Steve Coogan interview on his C4 show Chivalry and what he really feels about Alan Partridge

Steve Coogan 56, recently appeared with Sarah Solemani on the Channel 4 show, Chivalry, which they both wrote and which explores the impact of the MeToo reckoning on Hollywood. Here he talks about arguments with his co-star, putting nuance into the scripts, and how comedy can ease the way into difficult topics…

The actor is known for his portrayal of the socially inept and politically incorrect media personality, whom he has played in several TV shows, as well as the 2013 film Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa.

‘I think Alan likes to think of himself as edgy, and relevant,’ said Coogan to

After 13 long years, the one and the only Alan Partridge is back on our live stages. Not that Norfolk’s beloved son has been idle in the interviewing years. Far from it. There have been published memoirs (the first of which was I Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan), a film (Alpha Papa), a web series (Mid Morning Matters), documentaries (such as his caustic look at the state of Britain in Scissored Isle), a podcast (From The Oasthouse) and, in This Time With Alan Partridge, a new TV format for him to gingerly navigate, always skating on the thinnest of ices with his guests and co-presenter.

Most recently he starred in ‘Chivalry’.

How did you and Sarah Solemani come up with the idea for Chivalry?

We were in Greece shooting the Michael Winterbottom film, Greed, in 2018 when we had a discussion about MeToo. We talked about sexuality and gender politics and it got quite heated at times; not unpleasant, just quite vociferous.

It was Michael Winterbottom who suggested we write something about it. I really like Sarah and I like having provocative discussions so we wrote a pilot and then during lockdown we wrote the rest of the series.

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How would you describe the dynamic between you and Sarah?

I really like and respect Sarah and I’m really fond of her, I also find her a little infuriating! The relationship we have as writers is not a million miles away from the relationship our characters, Cameron (a film producer) and Bobby (a filmmaker), have on screen. We’d be writing with each other on Zoom and end up having a genuine, real argument to do with politics.

Then after the row I’d say, ‘just write down everything we’ve just said.’ And what we’d just said to each other would form the basis of a scene once we’d calmed down!

Why was it important that a show about gender politics should span comedy as well as drama?

No one was talking about gender politics and using comedy – people are terrified about the politics of it – so we thought, let’s talk about it rather than just virtue signal and walk the line.

It’s ostensibly a drama but we wanted to use comedy to take the edge off things and make people relax. If someone laughs they are immediately more open to listening to a discussion of varying points of view. It’s an important ingredient in the drama; it’s not just there for its own sake, it’s there to facilitate having a grown up discussion and grown up discussions involve good humour.

What sets Chivalry apart from other TV shows inspired by MeToo?

A lot of other things have been very much on message and although some of them have been quite interesting, to my mind, they lack nuance.

They are politically risk-averse so they illustrate legitimately why MeToo came about by showing examples of abuse of power or patriarchal manipulation and they reinforce the MeToo message but that moment has happened, so what next?

There was a time when men had to shut up and listen and that is entirely legitimate but when that’s happened, you go, ‘OK, now let’s have a conversation.’ There’s some feeling that to have a conversation is somehow a concession and it’s not, it’s a way of moving things forward.

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How would you describe your character, Cameron?

Cameron is someone who wants to be reputationally artistic but at the same time wants to make a lot of money. He owns a production company that makes independent films and some commercial films. There’s a line in episode two where he’s in his big beach house and he says, ‘all the dumb movies pay for this.’

Cameron is producing A Little Death – a Hollywood film that is considered problematic by the film studio. What’s wrong with it?

The film’s French director is misogynistic and very old school in his approach. He’s an extreme example of someone who regards MeToo as the death of art and a philistine movement, and is almost egregiously against it.

Cameron is piggy in the middle trying to make the film work while keeping the director at arms length. He’s trying to be a political operator and keep all parties happy.

Bobby (Solemani) is parachuted in by the studio to make the film more woke. The thinking is if they fix this film it might get some Oscar attention. There’s a big Saudi Arabian company that wants to buy the studio and they like awards. So, really, trying to fix a sex scene in a post- Me Too world, in a film that’s been finished isn’t an enlightenment, it’s a commercial decision.

It sounds like Cameron needs Bobby onside.

Without her, not only is his film history but his company and his relevance in Hollywood will start to recede. He’ll be known as a dinosaur.

At the start of the series, it’s about him keeping his head down, toeing the line, saying what he’s supposed to say, but he goes on a journey and changes and Bobby changes too. They’re learning from each other and that’s what’s important. But through a surprising and unexpected romance with someone he’s learned to respect – he learns to think differently 

Why was an element of romance between them necessary?

The construct of a long, slow-burning unlikely romance married with a discussion about sexual politics was really interesting to us. How can the two sit side by side?

What I like about the romance and argument within Chivalry is that Bobby has her own issues and there is a conflict between her intellect and her heart. You might feel something for someone that’s not entirely consistent with your values. That happens all the time in life. Life is messy.

Where does Cameron stand on MeToo?

Cameron is someone who, by his inaction, is complicit in some way. We wanted to talk about what MeToo means to the men on the sidelines, the passive witnesses who would not consider themselves misogynistic; who are neither saints nor sinners.

There’s a lack of nuance in the public conversation that we can explore in a drama. You’re controlling the arena and you also know that the result will be that the audience might laugh or be disarmed and all that will help you move the conversation forward.

Human imperfection is where good drama lies. You don’t write good drama about people who are all completely on message and fully signed up to new principles and enlightened points of view. If your characters have had epiphanies and hold the most virtuous opinions about everything from the get go, you’ll have a very dull, boring, piece of television

What else is explored within Chivalry?

The sex scenes in A Little Death are, from Bobby’s point of view, out of date, cliched and undermine the credibility of the rest of the film so there’s lots of discussions around that.

And we also talk about cancel culture when one of the female characters gets cancelled for something that takes place with her domestic staff.

We’re exploring all sides of the sometimes heated temperature that exists at the moment surrounding sexual politics and identity. What we do is try to explore the many facets that surround these issues with a lightness of touch but depth of feeling that hopefully resonates with an audience.

How closely does the Hollywood depicted in the show resemble the real thing?

In Hollywood any kind of enlightenment is tampered by the fact that ultimately all decisions are commercial. They might be dressed up as humanitarian enlightenment, philanthropy or altruism but actually they’re hardnosed decisions. So that’s something we wanted to look at.

We didn’t want to make a satire of Hollywood but the creative industry is where a lot of MeToo first landed and the conversation is very much alive.

Getting a project like Chivalry off the ground sounds like a labour of love. Why was it so important to you?

I’m very lucky to do what I love, I’m very privileged and I feel like you shouldn’t ever get too comfortable creatively. I think it’s good to look at something and go, ‘How do you get round that? How do you make that work?’ And anything that has potential pitfalls or problems becomes attractive by its very nature because you think, ‘well that’s a tough nut to crack, I wonder if we can crack it.’

And anything that’s worth doing risks failure. Otherwise it’s not really worth doing. It’s a challenge. And it’s also about being challenged yourself. I heard a group of men in the pub the other night talking about refugees. They were clearly all bigots and there was something horrible about reinforcing each others’ bigotry without anyone challenging it.

That is so unhealthy and really destructive. I like working with Sarah and I like the fact that she provokes me and makes me think about whether I’m right or wrong about something.

You can be provocative and edgy and risqué, but you have to be kind. I don’t want to be nihilistic and I like things that ultimately head towards some sort of kindness. I hope people like the show and it’s seen as contributing something rather than undermining anything.

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