Having spent a lot of time in Greece lately – filming his new movie Greed, and the final series of The Trip – Steve Coogan is in a suitably philosophical mood.
Reflecting on capitalism and his own career (from inside a fancy London hotel) he’s poised like Pericles and ready to “point the finger” at the retail industry.
“I think Plato said, ‘If you have no enemies, then you have no real friends’,” the actor muses.
“Because I do different things I suppose I can’t be fired by [just] one person, so I can afford to annoy some people along the way.”
In Greed, Coogan and director Michael Winterbottom target billionaire bosses of multinational companies, who he says are turning over “massive profits” while factories they use in developing nations like Sri Lanka pay their workers around £3 a day.
“That’s not a secret,” says Coogan. “But nobody talks about it.
“Nothing we’re saying in the movie is anything that isn’t a matter of public record. What we want to do is shine a light on that.”
‘Elephant in the room’
In an era when formerly “fringe” or “eccentric” issues like gender politics and environmental concerns are now part of the “national conversation”, the 54-year-old sees such “exploitation” as a still-unspoken truth.
“It wasn’t like we woke up one morning and started recycling. It happens gradually and the conversation becomes louder, so it becomes something you might disagree with but you can’t ignore.
“Right now, you can ignore and most people do ignore the huge imbalance between the rich and the poor, because it’s the elephant in the room and it’s awkward to talk about it.”
Greed is just one letter away from Green, and although Coogan’s character Sir Richard McCreadie is fictional, though loosely-based on the controversial entrepreneur Sir Philip Green, Coogan says the film “is not a direct attack on him”.
Green, the Monaco-based Arcadia Group chairman, has been accused of tax avoidance and was quizzed on his role in the demise of BHS.
Arcadia, which owns Topshop, has denied using sweatshops and expressed disappointment when it “found a supplier had clearly breached our strict code of conduct”.
The company has not responded to the BBC’s request for comment about the release of Greed.
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“There are many people who make their money by exploiting people,” opines Coogan.
“Most of them behave discreetly and they don’t want to draw attention to themselves, but [Green is] the reverse. For a long time he was like, ‘Check me out, see how successful I am. Look at my money. Look at my parties. Look at my friends’.
“Because he’s a charismatic figure, it was a good basis on which to develop this movie idea.”
Coogan hopes the character will make audiences think twice about the price of fast fashion, “wince” and laugh in equal measure.
“Even though he’s horrible to people he’s got a funny turn of phrase, so you go along for the ride and that’s important,” he stresses.
“If it’s just obnoxious, reprehensible behaviour then you’re not going to stick around too long.”
As the creator of one of the country’s most cherished obnoxious comedy characters, Alan Partridge, Coogan is not exactly short of a bob or two himself, and he wasn’t adverse to the high life either.
“I used to be a party animal, but not for a long time,” he says.
More recently, the TV funny man has collected Bafta awards and Oscar nominations for more serious roles in Philomena and Stan Ollie.
He’s also rallied on behalf of the Labour party and the BBC – which he describes as “second only to the NHS in its cultural importance to this country” – as well as against the covert activities of some factions of the British tabloid press.
Coogan gave evidence to the Leveson inquiry after having had his phone hacked, and was ultimately awarded six-figure damages.
‘Rise like lions’
In the new film, which features Isla Fisher, David Mitchell and a cameo from the late Caroline Flack, McGreadie appears before a similar panel, to explain his dodgy off-shore dealings and work practices. The story then centres around a decadent star-studded birthday party thrown on the Greek island of Mykonos to help repair his reputation.
It’s similar to one thrown by Green in real life, but with an added asylum seeker side-story, gladiator metaphors, and, oh, a lion.
“I suppose you could relate it to [Percy Bysshe] Shelley’s call to arms,” declares Coogan, before launching into an (almost) word-perfect last stanza from the Romantic poet’s Masque of Anarchy.
“‘Rise, like lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number’… What is it?, ‘Free your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep were placed you: Ye are many – they are few.‘”
“I’m assuming that Michael [Winterbottom, the director] used the metaphor that way,” he laughs. “But there’s a lion in it!”
Promotional interviews aside, Coogan explains, he won’t be “grandstanding” on the topics tackled in the movie – a la Joaquin Phoenix at the Oscars and Baftas – as “the film does that for us”.
The actor and director team have worked together for decades, on films like 24 Hour Party People (speaking of parties) and the popular naturalistic TV sitcom, The Trip.
Coogan and Rob Brydon play exaggerated versions of themselves in the apparent mockumentary road trip series, which has taken them across the UK, Italy, Spain and now on to Greece next month, for what he admits could be the last time.
“I wasn’t entirely sure it was the last one,” he hesitates. “I felt like it might be and probably really should be. But then it started to feel like it had a finality.
“I think Michael secretly already knew it was going to be the last one.
“So it was sad. I’m sure in a few years’ time I’ll feel very nostalgic about our trips, but when you’re in the middle of it you’re just in the moment.”
The Middletonian admits he hasn’t actually watched every episode but enjoys how the “half-fictional/half-real” nature of the show gives it a deeper personal “resonance”. “It’s more like looking through a box of old photographs.”
It also affords him “licence” to say things he “wouldn’t say in reality, even though I might think them”.
“That’s part of what made it enjoyable, thinking; ‘If I said this in reality, I’d just think I was a complete ass!’
“We take a kernel of truth and grow something that’s distorted from it.”
As well as The Trip, Coogan will reprise his role as Alan in an upcoming travelogue TV series (which helped get him to escape a driving ban last year) and a second series of This Time.
The TV sitcom brought the infamous broadcaster back and dragged him into the modern post #MeToo world, in agonisingly funny fashion.
“It’s far better to deal with that stuff than to not deal with it,” says Coogan, who will tackle sexual politics further in a forthcoming new Channel 4 comedy, Chivalry, with Sarah Solemani.
“Sometimes the best way to talk about things is through a fictional comic narrative because it lets you off the hook to talk about it more freely.”
Partridge once boasted of his “basic grasp of Latin”, not Greek, but like Plato, he’s not against making enemies. Last time out, he found himself embroiled with Irish rebel singers, live on the BBC.
“It felt like a punk rock moment,” Coogan proudly states.
“I’m half British and half Irish and that’s where they bumped into each other.”
Greed is out on 21 February
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