Alan Partridge, in the words of Steve Coogan.
After thirteen long years, the one and the only Alan Partridge is back on our live stages with shows at Birmingham’s Utilita Arena from 27th-29th April. Not that Norfolk’s beloved son has been idle in the interviewing years. Far from it. There have been published memoirs (the first of which was I Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan), a film (Alpha Papa), a web series (Mid Morning Matters), documentaries (such as his caustic look at the state of Britain in Scissored Isle), a podcast (From The Oasthouse) and, in This Time With Alan Partridge, a new TV format for him to gingerly navigate, always skating on the thinnest of ices with his guests and co-presenter.
But now Alan is back doing it all live with a brand new stage show entitled Stratagem. Like Oasthouse and Scissored, it’s a word that feels like it could be made up, but if real, it’s certainly lesser spotted. “I like words that feel and sound slightly different,” says Steve Coogan, the man who has inhabited Alan’s skin for over thirty years since his radio debut in On The Hour. “It’s interesting how the choice of words can make something funny or not funny especially in Alan’s world. We were just sitting around discussing what we should call the show and someone said ‘Stratagem’. It sounded slightly affected and pretentious so we wrote the word down. We knew the show would be some kind of a public address which would then give us enough leeway to chuck in other stuff.”
Coogan describes the live show as a cross between a Ted Talk and West Side Story (“there will be singing and dancing to keep people entertained but there will also be a heavyweight element to it”) promising that each stage on the tour will be riddled with a whole heap of metaphorical mines which could explode at any second under the weight of Alan’s inappropriate musings or clumsy turns of phrase.
“Alan will be trying to impart his accumulated wisdom and put it into some form that has cogency, so that he can ‘help’ other people. It’s an all-encompassing, almost cripplingly broad attempt to cover all potential personal problems that people might have in processing the modern world, so Alan helps people navigate the rocky waters of gender, equality, diversity, sexual identity. Whatever the most precarious and dangerous landscapes that are out there, we’ll put Alan’s walking bits on and let him stomp all over them.”
The use of screens will be important to the show, with graphics being displayed while, without giving too much away, Alan will conduct interviews with some old friends. Having last toured as the DJ and presenter in 2008 (a whole decade after his last touring affair), Coogan will need a moment to get himself fully embedded in the Partridge zone. “It’s about getting back in the saddle. I like writing drama and doing different things but I just need to remind myself that I can do this. There’s enough great stuff written for the show that I can’t wait for people to see, and once it gets up on its feet it’ll be good. I know it’s good, because we all laughed at it.”
The ‘we’ is largely Rob and Neil Gibbons, the twin brothers who have been part of the Partridge writing team since 2010, and who most recently had their own comedy series, The Witchfinder, air on BBC Two. It’s fair to say that the arrival of these siblings onto Team Alan may have prolonged the character’s shelf-life. Feeling in a little bit of a funk after his original writing team of Armando Iannucci, Peter Baynham and Patrick Marber headed off in different directions onto other projects, leaving Coogan to sit alone with Partridge.
“They all changed my life and as the years have gone by I realise how pivotal those meetings were; they had faith in me when not many people did, and working with them was literally an education. So they went off and did their thing but the curse for me was that I was Alan Partridge. They could go off and find another booming voice but in this I was the booming voice. Neil and Rob who worked for Baby Cow [the production company Coogan set up in 1999 alongside Henry Normal] submitted some material for Partridge and I thought they were amazing; they totally got it and could give it a different spin. I remember thinking that I would never have to pester Armando and Peter ever again because these guys will do it all.”
It could be argued that Steve Coogan is a man who has, latterly in his career, done it all. While comedy may be the first thing people think of when it comes to him (whether that’s Partridge or The Parole Officer or his cameo as a terrible therapist called Dr Bright in Curb Your Enthusiasm or playing a version of himself in The Trip alongside Rob Brydon), serious drama has become an integral part of the overall Coogan package. It started with 2013’s award-winning Philomena, an all-true odd-couple story of one woman’s half-century search for her toddler son who she gave up for adoption and the journalist who helped her (Coogan here playing Martin Sixsmith in the film he co-wrote).
Then there was his role in ITV’s three-parter last year about Stephen Lawrence as DCI Clive Driscoll who reopens the case of the murdered Black teenager almost two decades after his death. And then there’s Stan & Ollie, a pitch-perfect film about the most famous comedic duo of the 20th-century (Coogan as Stan, John C Reilly as Ollie), which laid bare their own bittersweet relationship. Now he’s appearing in Chivalry, a MeToo drama for Channel 4 alongside Sarah Solemani, and The Reckoning for the BBC, in which Coogan plays notorious sexual predator Jimmy Savile.
For Coogan, even in the darkest corners, some chink of levity can still be found. “In all of the drama I do, I’ll deploy comedy; it’s more interesting to me as a tool in your toolbox than just an end in itself. With Partridge, you still have to be saying something at the same time as making people laugh, though a stupid joke is always welcome. When I come back to Partridge, it’s like a warm bath. I’ve got to a place now where I’m really comfortable with it; I don’t have to do it, I choose to do it. And that way, it will always be enjoyable. If the moment comes when I’m doing it because I have nothing else worth doing, that’s when you’re in trouble.”
It may be thirteen years since Coogan has toured an Alan Partridge show (his last gig was in New Zealand in 2009) but he has a precise sense of what he is most looking forward to on the road this summer as well as a prospect he is definitely not relishing. “What am I dreading? Well, there’s a feeling I’ll get in the mid-afternoon, a slightly sick feeling in the pit of your stomach which disappears as soon as you’re on the stage. But that bit of anxiety is not avoidable; in fact it’s a necessary part of it. On the upside, there’s that feeling of relief and elation and camaraderie that you have with the team when a show goes well. I’m also looking forward to connecting with an audience. Despite covid and now the war which is depressing and tragic, people will always want to laugh. This form of interaction is as old as the hills. Social media is quite new, but standing on stage and entertaining people is very simple and pure. I’m craving that.”
Tickets for the Alan Partridge live tour are available at alanpartridgelive.com.