TV comic genius 7: Saxondale


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Actor, comedian, writer and producer Steve Coogan has played the fictional TV and radio presenter Alan Partridge for 27 years now.  He’s essayed the cringe-inducing, incognizant, sociopathic, preening, Daily Mail-loving and utterly hapless Partridge not only on television – in sitcoms, chat-shows, mockumentaries, telethons and awards shows – but also on radio and stage and in YouTube shorts and a movie.  So ubiquitous is Partridge that it’s easy to forget that during his career Coogan has created other comic characters.


These include the drunken, philosophical and student-hating Paul Calf (“Is it a crime to want to live in a world of peace and harmony…?  Is it a crime to hit a student across the back of a head with a snooker ball in a sock?”) and his brassy and gagging-for-it sister Pauline; Portuguese singing sensation Tony Ferrino, winner of the Eurovision Song Contest and “also widely adored across Brazil and Iraq”; and the disquietingly exaggerated version of himself that Coogan played in Michael Winterbottom’s fly-on-the-wall travelogue-cum-sitcom The Trip (2010-16).


Then there’s Tommy Saxondale, eponymous hero of the BBC sitcom Saxondale that ran for two seasons in 2006 and 2007.  This show may not have produced as many belly-laughs as Alan Partridge in his countless permutations, but for my money it’s possibly Coogan’s finest hour.


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Tommy Saxondale’s backstory is that in the 1970s he served as a roadie to some top rock bands and engaged in the free-thinking and wild-living that were the spirit of the era: “I was sinking yards of ale with John Bonham,” he reminisces, “and hoovering up furlongs of the Devil’s dandruff with Lucifer Reed, as I used to call him.”  Now in his grizzled, paunchy middle-age, life is less giddy and glamorous.  He runs a small pest-control business in Stevenage, but likes to think he still talks the talk and walks the walk when it comes to turning on, tuning in and dropping out and generally giving the middle finger to The Man.  “Same old, same old, eh?” he sighs at one point.  “The global corporate bully sticking the jackboot into the defenceless ginger-haired boy of humanity.”  Unfortunately, the modern world surrounding Tommy doesn’t quite share his ideals.  And as he ages, he has increasing difficulty living up to those ideals himself.


In other words, Saxondale deals with the tension between youth and experience that’s familiar to everyone who manages to avoid an early death.  For Tommy, though, that tension’s particularly acute.  When the tectonic plates of Tommy’s youth and middle-age grind together, the results can be seismic – particularly since Tommy has a temper.  Each episode begins with him taking part in anger-management sessions run by mild-mannered therapist Alastair (James Bachmann).  Thanks to Tommy, Alastair has his work cut out.  “The notion that anger per se is a bad thing, “Tommy tells him, “I would say, respectfully, is horseshit.   If General MacArthur’s reaction to Pearl Harbour had been to go and find a quiet place and do some deep breathing, you’d be goose-stepping into this meeting today.  And there’d be a great big eagle on the wall.”


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


Besides Alastair, people in Tommy’s life include his buxom Welsh girlfriend Magz (Ruth Jones), part Goth goddess and part earth-mother, who runs a shop called Smash the System and sells her own self-designed posters, pictures and T-shirts that offer unusual takes on religious, cultural and feminist figures like Joan of Arc (i.e. they’re naked, having sex and / or taking drugs); the youthful Raymond (played with wonderful somnolence by Rasmus Hardiker), Tommy’s lodger and apprentice in the pest-control trade who endures his boss’s endless philosophising and grumbling with a mixture of polite incomprehension and dazed indifference; and Vicky (Morwenna Banks), his contact at the agency that provides his firm with assignments.


The bubbly, airheaded but vicious Vicky – a sort of Spice Girl with rabies – takes huge pleasure in tormenting Tommy.  For instance, chiding him about his unkempt hair, she says: “Tommy-hobbit…  I wasn’t going to say anything, but somebody reckoned they saw you the other week outside Woolies, mumbling and having a tinkle in the bin by the escalators.”


