One of the most interesting collaborations of the past twenty-ish years has been that of director Michael Winterbottom and actor Steve Coogan. Winterbottom is perhaps best known for films like A Mighty Heart, The Killer Inside Me and The Road to Guantanamo. Coogan has been a star of British comedy since the early 90s, a hugely successful stand-up comedian and film star. The two have worked together on numerous projects and the results have often been spectacular and always interesting.
24 Hour Party People
Their first collaboration was 24 Hour Party, a film telling the story of Factory Records and its founder Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan). Wilson is an intriguing figure: clever, ambitious, charismatic but also often ridiculously pretentious and awkward. Wilson was a pivotal figure for bands like Joy Division, New Order and The Happy Mondays as well as an important part of the Manchester music scene. The film is narrated by Wilson and there are moments in which the disputes about what happened are very much played out – in one scene we see Wilson’s wife, Lindsay, having sex with Howard Devoto lead singer of The Buzzcocks, which Tony walks in on. As Tony walks out he nods to a plumber, this is the real Howard Devoto, who says directly to the camera that this isn’t how he remembers this event. Tony adds in voiceover a mangled version of the quote from John Ford, if you have to choose between the truth and legend, print the legend. This quote may sum up the whole film.
A Cock And Bull Story
One of the funniest, cleverest and oddest films ever made A Cock And Bull Story is a film adaptation of the supposedly unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy. This book was centuries ahead of its time playing with narrative and story structure. But as we soon realise as well as being an adaptation of the book, we also see Coogan et al making the film. This is not a documentary but rather the actors playing themselves while they make the movie. So Coogan plays Tristram Shandy, Tristram’s father Walter and Steve Coogan. As well as Coogan taking on various roles the film also features Dylan Moran, Gillian Anderson, Keeley Hawes and co-stars Rob Brydon, each playing version of themselves and characters from the book. Coogan’s continuing insistence on belittling Brydon at every opportunity is hilarious to watch – especially when it backfires – with Coogan demanding his shoes are built up so he towers over Rob Brydon when on screen is a highlight. As is the look on Coogan’s face when they manage to get Gillian Anderson onboard and a producer is pleased they finally have a “real star”.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprise the roles of themselves for this tv series where Coogan has been hired to review a series of restaurants and Brydon comes with him to help with the writing. Each episode is at a different restaurant, with much being made of the car journey to each venue. The two regularly bicker, Coogan considers himself better than Brydon, a true comic genius, to Brydon’s “popular” comedian and he will openly say this to his companion. The nature of fame, success, happiness and more are discussed sometimes in tragic and sometimes in comic form. Coogan and Brydon are both talented impressionists and frequently battle over who does the best Michael Caine, Roger Moore etc., leading to sometimes surreal exchanges of both impersonating the same person.
The Look Of Love
In this film, Coogan takes on the role of Paul Raymond – publisher of pornography, property magnate, and at one time Britain’s richest man. Raymond’s life story is one of lust, avarice and tragedy, he is happy courting controversy and law-breaking for the publicity it will bring him. Raymond started his career running live shows that fell foul of the restrictive censorship laws of the time, as they featured naked women. He later started the magazine Men Only which was hugely successful for its softcore pornography. By the standards of 2022, some of this would seem rather tame but was genuinely shocking at the time. Raymond is not a reliable figure in the lives of his children and wives, his relationship with his daughter Debbie is particularly unusual.
Their most recent work is the film Greed with Coogan playing Sir Richard McCreadie a billionaire businessman based on Philip Green. McCreadie is an incredibly rich man and after taking a substantial PR hit after appearing before a parliamentary committee he decides to throw a huge 60th birthday party to show how insignificant this setback was. This is a party deluded Roman emperors and 18th Century French monarchs would have considered excessive. McCreadie is an unrelentingly unpleasant man and just how unpleasant is revealed by his official biographer played by David Mitchell, who is researching McCreadie and finds out about all those who have suffered to make him a billionaire. The party becomes a very blunt allegory to the insanity of all this unearned wealth, trying to build a colosseum to have gladiatorial fights with actual lions, complaining that the refugees on the beach are spoiling his view and having staff dress as Roman slaves for the party.
In all of these films and tv shows Coogan plays people who are the very best often unlikeable and at their worst the living embodiment of capitalist greed. And, of course, in two of these projects, Coogan is playing himself. It is a testament to Coogan’s charm and Winterbottom’s skill that they have made funny, moving and insightful films out of such unpleasant characters.