Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip, BBC
With his fetishistic parochialism, supreme literal-mindedness, and rancid bourgeois complacency, Partridge was a parody not just of English talk show hosts but of contemporary England itself. As with Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers before him or David Brent of The Office after him, England embraced a character who mercilessly held a mirror up to its foibles. Partridge’s catchphrases (“Kiss my face!” “Jurassic Park!” “Ah-ha!”) are repeated with gusto in pubs and student union bars the country over.
Unlike Partridge, who merely craves celebrity and the material possessions (like his cherished Bang and Olufsen stereo system) this celebrity entails, the Coogan we meet in The Trip has immortal longings in him. It is fifteen years after his early success and his career has stalled. He is trying to break into American movies (several of which, like Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, Coogan has actually appeared in) but is having a hard time getting taken seriously, which is what he seems to long for above all. One of several dream sequences features Coogan being led around a sun-dazzled swimming pool in L.A. by Ben Stiller, who tells him of all the “auteurs”—Noah Baumbach, the Coen Brothers, Ridley Scott—who are desperate to work with “The Coogs.” The scene recalls the notorious erotic reveries of I’m Alan Partridge, in which Partridge, dressed in colorful jumper, vulcanized-rubber thong, and platform shoes, offers to lap dance for Tony Hayers, the Chief Commissioning Editor of the BBC, from whom he hopes to coax a second series of his talk show.
On top of everything else, Coogan is sick of being identified with Partridge. In this respect he resembles Nathan Zuckerman, Philip Roth’s fictional alter ego, who is constantly being mistaken for his most famous character, the erotically hyperactive Gil Carnovsky:
“It’s Carnovsky!” “Hey, want to see my underwear, Gil?” In the beginning, when he heard someone call after him out on the street, he would wave hello to show what a good sport he was. It was the easiest thing to do, so he did it. Then the easiest thing was to pretend that he was hearing things, to realize that it was happening in a world that didn’t exist. They had mistaken impersonation for confession and were calling out to a character who lived in a book. Zuckerman tried taking it as praise—he had made real people believe Carnovsky real too—but in the end he pretended he was only himself, and with his quick, small steps hurried on.
In The Trip Coogan too pretends that he is only himself, though one of the film’s most mischievous jokes is that this self has much more of Partridge in it than Coogan would like to acknowledge.