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Shandy men not bitter; Mike Davies has a shandy with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Byline: Mike Davies

So, here we have a film about the making of a film of Laurence Sterne's supposedly unfilmable 18th century satire The Life and Opinions Of Tristram Shandy in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (best known for Human Remains) play respectively Tristam/Walter Shandy and Uncle Toby but also versions of the real Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Directed by Michael Winterbot-tom, the film, which also features Gillian Anderson playing Gillian Anderson, takes meta-fiction into a whole other universe while remaining faithful to Sterne's attempt to document the writing of a novel.

On paper, Coogan is the first to admit that, a satire on the neuroses of creative types, A Cock and Bull Story sounds like up its own arty arse self-indulgence.

"The script was incomplete and had it been anyone other than Michael I wouldn't have done it," he confesses.

"But I knew he wouldn't make it that way. With Michael you have to realise you don't judge the film by the quality of the script. At worse I thought it would be a very original noble failure and I knew from working with him on 24 Hour Party People that he's a bit like a shopping trolley with a wonky wheel, he doesn't fight it, he goes with the trolley. You have to get used to trusting his instincts."

However, not everyone was quite as willing to do the same and although the BBC (which had previously turned them down) eventually came through with a drastically slashed budget, just as Sterne found with getting the book published, the film proved a financing nightmare. Yet even that proved positive.

"Michael turns problems into virtues," continues Coogan.

"I had to visit a financier with him to get money for the film and I had to perform parts of the film in front of him like some monkey. I didn't like it but he laughed and because he did he wrote out a cheque. And that in turn became a scene in the film."

It's that blurring of life and art that gives the film its comedic potency, no more so in the skewed version of the real relationship between Coogan and Brydon.

"Originally the relationship between Steve and I was meant to mirror Toby and Walter's so my character would be seen asking his for advice on how to get acting work and being quite deferential," explains Brydon.

"But the reality of our relationship is more interesting and less predictable than that. The comedy Steve and I do is to take aspects of ourselves and warp and pervert it until becomes what's needed for the story. So because we have a healthy competitiveness, we made it less healthy in the film to highlight the drama. Michael saw how we related on set and used that."

It makes for some often very funny and inspired comic moments

"Working with people you know won't let themselves down is great," responds the analogy favouring Coogan, currently sporting an impressive swarthy Spanish swashbuckler moustache and beard that makes him look almost dashingly handsome.

"Rob is like a good tennis partner, he raises your game. A good comic actor - as opposed to a comedian - can do funny stuff but also listens to the other actors and responds to them in order to find the comedy. It's a very stimulating relationship."

For Brydon, the chance to be in a film that offers more than three lines (even as Coogan jokingly terms it - 'featured support') and the chance to do his own humour, is a major career move. But for Coogan, after The Parole Officer and Around The World In 80 Days, it could offer another opportunity to break away from his own albatross.

"I always think each film might be the one that finally lays to rest the ghost of Alan Partridge," he sighs.

"There was a time when people used to shout out 'a ha' at me in the street and I'd ignore them. Now I've given up and I turn round and go 'A HA' back. That's much more effective.

"But to be honest I think the best this film could do is to reach a slightly larger audience than 24 Hour Party People. But it needs word of mouth to get out because describing it sounds horribly self-important and avant garde and inaccessible whereas its actually a lot lighter and more palatable than you'd think from a prAcis of it. The problem here is this sneery response when you say 'it's a British comedy film'. People tend to groan and go 'oh God, no'. That's going to be the biggest problem in trying to get people to go and see it."

Both agree that, ironically, one of the barriers the film has to finding a home-grown audience is the fact it's so full of such recognisable small screen names as Dylan Moran, Keeley Hawes and David Walliams.

"American audiences obviously don't get some of the references but they're not watching it going 'look, there's that bloke off the telly', which makes it seem somehow low rent," says Brydon.

"When Walliams comes on there is (he smiles) rather gratifyingly no response."

With 24 Hour Party People having brought him to the attention of "the cognoscenti" of the American film industry to the extent that it won him a role alongside Kirsten Dunstin Sophie Coppola's film of Marie Antoinette, Coogan's hoping Cock and Bull will have the same effect but insists that securing the affirmation of Americans and Hollywood isn't top of his agenda.

"I don't see film as the be all and end all. I love good television and I want to do more of it. I like working in America but I find working on this new TV series and character far more exciting. I want to honour that patronage of the people who like the comedy I do because I feel an obligation to that audience."

Of course, to a large extent it's that same audience who are going to be watching Coogan playing Coogan and wondering just how close the real and screen versions are, especially since the film makes specific reference to one notable tabloid 'sex scandal'. He shrugs.

"To be truthful if something is good art, interesting and entertaining I don't give a damn about using my personal life or dropping my pants if it serves the comedy and has relevance beyond self-indulgence. Like with the scene where I'm nearly naked curled up in a foetal position in the latex womb being born and they're throwing buckets of cold wallpaper paste and water over me as some flush of afterbirth and there's a camera down there that's almost up my arse. It's not pleasant, but if it gets a laugh I'll do it."

A Cock and Bull Story opens Friday
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Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Jan 20, 2006
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