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Courtesy of Sonic Pictures Entertainment

Steve Coogan: ‘the gap between the rich and the poor’ is our biggest issue

The legendary comedian stars as a grotesque fashion CEO in new film ‘Greed’ – here we talk to him about money, corporate distraction, and ABBA

If the name wasn’t already taken, Steve Coogan’s new comedy-drama about wage inequality could be called Parasite. As it is, Greed, Coogan’s seventh film with director Michael Winterbottom, is a furious polemic about the unethical practices of fashion companies and their CEOs. You buy a ticket because Alan Partridge’s face is on the poster and you exit unable to forget that garment workers in Bangladesh earn $2.84 per day.

Coogan, now 54, started his comedy career impersonating celebrities on stage and screen. Officially, his character in Greed, a grotesque fashion CEO by the name of Sir Richard McCreadie, is a fictional creation. Unofficially, McCreadie is very obviously modelled on Sir Philip Green, the Tory-supporting, tax-avoiding retail tycoon who made his fortune through BHS, Topshop, and others. In 2018, Green was accused of sexually and racially harassing workers. In Greed, an ex-colleague says of McCreadie: “He wasn’t a businessman. He was a parasite.”

On the tube journey to meet Coogan, I pass a poster for Greed that suggests it’s a full-on, knockabout comedy. Instead of acknowledging subplots involving sweatshops and the refugee crisis, the advertisement parades a gigantic quote from the Daily Mail: “STEVE COOGAN IS AMAZING”. Is it imperative that Greed isn’t just preaching to the converted, and it might open the eyes of a few bigoted Daily Mail readers?

“That’s quite funny, because the Daily Mail and I bump into each other because of our conflicting values,” Coogan says, laughing. “But there’s a serious point. If you have convictions, it’s important to put those into your work creatively, and if you’re just preaching to the converted, no matter how noble what you’re saying is, it sometimes feels a little fruitless.

“There’s a lot of movies out this year I really admired, like The Report and Dark Waters, that are entertaining and important. I salute those movies. But I fear movies like that only reach the people who agreed with them before seeing the movie. It’s always more gratifying when you reach a wider audience.”

Coogan’s most beloved character, other than Alan Partridge, is probably the “Steve Coogan” he depicts on The Trip, the long-running series also directed by Winterbottom. Today, though, he’s in a suit, gesticulating wildly with his hands, and intoning with a serious, sombre register more recognisable from his BBC Newsnight appearances. The only overlap with his self-parody on The Trip is how quickly he mentions Philomena unprompted.

“The other thing is, if you’re gay, black, white, or whatever your ethnicity or sexual orientation is – if you’ve got disposable income, they don’t give a fuck, because you can buy stuff” – Steve Coogan

Philomena, for example, is a movie about the Church,” Coogan says. “It played in Middle America in conservative states, because instead of giving a lecture, it’s trying to entertain people.” The 2014 drama about adoption trade earned Coogan an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. “Greed is the same, as far as I’m concerned. I’m trying to make something entertaining and funny, and then maybe people will think about it.” So, like Parasite? “Parasite is an inspiring movie. It shows you can talk about anything, as long as you talk about something else at the same time.”

After a humiliating public inquiry into his bankrupt businesses, McCreadie plans a 60th birthday party on the island of Mykonos to rescue his image: a Roman amphitheatre, celebrities wearing togas, and Fatboy Slim DJ-ing the night. (Philip Green’s 50th birthday bash was a toga party in Greece with Tom Jones performing live.) The arrangements intercut with flashbacks of McCreadie’s crooked financial practices – again, they closely resemble Green’s biography – and scenes set in real sweatshops in Sri Lanka. At the eventual party, starving Syrian refugees try to grab food and are forcefully ejected.

Still, Greed is punctuated with humour. Alongside McCreadie’s barrage of one-liners, there’s David Mitchell as McCreadie’s David Mitchell-y ghostwriter; Isla Fisher as McCreadie’s proudly obnoxious ex-wife; and James Blunt as a version of himself who charges £75,000 per song (“Well, he’s only got one song,” someone remarks). Throughout proceedings, McCreadie’s daughter (Sophie Cookson) participates in a reality TV show with a fake boyfriend played by Ollie Locke – the Made in Chelsea actor once dated Green’s daughter.

A comparison could also be made to the grimly fascinating character study of Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street – or maybe not. “The humour of (The Wolf of Wall Street) missed,” Coogan says. “I found it distasteful. I felt it glamorised it. He had too many redeeming qualities. He gets out of prison and he’s successful again. I didn’t give a shit about him, other than the fact I hated him. I found him charmless.” Coogan laughs, knowing he’s breaking an unspoken industry rule by criticising another film. “I love Martin Scorsese, but I hated that movie.”

As it’s a few days after the Oscars, I ask if Parasite’s success, both commercially and awards-wise, suggests a worldwide conversation about poverty is overdue. “I couldn’t agree more. The metropolitan world is pregnant for this discussion, but global multinational companies don’t want to talk about it.” Coogan references debates about gender politics, sexual identity and the environment. “Commerce encourages that noise. That noise is connected with poverty, but that noise keeps people busy. The more you talk about that stuff, the less you talk about the elephant in the room, which is the gap between the rich and the poor.

“So in a strange way, the liberal intelligentsia is unwittingly complicit by talking about these things that are important – but the bigger issue, which all these things go back to, is the imbalance of power between the rich and the poor.”