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


In addition to Tommy, Coogan plays a second, semi-regular character: Keanu Reeves, a zonked-out gay druggie who’s changed his name by deed-poll to that of “the cassock-wearing flying man from The Matrix”.  Tommy usually encounters Keanu when he’s de-lousing some squalid premises and finds him and his mates squatting there.  A conglomeration of childishness, petulance, pathos, facial tics and Mancunian vocal inflections, Keanu is a hilarious character, though an exhausting one.  It’s probably just as well that we only get a few short doses of him during Saxondale’s two series.


The comic injustices inflicted on Tommy are not far removed from those experienced by Alan Partridge.  When Tommy learns that a favourite pub has installed a karaoke machine, he rails against karaoke as “the last refuge of the creatively bereft.  A night when the suits can convince themselves that hooting along to Angels in the wrong key means they don’t have a sucking void where their souls are supposed to be.”  We just know that a few hours later, drunk out of his skull, he’ll be onstage with the karaoke mic, warbling Jeffrey Osborne’s On the Wings of Love – which is what happens.  And it’s entirely predictable that after boring a class of schoolkids with a lecture about life on the road with Pink Floyd, he discovers that the little shits have superglued him to his chair.


The difference between the two characters is that while Partridge has zero self-awareness, Tommy is at least partly conscious of his own ridiculousness.  This self-knowledge allows him to make amends for his failings, show some empathy for his fellow characters and even, occasionally, enjoy a few victories.


I found Saxondale’s first series very agreeable, but I thought the second series was wonderful.  Perhaps it’s because Coogan and series co-writer Neil Maclennan realised that Tommy’s funniest moments in season one were the most confrontational ones, for example, with Vicky; so for season two they brought in some new characters to antagonise him further.


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


These were Penny (Rosie Cavaliero), a trendy-lefty friend of Magz whose middle-class Guardian-esque virtue signalling gets on Tommy’s wick; and Jonathon (Darren Boyd), an executive at the Carphone Warehouse and Tommy’s neighbour.  Jonathon’s gormless attempts to ingratiate himself (“Hey, Tommy… I was wondering if you saw that Motley Crue documentary on VH1 last night?”) are usually a prelude to his conveying a complaint from the local Residents’ Association about him mis-parking his yellow Mustang.  Jonathon’s wife Bethany (Catherine Kanter) is a member of the association and, in one episode, Tommy confronts them and accuses them of being “small-minded little Englanders who are worried about illegal immigrant stealing your James Blunt CDs.”  Bethany shoots back, “What’s wrong with James Blunt?”


Another second-season episode sees Tommy finally taking on the establishment, the system, The Man.  Inevitably, though, the situation is less dramatic than he believes – he has to defend himself in court after being caught on a platform at Stevenage railway station without a ticket.  (He makes life hard for himself by summoning Keanu Reeves as a witness for the defence.  Keanu reacts to being in the courtroom with a discombobulated, “Why’s everything so woody…?  Why’s everyone speaking like it’s the olden days?”)  When the judge dismisses the case, Tommy gives a triumphant speech to a couple of bemused local journalists: “We have smashed the system.  With this victory, the British rail network’s fare policy lies in tatters…  And we send a message out to all who would seek to oppress the weak and the powerless: you are arseholes and just pack it in, basically.”


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


One nice thing about Saxondale is its depiction of Tommy and Magz’s relationship.  They might be middle-aged and a little out-of-shape, but they still have a great passion for one another, physical as well as emotional.  “That sex last night was fantastic,” marvels Tommy at one point.  “I went off like Krakatoa.”  However, their amour occasionally leads to embarrassment – for instance, when Tommy forgets to remove Magz’s make-up following a kinky sex game and comes down to eat breakfast in front of a perplexed Raymond; or when Vicky accidentally gets her brightly-coloured claws on a homemade porn video showing Tommy being spanked with a table-tennis paddle.


