Steve Coogan was born and raised in Manchester in the 1960s, the fourth of six children. From an early age he entertained his family with impressions and was often told he should ‘be on the telly’. He is now an award winning film actor, writer and producer. In this extract from his new memoir, Easily Distracted, Steve looks back at his early experiments with comedy.
My career as an impressionist started early. From the age of five or six, I used to imitate the sound of car wheels screeching. Sometimes too effectively: Mum was always telling Dad off for driving too fast and on occasion she would tell him off when he was driving at a reasonable speed because she mistook my mimicry for real speed.
Most kids with a theatrical inclination put on quaint plays for their family. That didn’t occur to me.
When I was twelve, I spent ages rigging up an elaborate structure in the living room. There were a couple of free-standing lamps in the room that were plugged into sockets but could be controlled via light switches near the door. In one of those sockets I plugged a hand-held tape recorder and in the other an anglepoise lamp, which I pointed directly at the doorway so that whoever entered the room would be dazzled by light. I made a Guy Fawkes dummy by stuffing an old jumper and trousers with socks, added a Frankenstein mask and sat it in an armchair with its back to the door.
The idea was that whoever walked into the room would flick on the light switch and be blinded by the silhouette of someone sitting in a chair. At the same time they would flick the other switch and trigger the tape recorder, so that the shadowy figure would appear to be talking to them. The creepy, pseudo-Cold War voice would say, ‘Hello. Come in. Do exactly as I say. Sit down. Do not attempt to see who I am. Do not approach the chair. You are here for questioning. Who are you? Where do you come from? Who are you working for?’
I hid behind the curtains, waiting for someone to come in, excited by the potential theatre.
Mum walked in, flicking on both switches. ‘Hello. Come in . . .’
She went over to the armchair, pushed the anglepoise away and pulled the head off the dummy.
‘What’s this?’ she asked impatiently.
I stepped out from behind the curtain, deflated.
Mum looked at me, frowning. ‘What are you doing?’
I replied, ‘I was hoping to trick someone into thinking they were being interrogated.’
Another time, when I was nine or ten, I read about a man called Peter Cook who had been dubbed ‘the Cambridge Rapist’ and was given two life sentences after his arrest in 1975. He used to wear a balaclava with ‘rapist’ emblazoned on the front whenever he attacked women. I asked my mum what a ‘rappist’ was. She told me it was someone who frightens women and attacks them when they’re walking home at night.
As well as not being able to pronounce the word properly, I had no sense of how awful the story was. So when my mum came home one day, I jumped out of the bushes dressed in black and wearing a balaclava.
I started shouting, ‘Ha, ha, look at me! I’m a rapist!’
She was appalled and chastised me, telling me it was not a nice thing to say or do.
I, in turn, was miffed as my disguise had involved some thought and preparation. I genuinely thought she’d be delighted.
I was far more self-conscious around my dad. Mum was calmer and generally more tolerant of misdemeanours or morally questionable behaviour. But as soon as Dad came into the room, I’d stop goofing around. He wasn’t big on praise. He thought criticism was a great way to learn. I have, to some degree, inherited it as a character trait and I hate it in myself. I’ve had to learn to recognise it and try to be effusive when I love something rather than be overly critical.
If ever I felt dissatisfied with the environment in which I was brought up, it was when I went over to friends’ houses and witnessed their fathers goofing around with their kids. I felt jealous. I wished my dad would do that with us, with me. But he was very much a figure of authority.
If, on occasion, I acted the goat in front of him, he would tell me to stop. He thought that acting like an idiot was undignified, even if you were just being daft. He loved the Goons, the Two Ronnies and Morecambe and Wise, but they were professionally funny, as if they had been born that way.
He’d say to me, ‘You can’t get a job by fooling around and acting the eejit!’
He thought that making people laugh by being a fool was a very bad thing.
As soon as I got into Monty Python I knew he was wrong. You could earn a living from being daft.
My parents brought us up to be respectable, to be kind to people, to take personal pride by contributing to society in a traditional way. As it turned out, I’ve made my living from contributing to society in a very untraditional way. I have made a career by goofing around in exactly the way my dad disapproved of.
In its simplest terms, I have embraced my weaknesses and been liberated by laughing at myself. I have flagged up my imperfections and let Alan Partridge absorb some of my foibles.
All the things that were seen as not particularly attractive qualities are things I have utilised in my working life. There is method to it. It’s almost like saying, ‘You can be rude and swear and drop your pants and do things that are disrespectful and make a very good living out of it. Shining a light on the human condition by being ostensibly rude and disrespectful.’
My stupidity became my raison d’être. I discovered that I could mock myself through my characters and that as long as I was the architect, playing the fool gave me a certain sophistication. I was playing a trick on everyone: by being profoundly uncool, I ended up being the coolest person in the room.
Short-term fool, long-term cool.
It was exciting just by virtue of it being oppositional.
Mum told me that when I booked her and Dad into the hotel opposite the Lyceum in 1998, he was still incredulous that I had made a success of my fooling around.
Apparently he looked out of the hotel window, turned to Mum and said, ‘When you think of what a bugger he was . . .’
The irony is that while Dad disapproved of my silliness, the rest of my family were always asking me to be a performing monkey.
I can’t say I protested too much.
Extract taken from Easily Distracted, by Steve Coogan (Century) which is out now.