He adds, “The other thing is, if you’re gay, black, white, or whatever your ethnicity or sexual orientation is – if you’ve got disposable income, they don’t give a fuck, because you can buy stuff. Even with the environment, they can go, ‘Hey, we’ll plant some trees!’ But if you talk about their policies, that affects their bottom line. It has to affect their bottom line.”

Whereas Coogan’s past movies with Winterbottom – including 24 Hour Party People and The Look of Love – might make viewers nostalgic for the Happy Mondays or, I don’t know, pornography from the 1970s, Greed ends on a sour note that asks audiences to look in the mirror and then their wardrobe. In a way, these statistics tell us nothing new, but the exact figures, listed one after the other, are powerful – for instance, more than 17,000 refugees have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea; garment workers in Myanmar earn $3.60 per day; and the 26 richest people in the world have the same amount of money as the 3.8 billion poorest. As the film underlines, the system is broken and corrupt, but the real-life Richard McCreadies thrive because consumers continue to visit these unidentified stores.

Parasite is an inspiring movie. It shows you can talk about anything, as long as you talk about something else at the same time” – Steve Coogan

However, that vagueness is a problem in itself. Winterbottom’s proposed closing sequence for Greed specifically named and shamed the offending brands. In October, Winterbottom turned whistleblower and complained to the Guardian that Sony, after months of arguments, wouldn’t allow the film to affect any corporate relationships. “I supported Michael in his position,” Coogan laments. “But in the end, he had to compromise.”

Coogan is, at least, pleased that the cut I saw had the numbers at the end. “The original version named the CEOs and companies that transgressed. “These companies could easily double the wages of these people and still have massive profits. The people in Sri Lanka, who were working in legal, approved garment factories, they don’t have running water.

“It’s a basic human right. It’s something that could easily be addressed, but it isn’t, because no one shines a light on it.” Winterbottom’s original credits also named Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez and Robbie Williams as musicians who played Green’s private parties. “These big companies use celebrities and supermodels to distract you, and to say, ‘Don’t look over there, look over here! There’s a party over here!’”

“Commerce encourages that noise. That noise is connected with poverty, but that noise keeps people busy. The more you talk about that stuff, the less you talk about the elephant in the room, which is the gap between the rich and the poor” – Steve Coogan

The Pope watched Philomena at The Vatican. Does he hope Green will catch Greed at a Westfield? “Well, I don’t think he’s going to have a Damascene conversion and see the light. No film can have that impact. But you hope that incrementally something can slowly become part of the national conversation. The environment was too big to contemplate, but we talk about it now. So (poverty) should be no different.”

On a slightly lighter, catchier note, I mention that the closing sequence – set to “Money, Money, Money” – follows on from Coogan belting out “The Winner Takes It All” not once but twice in The Trip, and, of course, Alan Partridge naming his chat show Knowing Me, Knowing You (hence the “aha!” catchphrase) and his son Fernando. With ABBA recording new music, does Coogan feel at all responsible for the pop group’s resurging popularity? “When we made Alan like ABBA, ABBA was not part of a postmodern revival,” he says. “When I was a kid, ABBA were popular, but they weren’t cool. Lots of people secretly liked ABBA. So we had Alan love ABBA. But actually, I like ABBA. And we did an ABBA medley. So you could argue that he was part of that zeitgeist.”

When accepting a Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy last year, Coogan told the BAFTA crowd that his collaborators have generally been white men but that he’s now co-writing with women. One of those projects is the upcoming Channel 4 series Chivalry, a comedy-drama about #MeToo which he scripted with his fellow Greed actor Sarah Solemani. While there will also be The Trip to Greece and more Partridge (a podcast, a Brexit-themed travelogue, a second season of This Time), Coogan doesn’t want to be on autopilot.

In fact, Greed was initially set up with Sacha Baron Cohen. “When Sacha dropped out, I called up Michael and directly asked if I could do it…. I said, ‘Look, I’ll do another Trip, but can we do something else as well? I get bored just doing The Trip.’” Whereas Winterbottom injects drama into Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Michael Caine impressions in The Trip, Coogan sees his role as adding humour to Greed. “Exactly. I love comedy when you use it to talk about stuff that’s difficult. Any time you feel you’re wagging your finger at the audience, you make a joke and distract them.” So you win over the Daily Mail readers? “Well, I lost them a long time ago.”

I’m not Rob Brydon, so I don’t do an impression, but I explain that Joaquin Phoenix’s speeches at the BAFTAs and Oscars raised issues about social inequality, systemic racism and animal rights – without a single mention of Joker. Anyone watching Phoenix at those awards shows would guess that he starred in Parasite or Okja, not a comic-book movie about an antisocial clown in a dream world where racism magically doesn’t exist. So is it crucial that GreedChivalry and even Partridge’s newly found topical angles line up with what Coogan, the person, wants to speak up about?

“Yeah,” he says. “I don’t do social media. Sometimes I pop my head above the parapet and give my opinion on something. Now, I’m talking about this stuff directly to you. Some people might agree with me, some people might say I’m full of shit. It doesn’t matter. The most important thing is to express yourself through the work.

“Although public discussion is important, art is the best way to communicate with people – with creativity. We can talk for hours, and I might not change your mind. If we talk about intellectual positions and I present evidence, you can present counter evidence. But if you connect with people emotionally, you can make them consider bigger questions.”

Greed opens in UK cinemas on February 21