It’s been over a decade since the final episode of Saxondale was aired and I suppose the chances of it ever returning are nil, seeing as many of the cast have gone on to bigger things.  Ruth Jones has enjoyed great success as the joint writer and star (with James Corden) of Gavin and Stacey (2007-2010), Morwenna Banks is now known internationally as the voice of the mother in Peppa Pig (2004-present) and Rasmus Hardiker has become a prolific voice-actor too.  Plus Steve Coogan seems busier than ever, both with ongoing Alan Partridge projects and as a general actor, writer and producer, most notably with the Oscar-nominated Philomena (2013).  Still, Saxondale should be cherished as evidence that Coogan is fully capable of doing an affectionate, character-driven type of comedy, as well as the more grotesque, heightened type epitomised by Partridge.


In the Guardian, Alexis Pretridis once wrote of Partridge that “one of the reasons audiences find him funny is that they recognise at least a bit of themselves in him.”  By that reckoning, if – like me – you’re on the wrong side of 40, and feel a nostalgic pang for 20th century rock ‘n’ roll, and as a youth had a hankering for what used to be called the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and feel adrift in a modern world of spam emails, online cat videos, automated phone systems, self-service checkouts, Twitter trolls, chuggers, selfies, Strictly Come Dancing, Simon Cowell and the Kardashian family, you should find Tommy Saxondale hilarious.  Because there’s a lot of him in you.


© BBC / Baby Cow Productions


I love you really, Roger!


(c) Eon Productions


I believe that as you get older, and if you possess even half of a conscience, you find yourself brooding more and more on the sins that you committed in your past.  You can never forget the cruel, spiteful and hurtful things that you’ve done over the years.  The memories of those things hang around, lurking in the recesses of your soul.  And as you move through life, and inexorably approach your final destination, they become ever-more restless and vocal – like ghosts moaning and rattling their chains and psychically knocking the furniture around with increasing volume, agitation and violence.  I’m sure there comes a point when, in your old age, your guilt tortures you to the point where you’re absolutely desperate to atone for those dark and distant misdeeds.


No doubt that’s the reason why, lately, I’ve found myself dwelling uncomfortably on a sin I’ve committed during the years that I’ve written this blog.  Yes, I’ve been beastly to Roger Moore.


If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll know how it goes.  I write an entry about James Bond – of whom I’m a big fan, both in his literary incarnation written by Ian Fleming and in his cinematic incarnation masterminded by the Broccoli family – and something gives me reason to refer to the third actor to play 007 in the movies, from Live and Let Die in 1974 until A View to a Kill in 1985.  And then I make a comment likening Roger Moore’s acting ability to that of a plank, or a floorboard, or a block of wood, or a sheet of mahogany, or a slab of teak, or a lump of concrete, or a vat of dried cement, or an Easter Island statue, or one of the monoliths that were featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  Or, still on the subject of his acting ability, I give vent to an unkind pun about ‘Roger Mortis’.  Or I say something snarky about Roger’s left eyebrow being the most expressive part of his entire body.  Or I crack an ungentlemanly joke about James Bond getting ‘Roger-ed’ in the 1970s and 1980s.


(c) Eon Productions


Well, I have decided that the time has come to make amends.  I realise that my Crimes Against Roger are of such a magnitude that I can never fully cleanse myself of the bad, anti-Roger karma I’ve created, but I will at least have a go.  Here is a blog-entry dedicated to being positive about the crinkly, safari-suit-wearing, eyebrow-elevating James Bond Number Three.  Here is an account of all the good things that Roger has done over the years.


There are some good things…  I know there are some good things…  I just have to search around a bit to find them…  Oh yes!  Here they are.


The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970)

Cited by Moore as his favourite among the films he’s made – he agreed to star in it for much less than his usual fee – The Man Who Haunted Himself is a bizarre psychological-horror-cum-ghost-story.  It was also the final film directed by Basil Deardon, who’d worked on the legendary supernatural anthology movie Dead of Night back in 1945.


