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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
Emma Loffhagen

Steve Coogan’s 10 greatest roles, from Tony Wilson to Alan Partridge

He’s the impressionist, actor, and all-round shapeshifting comic, whose seemingly endless array of zany characters have been entertaining us for more than three decades.

Over Steve Coogan’s illustrious career, his characters have largely tended towards the comedic. But this week will see the Lancashire actor pivot to a sphere far beyond anything he’s done before when he plays Jimmy Savile in the BBC’s drama The Reckoning. Since it was announced in 2020, the show has, predictably, been a lightning rod for criticism: some have said it is too soon and wrong to make entertainment of such a painful part of British history, others believe it can help to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“I expected a lot of antipathy towards it,” Coogan said in an interview with the Standard about The Reckoning. The Savile story, he said, “is not just about Jimmy Savile; it’s about our nation and who we are and how we deal with celebrity and how we engage in it”.

It will certainly be interesting to see how Coogan tackles playing Savile, a role so far-removed from his usual roster. In the meantime, here is a list of some of Coogan’s best roles so far, from Tommy Saxondale to Alan Partridge.

10. Simon — The Parole Officer (2001)

After a decade of playing Alan Partridge, Coogan’s first proper feature film and leading role in The Parole Officer was excellent. In the Noughties hit, which he wrote alongside Henry Normal, Coogan plays Simon, a well-intentioned but useless probation officer in Blackpool who finds himself framed for murder.

9. DCI Clive Driscoll — Stephen (2021)

Based on DCI Clive Driscoll’s memoir In Pursuit of the Truth, this three-part ITV drama tells the story of Stephen Lawrence’s family’s fight for justice after the racist murder of their son. Coogan plays Driscoll, the Met Police detective who heads the police investigation which finally led to the conviction of two of Stephen’s killers in 2012.

8. Tony Wilson — 24 Hour Party People (2002)

This early-2000s biographical comedy drama is a real highlight. A captivating and intelligent story about Manchester’s music scene, the film sees Coogan as real-life Seventies TV presenter Tony Wilson who founds record label Factory Records and signs Joy Division as their first band. A combination of real events, rumours and urban myths, it is another demonstration of Coogan’s brilliant onscreen versatility.

7. Dr Bright — Curb Your Enthusiasm (2008)

Although Coogan only appeared on the HBO cult classic sitcom once, his cameo is one of the show’s most memorable. Featuring as Larry David’s therapist, who ends up in prison after giving him bad romantic advice, it is characterised by razor-sharp improv between Coogan and David. A comedy coupling for the ages.

6. Martin Sixsmith — Philomena (2013)

Produced, written by and starring Coogan, Philomena brilliantly showcases his range as a more than simply a figure of comedic relief. Based on the 2009 book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, the film sees Coogan take on the role of a real-life London journalist determined to reunite Judi Dench’s character Philomena with her son. Nominated for four Oscars, Coogan and co-producer Jeff Pope won Best Screenplay at the 70th Venice Film Festival.

5. Himself — A Cock and Bull Story (2005)

Another film featuring Coogan’s knack for improv, A Cock And Bull Story sees Coogan playing himself – an egotistical actor with low self-esteem. In an early taster of what would become an iconic comedic duo, Coogan stars alongside Rob Brydon, with the pair constantly sparring and moaning at one another. A multi-layered film-within-a-film, it’s tough to keep up with the plot at times, but the ambiguity is perfect for Coogan’s humour.

4. Tommy Saxondale — Saxondale (2006-7)

One of Coogan’s more complex and underrated characters, the eponymous Tommy Saxondale is a suburban man with anger issues who runs a pest control business in Stevenage. An ex-roadie, Tommy likes to think of himself as a free-thinking maverick, who is often seen crusising behind the wheel of his Boss 351 Mustang and constantly imparting unwarranted wisdom to his assistant. Unlike many of Coogan’s other characters, though, there is something genuinely likeable about Tommy – perhaps because the audience is often laughing with, rather than at him.

3. Himself — The Trip (2010-2020)

The apex of the Coogan and Brydon partnership, this long-running sitcom sees the two actors play exaggerated versions of themselves on foodie road trips first around the Lake District, and in subsequent series through, Italy, Spain and Greece. A continuation of their improvised performances in A Cock and Bull story, the stripped back, one-on-one riffs between the two and their endless lunchtime impersonations make for a timeless comedy classic.

2. Paul Calf (1993-2003)

“Is it a crime to want to live in a world of peace and harmony? Is it a crime to live in a world of love? Is it a crime to hit a student across the back of the head with a snooker ball in a sock?” Coogan originally played the Man City and beer-loving Paul Calf on Jonathan Ross’ Saturday Zoo in 1993. The bleach-blonde-mulleted, student-hating unemployed Mancunian quickly became one of Coogan’s most loved characters, alongside his disparaging catchphrase “bag o’shite”. Alongside his sister Pauline Calf (also played by Coogan), the character later starred in an episode of 1995 comedy series Coogan’s Run and two video diaries.

1. Alan Partridge (1991-present)

North Norfolk’s favourite export has been gracing our screens for more than two decades now and he still hasn’t run out of steam. He is the brainchild of Coogan and Armando Iannucci, created for the 1991 BBC Radio 4 comedy programme On the Hour, a spoof of British current affairs broadcasting. It’s impossible to pick from Partridge’s many spin-offs – from his disastrous Knowing Me, Knowing You chat show to his desperate search for a new television series in I’m Alan Partridge, the socially inept, gaffe-prone broadcaster has not only given us countless classic moments, but an endless list of quotable dialogue to go with it. And as the world of broadcasting changes and adapts, so does Alan, with brilliant results – from recent stints co-hosting One Show style programme This Time to his own podcast From the Oasthouse.

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