Steve Coogan made his first real impression on U.S. audiences in the 2002 biopic 24 Hour Party People, playing real-life TV presenter and music mogul Tony Wilson, though few Americans realized at the time that this was just the latest in a string of Coogan performances that examined the quirks, insecurities, and arrogance of television personalities. The staggering 13-disc DVD box set The Steve Coogan Collection contains most of Coogan’s major BBC projects—from the decade-spanning Alan Partridge series to the short-lived The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon—and while the shows vary in style and quality, they all offer variations on one question. How do people behave in the public eye, and how they behave in private?
The prime example is Coogan’s signature character, represented here by the 1994 chat-show parody Knowing Me, Knowing You… With Alan Partridge and two series (from 1997 and 2002) of the sitcom I’m Alan Partridge. A sublime creation, Partridge is a self-styled guardian of showbiz traditionalism, beset on all sides by people who want to push political or social agendas. Partridge is also a narcissist and a bumbler, convinced that he’s more popular and beloved than he actually is, and thus prone to career-threatening gaffes. In I’m Alan Partridge (co-created with Peter Baynham and Armando Iannucci), we see Partridge after he’s been drummed out of the BBC and forced to regroup in his hometown of Norwich. The extension of the Partridge story to his off-camera life proves to be a stroke of genius, showing (as The Larry Sanders Show did around the same time) how difficult it is for even a small-time celebrity to muddle along in the real world.
In a way, the Alan Partridge concept defined Coogan’s comic vision. Again and again in his career, Coogan has introduced clownish, buffoonish characters, and has then pulled back to put them in a broader social context. Paul and Pauline Calf, two characters who were originally part of Coogan’s stand-up act, became in 1993 and ’94 the stars of two rough-hewn but oddly poignant “video diaries” that reveal their daily lives in Manchester. Paul Calf is a drunken loudmouth, perpetually sporting fashions about 10 years out of date, while his sister Pauline is a cocky strumpet who fancies herself au courant. In their stand-up routines, the Calfs reduce the issues of the day to crude man-and-woman-on-the-street terms before returning to their favorite subject: themselves. But in the video diaries, we see their families and social rituals, and though the results are comic, Coogan and his chief collaborator Henry Normal are just as interested in creating a recognizable world.
The Coogan team got even more ambitious with 1995’s Coogan’s Run, a sort of anthology series that has Coogan playing a different oddball and/or loser each episode: a stuck-up salesman, a soft-spoken curator, a smug handyman, a struggling nightclub singer, and so on. Coogan and his frequent early partner Patrick Marber deliver an eccentric tour-de-force in the Coogan’s Run episode “Natural Born Quizzers,” in which Coogan and Marber play psychotic know-it-all half-brothers who escape from an asylum and try to recreate the children’s quiz-show broadcast that was the turning point in their lives. Like the rest of Coogan’s Run, the episode is equal parts cartoonish, bleak, and intricate. While the series as a whole has too much of a sketchbook quality—as though Coogan and company were emptying their notebooks of ideas not quite good enough to inspire full series—the show is in some ways a linchpin in Coogan’s career and a precursor to the darker, more naturalistic British sitcoms of the past decade.
The Steve Coogan Collection contains a few items that might’ve been better suited to a one-off. On paper, 1997’s The Tony Ferrino Phenomenon seems like the logical extension of the Alan Partridge concept: a full-on variety show starring a guileless, swarthy middle-aged European pop star. But Coogan and company spend so much time getting the visual details right that they fail to put much of a humorous twist on the material. Similarly, 2001’s mock-horror-anthology series Dr. Terrible’s House Of Horrible is impressive for how much each episode resembles a classic ’60s or ’70s fright flick, but the gags tend to be limited to purposefully lame double entendres, so the show’s comic potential dies on the vine.
On the other hand, the DVD set also contains the full run of Coogan’s most recent BBC sitcom, the underrated Saxondale. After a few years away from TV, spent trying (and largely failing) to follow up his 24 Hour Party People breakthrough, Coogan returned to the BBC in 2006 and ’07 to play a paunchy, bearded ex-roadie struggling to maintain his rocker edge while running an extermination business in the burbs. The two series of Saxondale (co-created with Neil MacLennan) continue Coogan’s interest in the disconnect between a wannabe cool cat’s self-image and his much sadder reality, but Saxondale also represents a new phase in Coogan’s TV work, in that it has more heart. The show is still funny—almost as funny as the best of Partridge—but where early in his career, Coogan started with contempt for his characters and then worked his way toward a grudging understanding, with Saxondale, he’s coming from a place of genuine affection. Coogan seems to like Tommy Saxondale. Heck, after a decade of career highs and lows, he probably sympathizes with Tommy Saxondale. Though he’s quick-tempered and self-deluded, Tommy is a rarity in the Cooganverse: a hero that viewers might not mind grabbing a drink with after the credits roll.
Key features: Hours of behind-the-scenes material (some real, some fake), and fairly dry commentary tracks on nearly every series.