The Man Who Haunted Himself is a tale of a well-to-do businessman called Harold Pelham, played by Moore, who’s badly injured in a car crash and undergoes a weird incident during the subsequent emergency surgery – he briefly seems to die on the operating table and then two heartbeats appear on the monitoring machine rather than one.  Thereafter, the supposedly-recovered Pelham finds himself being stalked by a sinister doppelganger.  Pelham never encounters this doppelganger himself; but, behind his back, it ingratiates itself among his family, friends and colleagues and does things, like making important business decisions and having an affair, for which he gets the credit / blame.  Pelham is so unnerved by this that his behaviour becomes alarming to his friends, family and colleagues.  Indeed, he acts so out-of-character that they begin to wonder if he might be, you know, an imposter.


(c) EMI


I saw this movie on TV when I was a kid and was extremely freaked out by it – probably because by then I was accustomed to seeing Moore play suave and unflappable characters in TV shows like The Saint (1962-1969) and The Persuaders (1971-1972).  So I wasn’t ready to see him play someone who spends a film in a state of increasing mental disintegration and becomes a gibbering, possibly insane ruin by its end.  It got bad reviews and made little money at the time of its release, but it’s now regarded as a cult classic – championed, I suspect, by people my age who also first saw it as kids and also found the sight of Roger Moore cracking up seriously disturbing.  Its admirers, incidentally, include Pulp singer, cultural commentator and raconteur Jarvis Cocker.


The Persuaders (1971-1972)

Okay, I’m cheating a little when I cite The Persuaders as a good thing.  This comedy-action TV series Moore made for Lew Grade in the early 1970s, in which he and Tony Curtis played a pair of jet-setting playboys / adventurers who constantly get into and out of scrapes, is really pretty vacuous.  But what makes it unforgettable is its theme music – a marvellous composition by John Barry that’s mysterious, swirling and rather gothic.  Hearing it at the start of each episode, you’re led to expect a completely different type of TV show, a far darker and edgier one, from what you actually get.  I think the fact that no less a personage than Johnny Marr, the former guitarist with The Smiths, plays The Persuaders theme when he and his band come onstage these days is an indication of its quality.


John Barry, of course, would have much more to do with Roger Moore in the years ahead – for Barry was also James-Bond composer numero uno.  In fact, if I had to have some music played at my funeral, it would probably be a toss-up between the Persuaders theme and Barry’s instrumental from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1968).  Though knowing my luck, someone would probably hit the wrong track on the John Barry compilation CD, with the result that my remains were carted away to the sound of Lulu singing The Man with the Golden Gun.


(c) ITC


The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

Say what you like about the quality of Roger Moore’s other James Bond films – and in my opinion they range from the underwhelming to the atrocious – but you can’t deny that The Spy Who Loved Me is the one that deserves its place in the premier league of great 007 movies.  On paper it looks as lazy as all the other Bond movies being made around that time – a car that travels underwater, a villain who kills people by dropping them into shark-pools, a giant henchman with steel teeth and a plot that’s been copied from 1967’s You Only Live Twice (only with stolen submarines instead of stolen spacecraft).  But it’s done with such style and élan that Moore, writers Christopher Wood and Richard Maibaum, producer Cubby Broccoli and so on get away with it.  And of course, the pre-titles sequence – the one that made it a rule that the opening scene of each new Bond film had to contain a big stunt – is a corker.


No wonder that in season two of I’m Alan Partridge (2002), Steve Coogan gets immensely upset when he discovers that Michael-the-Geordie has taped over his copy of The Spy Who Loved Me with an episode of America’s Strongest Man.  “Now you’ve got Norfolk’s maddest man!” he rages.  Quite.


(c) ITC


His humanitarian work

Moore has been a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991; and, sweetly, he once lent his voice to a UNICEF-sponsored cartoon called The Fly Who Loved Me (2004).  He has also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome practices used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.


