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Steve Coogan on 23 years of Alan Partridge

Steve Coogan has been playing Alan Partridge, his vain, tasteless British radio host, for 23 years.

Initially born on British radio as a sports commentator who didn’t know anything about sports, Partridge has for more than two decades been a bumbling show-business failure and a parody of media haplessness. His afflictions are well known (anything ego-inflating, a Toblerone candy bar addiction), as is his steady fall from a TV talk show to local radio in Norwich.

In Alan Partridge, in US theatres on Friday after its release last year in the UK, Coogan’s unparalleled comic creation makes his big screen debut after years of TV series, specials, a stage show, a web series and a memoir. In the film, where a fired colleague takes his radio station hostage, Partridge (when not introducing Fleetwood Mac as “soft-rock cocaine enthusiasts”) effectively hosts the siege, performing for news cameras and onlookers.

It’s a return to Coogan’s roots just as he’s growing in a new direction spawned by the Oscar-nominated Philomena. He co-wrote, produced and starred in the Catholic drama alongside Judi Dench, showcasing a far subtler kind of performance. Though Coogan later this year stars in The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom’s sequel to the adored, impressions-heavy The Trip, the 48-year-old says he wants to expand from being “a comedy guy” as he gets older.

But, he says in a recent interview, “I’ll never neglect Alan.”

Was it jarring to go straight from making Philomena to shooting Alan Partridge?

In some ways, it was good to readjust to people judging it on laughs-per-page and any subtext is going to be a nice bonus. But the priorities are very, very clear. Philomena, it’s all about nuance and you can have laughter here and you have to move people and carry them on this journey. This is more simple, but it’s more brutal.

To have played Partridge for this long, he must be some kind of outlet for you.

Alan became more and more refined as sort of a dysfunctional alter ego. Definitely, it’s a way of me exercising my frustrations by putting them into the character. In sort of an inverted way, I’ll have him say stuff which is me raging against the stupidity of the media. I just shove it all into him, and that gets it off my chest. But ultimately, you have to have empathy. It can’t just be a freak show. Which it sort of was, early on. It was very much mocking the fool. The reason I think people like it is: Everyone feels they’re only one step away from being Alan.

With me, I’m very comfortable with it. There’s a natural human instinct to say, “I’m not like that. I don’t have imperfections. If you criticise me, I will defend everything.” Counterintuitively, the reverse is true. If you acknowledge, “I’m not perfect. Sometimes I get things wrong. Sometimes the things I think are wrong.” Once you do that, it’s liberating. So Alan is close to me. And it’s OK.

In your testimony in the phone-hacking scandal involving the News of the World (among others, Coogan has been a vocal critic of British tabloids, which he says have reported unethically about his personal life), you called one editor “Partridgesque”. It’s an interesting intersection of your media parody and real life.

It is true Alan represents, in some ways, that kind of lazy thinking. He does represent what we call the Little Englander. What Napoleon described as “Your nation of shopkeepers.” That sort of myopic, slightly philistine mentality, which is what historically differentiated the British from our European cousins. Germans, the French and especially the Italians were slightly more aware of high art than the British who are a bit more meat and potatoes. Alan is the apotheosis of that. It’s that idea of being on the wrong side of cool.

Partridge is enormously popular in Britain but a very cult thing in America. What are your expectations for the film in the US?

I don’t think it’s going to break any box-office records, but I want it to not disappoint those people who already know who he is. I hope it’s on the radar of people. I don’t know how it’s going to go down in Kansas. But I don’t mind about that. I’d rather do something that stays true to its roots than water down the DNA of the character to appeal to Americans.

You seem content, generally.

I’ve sort of arrived where I want to be. I want to produce more movies. I like doing comedy but Philomena was a real epiphany for me because I found I could do what I wanted to do, which is dovetailing both aspects of my personality — which is to talk about important things but not in a way which is tedious… This sounds terrible, but I want to be the school teacher that everyone thought was great fun because he made learning fun. That sounds horrific.