the slot machines.

Actually, he made another film in Manchester, almost back to back with Parole Officer, the (2001) "it's called 24 Hour party people (2001), and it's directed by Michael Winterbottom, and it's about as far away from my own movie as it is possible to be - I'm playing the real-life Tony Wilson, who founded Factory Records".

He describes himself as "a resting actor and a practising comic. I went to drama school, and did all the things that you're supposed to do as an actor, but that never really worked out. I went into comedy by accident because that's where the work was. But I always hoped that I'd be able to sidle my way back into acting. "

So - now what? "Well, it's back to the solitary world of writing again for me" he says somewhat ruefully. "I'm working on what will be the final series of I'm Alan Partridge, which will go out later this year, and I've just done a BBC2 thing called Dr. Terrible's House of Horrible, which they'll be putting out in September this year. As for the movies. .. well, I'm now waiting to see if I have a career. "

Author : FeatsPress