No other actor is capable of doing Roger-stuff

Yes, there are plenty of moments during Moore’s seven Bond movies when, as a serious fan of Ian Fleming’s superspy, I’ve wanted to hide behind the sofa in embarrassment.  But if I switch off my brain’s critical faculties, I have to admit there’s a certain, if facile, charm in seeing Roger Moore go through his paces – silly though the situations are.


And I doubt very much if the other actors who’ve played James Bond since the 1960s could go through the same escapades and emerge from them with their dignity intact, the way that Roger Moore – somehow – manages to do.  I suspect Timothy Dalton would look a bit of a dick if he performed a corkscrewing car-jumping stunt, accompanied by comedy noises and with Sheriff J.W. Pepper in the passenger’s seat – but Roger did just that in The Man with the Golden Gun (1975) and nobody thought less of him.  (They certainly thought less of the film, though.)  And I’m sure Daniel Craig would look a right fanny if he escaped from some villains in a gondola that turned into a speedboat and then turned into a hovercraft – but Roger did so in Moonraker (1979) and nobody accused him of being a fanny.


Why, even the mighty Sean would have difficulty keeping his poise and self-esteem if he had to dangle from a ladder on the back of a speeding fire engine (driven by Tanya Roberts).  But – you guessed it! – Roger did that in A View to a Kill (1985) and got away with it.  Just about.


Yes, when it comes to doing Roger-stuff, nobody does it better.


Glang!  Glang-a-lang, glang-a-lang, glang-a-lang…  Glang-a-lang!


(c) The Belfast Telegraph


Norwich becomes an international City of Literature… Back of the net!


A few days ago, UNESCO announced that Norwich – regional capital of East Anglia in southern England – would be made an international City of Literature.  This is the first time this accolade has been given to an English city and only the sixth time it’s been given to a city anywhere – the previous five recipients being Edinburgh, Melbourne, Dublin, Iowa City and Reykjavik.


I was going to begin by saying that UNESCO’s decision will be welcomed by everyone who’s fed up with the common image that Norwich has in Britain, which is of being a dull, parochial backwater located in the middle of a region that’s remote, flat and populated by yokels.  Indeed, the negativity of Norwich’s image is summed up by the fact that among British people the city is best known for being the home of comedian Steve Coogan’s fictional alter-ego, the self-obsessed, pig-ignorant, Daily Mail-reading sociopath-cum-radio DJ Alan Partridge.  Mind you, I have rather spiked my own guns by using one of Partridge’s catchphrases – “Back of the net!” – in this entry’s title.


I’m pleased to hear this news as I’ve lived in Norwich in the past – I did an MA in the School of International Development at the University of East Anglia there in 2008/09.  (Don’t panic, British taxpayers – I funded this MA entirely with my own money.)  Actually, Norwich is the third UNESCO City of Literature I’ve lived or worked in.  I also lived in Edinburgh at the end of the 1980s and again at the end of the 1990s and I briefly worked in Dublin in late 2004.  Will any other place I’ve been based in become a UNESCO literary city in the future?  Tunis?  Sapporo?  Newcastle?  Pyongyang?  Peebles?


Among those campaigning for Norwich to join the literary-city club was novelist Ian McEwan, an early graduate of the famous creative writing course run by the UEA.  McEwan recently praised Norwich by calling it a ‘dreamy city’.  Well, if McEwan had spent a year like I did living at the bottom end of the Prince of Wales Road, which contains pretty-much all the city’s nightclubs, late-licensed bars and kebab shops, he might’ve used a different adjective.  While I made my way home down the Prince of Wales Road late on a Friday or Saturday night, threading between innumerable brawls, scuffles, arguments, unconscious drunkards, puddles of sick, broken glass, cordoned-off crime scenes and paramedic teams, the word that sprang to mind regarding this particular bit of Norwich wasn’t so much ‘dreamy’ as ‘nightmarish’.


