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17th November 2023

Steve Coogan and the division between talent and knowledge

Christopher Jackson

Steve Coogan recently joined the ranks of the great actors with his portrayal of the odious Jimmy Savile in The Reckoning, the BBC’s attempt to dramatise its own failures in relation to that grim affair.

To say Coogan’s performance is superb is to understate the case. He’s able to do more than just impersonate Savile, but his performance is built on the gifts of an impressionist – an excellent eye and ear. In being so good at impersonation Coogan has always known the limitations of that metier. Spitting Image, where Coogan began, always required the elevation of the small but telling detail, because that is where laughter is to be found: in contrast to what’s not absurd.

Drama is different since it requires truth: the same techniques which might elicit a laugh don’t elicit a sense of awe, terror or wonder at the nature of reality. It’s therefore remarkable that Coogan has also mastered this second set of skills. In his portrayal of Savile, Coogan conveys brilliantly the terrible passivity of the evil and powerful when they know they’re getting away with it: the presiding image is of the DJ, tipping his head back, luxuriating in the knowledge that he won’t be caught. It suggests that just batting away the guesses of interviewers will be enough: with each puff of cigar smoke came the certainty that the truth was too dark and large for outsiders to intuit.

Then there are other terrible moments when Coogan shows us how, just before an attack, Savile could display a sudden assertion of physicality. In one scene, hard to dislodge from the mind once it has been witnessed, Coogan looms before a victim, suddenly the only fact about a confined space, and we feel how strength in certain predators is concealed in the sort of wiry frame where we might not expect to find it.

Then there is the other aspect of Coogan’s performance: he shows the japester, with his almost tapdancing caper along hospital corridors – that terrible springiness in his step, suggesting both of subterfuge and a general alertness for the next possible crime. Coogan also expertly delivers those clownish asides for which Savile was well-known – the sort of jokes which sound like they might be funny but which aren’t, and which even contain a kind of threat if you choose not to laugh.

It all amounts to a performance as exciting in its actual brilliance as to its potential: someone who can deliver such a complex performance around such a sensitive issue can do anything. Great art is always a function of great intelligence, and this is the case with Coogan: every frame suggests a powerful mind at work.

This is all good news. But we might be more comfortable celebrating it if Coogan hadn’t around the same time cemented himself in the ranks of celebrities who talk about politics with omniscience while also knowing very little. Around the release of The Reckoning, Coogan had this to say about people who support the monarchy:

It’s just because most of the people that are into it all, those flag-waving plastic boats of people, I think are kind of idiots because they support a power structure that keeps the foot on the throat of working class people and I’m just not very keen on that kind of thing.

The loftiness of the tone here is as bad as the reasoning. The way in which Coogan speaks about politics suggests a man in the media bubble used to being agreed with partly because he is famous, but also because the media is not a sector noted for its diversity of opinion. Such people talk as if the notion of disagreement with their view were wholly farcical.

Meanwhile, the reasoning is poor because it shows a complete ignorance of the many good reasons intelligent people have for liking the monarchy: a liking for history, a passion for the individual character of a nation, the aesthetic of pageantry, or the good things which, for instance, King Charles III has done for society (and especially in the social mobility space). Coogan is talking with complete ignorance that such logic may exist, let alone that it might be valid, as it obviously is. This, then, is to speak idiotically while labelling others high-handedly idiots.

There’s more. After the appalling October 7th attacks in Israel, Coogan was the most famous signatory to the ludicrous Artists for Palestine letter which asked governments to end their support for Israeli actions without mentioning the reasons why Israel had made incursions into Palestine in the first place. It was an early preview of the regrettable tendency, now widespread, to act as though nothing very significant or alarming happened on 7th October to make Israel act. This position has its logical conclusion in the reports we’re now seeing of people on TikTok embracing Bin Ladenism.

Coogan was forced to backtrack, saying ‘that it goes without saying that what Hamas did is evil beyond imagination’, but a man of his intelligence knows that in the context – especially given the history of anti-Semitism – this ought to go with a good deal of saying. We cannot say it enough. In Gaza today, to omit context is to destroy the meaning of the events themselves, and therefore create the basis for excusing Hamas’ actions. It is also to remove any possible sense of regret which always accompanies legitimate acts of war – the baffled sense of being left with no choice for the sake of the memory of those you have lost, and their families, and the dignity of the nation. If anyone doubts that Israel was placed in this position on 7th October then they need to look again at what happened.

It is no coincidence that Coogan has in the past supported another Hamas apologist Jeremy Corbyn. In this he is similar to Mark Rylance another brilliant actor who has also managed to convince himself that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. There is a trend here which cannot be entirely explained away by the media bubble. Coogan and Rylance are great actors because they are capable of independent though in their acting which they then cannot replicate when considering politics: in that area of life, they resort to the banalities of the herd.

What then is going on? In Coogan’s case being famous at a relatively young age doesn’t help. Politics is to do with the day-to-day lives of millions and the life of the creator of Alan Partridge isn’t likely to be an ordinary one. For one thing, such people tend not to be especially expert on the tax system around which politics really revolves: they are financially secure and have advisors for that side of life. Nor are they particularly likely to develop this understanding during their busy lives. It was Asquith who said of the prime ministership that you have to conduct it with the knowledge you bring to it on your first day in office. He meant that there wasn’t enough time to acquire new knowledge. Today’s fame is probably similar: everything conspires to fix you in your opinions because success and busyness are now constants.

It has been said that there is a distinction between artistic and moral intelligence. This is attractive but too simplistic: we could say Coogan is intelligent as an artist but not as a political thinker. But this isn’t satisfactory because, as we’ve seen, the Savile portrayal is so good because of its moral intelligence. This means that the only possible explanation is moral laziness – that Coogan is capable of great things when he is on camera, there is a paycheck involved and he knows vast numbers of people will be watching. However, we can say with reasonable assurance, that he doesn’t make as much effort when it comes to the issues which affect others.

The elevation of the media as a sector has got out of hand. We would be surprised if Rishi Sunak stood at the despatch-box and announced that he had an idea for a TV drama. Maybe now, as the world’s issues gather in complexity, it might be a good idea if actors returned the favour, and worked harder on the detail before they gave us their political opinions.




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