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Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 12:45 GMT 13:45 UK
Coogan's back - but on Parole
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas
It has been four years since comedian Steve Coogan left his Alan Partridge fans languishing in TV hell. And it has been nearly three since his stand-up stage show, The Man Who Thinks He Is It.
But now, after his lengthy absence from the limelight, Coogan is back.
Not as the gloriously obnoxious Partridge, or even the foul-mouthed Paul Calf, but as goofball Simon Garden in a film called The Parole Officer.
The Parole Officer marks a significant step for Coogan in that it is his first big film role, written by Coogan and his business partner Henry Normal.
"I had done what I wanted to on TV and live comedy, so the next step was to move into film comedy," Coogan explains.
"I always want a challenge, to be stretched creatively and to do things with an element of risk and excitement."
Coogan's lust for throwing caution to the wind once made torrid tabloid tales of fast women, faster cars and booze.
The neat figure now cut by the 35-year-old comic is earnest, focused and deftly polite, embarrassed even by the fact that he smokes.
But Coogan's followers should not be put off by this seemingly chastened new image, or his film.
One thing that has always been blatantly obvious about Coogan is his razor-sharp mind - and he is not therefore about to shoot himself in the foot.
By Coogan's previous standards, The Parole Officer is gentle but Coogan's genius is still evident.
As Simon Garden he is a hapless parole officer who has only succeeded in rehabilitating three criminals in his career.
Garden witnesses a murder for which the villain - a corrupt policeman - tries to frame him.
So, aided by his three "success" stories, Garden plots to recover vital evidence to clear his name.
The action is unashamedly slapstick, with elements of Peter Sellers, Norman Wisdom and movies such as The Italian Job thrown in. But the comic edge is undeniably Cooganesque.
"We wanted to replicate the feeling of an Ealing comedy so that it wasn't harsh or cynical," Coogan says.
"It had to be accessible to a broader audience - the characters I play on TV can be quite grotesque and would be a bit wearing in a full-length film.
"But at the same time, we did not want to sell out the kind of comedy that I or Henry like and that makes me the kind of comedian I am."
Garden is probably the closest Coogan has got to playing himself. And, used as he is to being masked under make-up, wigs and extreme personalities, Coogan found it tough.
"I find it easier to be stupid and annoying and idiotic than to be a character that engages the audience and is likeable.
"It is a more subtle challenge and is all about how to pitch the performance."
That said, Garden is still a Coogan nerd, prone to alienating childish behaviour and lack of tact.
Asked why he feels drawn to playing socially inept types, Coogan retorts: "It's because I am a bit of a nerd myself.
"There are elements of Alan Partridge that one can see in Simon Garden but they are not so much Alan as me.
"When I meet people they often say I sound just like Alan Partridge. That's because I too am anally retentive, quite straight and not relaxed."
Nerd or not, Coogan gets to play the action man too in the film, undertaking some hair-raising stunts and even getting the girl.
"All men harbour a James Bond fantasy, no matter how righteous or idealistic they may be they all secretly want to swing on ropes," says Coogan matter-of-factly.
The Parole Officer is just one of numerous projects Coogan has been concocting in his absence.
On the film front, early in 2002, he will be seen in even more adventurous guise, playing a straight role in 24-hour Party People.
The Michael Winterbottom movie chronicles the Manchester music scene from the 70s to the early 90s.
Coming sooner on TV, Coogan will be showing off the fruits of months of writing with his spoof Hammer Horror series for the BBC.
The sketch series Dr Terrible's House of Horrible, starring Coogan, is full of characters such as "Lesbian Vampires" and allowed him to go "back to the dressing-up box".
Then, there are the numerous projects Coogan has been nurturing with his, and Normal's, production company Baby Cow.
And for Alan Partridge fans, there is good news too. Coogan is currently writing another series about the nauseating Norwich broadcaster.
"I like doing all my characters," Coogan explains. "Alan Partridge and Paul Calf run very close as my favourites.
"Pauline Calf can be a bit uncomfortable as she has to wear girl's knickers and corsets. But really I love them all."
The Parole Officer is released in the UK on 10 August.
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