But other parts of the city are lovely and I can see how a nascent writer would find his or her muse there.  The banks of the River Wensum, the precincts of Norwich Cathedral, the cobbled Elm Hill area and the Lanes off the side of the Market Square are especially scenic and I was lucky that the cycling route I followed from my flat to the UEA campus every day took me through all of these areas.




And, considering Norwich’s size, I was surprised at how much there was going on culturally.  While the Theatre Royal served up populist stage and musical fare, more offbeat entertainment was to be found at Norwich Playhouse, Norwich Arts Centre, Maddermarket Theatre, the Puppet Theatre and the Platform Theatre.  The concert hall at the UEA wasn’t the best one I’d been in acoustics-wise, but I was impressed by the names it managed to attract during the year I studied there – among them, the Doves, Primal Scream, Motorhead, Florence and the Machine, Glasvegas and Pete Docherty.


Impressive too was the handsome city library housed (along with an exhibition area and the regional BBC TV headquarters) in the big new Forum building overlooking the Market Square.  And while there were the usual multiplex cinemas showing the usual blockbusters, I caught up with a lot of cool non-mainstream movies at the charming Cinema City on St Andrews Street.


I should also say that Norwich – once you get beyond the Prince of Wales Road – is blessed with some wonderful bars.  The Fat Cat, the Alexandria Tavern, the Golden Star, the King’s Head and the Coach and Horses would all, I think, make the Top 50 in Ian Smith’s World Guide to Great Pubs.



Obviously, the city’s biggest connection with literature is through the creative writing course at the UEA.  Apart from McEwan, its graduates include Kazuo Ishiguro, Rose Tremain, Toby Litt and current wunderkind of Irish literature, Paul Murray.  And amongst those who’ve taught writing at the UEA is perhaps my biggest-ever literary heroine, the late Angela Carter.  How delighted I was when, in the university bookshop one day, an elderly assistant told me that she still remembered Carter making her way around the campus “in a big billowy dress…”


Giles Fodden, author of the amusing but depressing novel about Uganda during the Idi Amin years, The Last King of Scotland, teaches there just now.  His department was next door to the one I studied in.  In fact, while I was doing a secondary course in Media and Development, I suggested to the lecturer – who’d been banging on about how much she disliked the negative coverage that Africa received in the media – that she go and collar Fodden, drag him into our lecture-room and demand that he explain himself.  But alas, she didn’t.


Among the other links that the city and its hinterland have with writers…  Philip Pullman, author of the Dark Materials trilogy, is Norwich-born, while in the surrounding countryside Bill Bryson, who is best known for his travel books (but who also wrote an informative and entertaining history of American English called Made in America) currently resides in the old rectory in Wramplingham.  Victorian adventure-writer H. Rider Haggard, of King Solomon’s Mines and She fame, was born in Bradenham.  And Anna Sewell, authoress of the Black Beauty books that were made into a popular children’s TV show in the 1970s and into a movie in 1994, came from Norwich’s local seaside resort, Great Yarmouth.


Mention should be made too of venerable science fiction writer Brian Aldiss, who’s a native of East Dereham 15 miles west of Norwich.  Aldiss’s odd little novel Brothers of the Head – the story of a pair of Siamese twins born in a remote East Anglian bog who end up fronting a rock band – was made into a movie in 2005.  Several locations in the north of the region were used for filming, including Barningham Hall, Cley Marshes and Blakeney Point.


So congratulations, Norwich – and well done, UNESCO, for making a surprising but wise decision.  And as I remarked earlier, I hope this will do a little to solve Norwich’s image problem in the United Kingdom.


Though having said that, I’m afraid I have to finish by providing a link to the only clip pertaining to Norwich and to books that I can find on Youtube.  Which is footage of Alan Partridge reading from his autobiography, I, Partridge: We Need to Talk about Alan, when it was launched at Waterstone’s bookshop in Norwich last year.