There was a time during the mid to late 90s that Steve Coogan was almost unanimously regarded as Britain’s best comedian. He came from a strong troupe of comics, first coming to the public’s attention via the cult Radio 4 satirical series On The Hour – that also launched the careers of the likes of master satirists Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci as well as Jerry Springer: The Opera writer Stuart Lee and his erstwhile comedy partner Richard Herring. First broadcast in 1991-2, it was On The Hour that saw the first appearance of the comedy character with whom Coogan will forever be associated – the Terry Wogan-inspired presenter Alan Partridge.
Alan having been given his own radio show in 1992, he returned as a character on the Morris/Iannucci TV news spoof The Day Today in 1994, which swiftly secured its reputation as a modern classic. Coogan’s second comedy character to make it to television after the alcoholic Mancunian Paul Calf, the rising comic was now considered good enough for TV bosses to first give him his own sketch show (1995’s Coogan’s Run), swiftly followed by a programme based entirely around the Alan Partidge character. Knowing Me, Knowing You… with Alan Partridge first aired in September 1995 and went on to become a huge hit, with Coogan becoming one of the most famous comedians in the land.
Ever since, Coogan has given the impression of wanting to move away from a character who is, after all, a dull and boring middle-aged man. As early as 1996 he tried to launch a new comic character – complete with a huge media blitz – but sex-mad Portugese pop star Tony Ferrino was a flop, and Coogan returned to Partridge the next year. After a failed movie outing with 2001’s The Parole Officer was followed by the critically panned TV spoof horror series Doctor Terrible’s House of Horrible the same year, Coogan again returned to Partridge in 2002.
Yet although there is another return to Partridge in the works – with a movie featuring the character in development – this shouldn’t be taken as a sign that Coogan is again disappointed with his career. Even if his starring role – alongside Jackie Chan, no less – in 2004’s Around the World in 80 Days may have flopped, he was much praised for his turn in 2002’s 24-Hour Party People, and has gained cinematic kudos through parts in the arty likes of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes and Sophia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. His self-deprecating turn as a parody version of himself in 2005’s superb A Cock and Bull Story – constantly moaning that no one remembers him for anything other than Alan Partridge while acting more and more like his most famous character – likewise seems to show that he’s finally put his demons to rest.
In the process, he’s picked up a growing reputation in the US, with Ben Stiller seemingly a particular fan, having cast him both in Night at the Museum and the recent hit Tropic Thunder. Stiller also championed Ricky Gervais – and look how successful he is now. So while this tale of a drama teacher’s attempts to stage a musical sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play may not be Coogan’s first starring movie role, it is the first with any hope of being a real success on the other side of the pond. Now that Gervais has broken America – along with the likes of Eddie Izzard and Russell Brand – British comedy is cool again, and Coogan looks all set to cash in.