❉ Saxondale isn’t a quick-fire LOL fest, but it weaves a subtle spell to become something deeper and more layered.
It would be a crying shame for Saxondale to become a footnote in Steve Coogan’s career. At a point when he was estranged from Alan Partridge, he was trying instead to do something different, creating a character who was more likeable and relateable in comparison – albeit, as Coogan himself noted, “still a bit of a dick”.
Steve Coogan has grown to become a Hollywood player over the years and his latest turn in Stan & Ollie will only help to cement his international star status. Inevitable, though, to UK audiences he will forever be known for Alan Partridge. He seems to have made peace with this – his 2008 live tour was winkingly titled Steve Coogan As Alan Partridge And Other Less Successful Characters – but that’s not to say that North Norfolk’s finest is his own favourite creation.
In his 2015 autobiography Easily Distracted, Coogan revealed: “I like Saxondale more than Alan Partridge. I realise I’m out of step with most people. Those who like Saxondale absolutely love it and totally get it. And yet the majority would hold it up next to Partridge and insist it’s not as funny. It’s not literally as funny as Partridge. But there’s more depth to it and therefore it’s more satisfying to do.”
Co-written by Coogan and Neil Maclennan, two series of Saxondale went out on BBC Two, the first during Summer 2006, the second in Autumn 2007. At the time it was something of a TV comeback for Coogan. In the period since the second run of I’m Alan Partridge in 2002, he’d been busy with film roles, everything from 24 Hour Party People to Around the World in 80 Days, while his comedy production company Baby Cow was making waves with the likes of Nighty Night, The Mighty Boosh and Ideal. Possibly Coogan simply got an itch to return to the small screen medium that made him, but it’s probably no coincidence that he turned 40 in late 2005. There’s no more obvious time to consider a mid-life crisis, and that’s really what Saxondale is all about.
Tommy Saxondale is a 52 year-old ex-roadie, a former backstage wild man of rock. Emotionally scarred by a bitter divorce, he’s settled down in Stevenage with a comely younger woman, Magz , while trying to run his own pest control business. Having spent his salad days flipping the bird at the very notion of suburban contentment (though not, to his eternal chagrin, in the employ of Led Zep), Tommy finds that he now appreciates comfortable slippers and bills paid promptly by direct debit. He’s hardly a perfect fit for this lifestyle, though.
Haunted and confused by the allure of domesticity, his untamed side lurks still. Not for nothing is his car an original 1973 Mach-1 Yellow Boss 351 Mustang with a leaky fuel tank.
It’s easy to see what Coogan treasures so much about Tommy. He’s a more subtle creation than Alan Partridge – at least, Partridge as he was back then. In the first series of Saxondale Coogan tends to overdo Tommy’s nervous facial tics, but it’s toned down substantially by the second run. Tommy’s origins are never fully fleshed out. For instance, his parents aren’t wheeled on, though it’s obvious that he was a defiant young rebel who has ended up turning into his dad. There’s something refreshing about his lack of overwrought back-story, though. As Coogan identified, Saxondale isn’t a quick-fire LOL fest, but that means that, at its best, it weaves a subtle spell to become something deeper and more layered.
It is tempting to see the show as an indulgent pet project for its star, who had recently gone through a divorce and likes a flashy car or two himself (Coogan’s ambivalent feelings about the Top Gear world is mined to great effect in an episode featuring Alexander Armstrong as a suspiciously familiar motor-mouth petrol-head TV host). Some episodes enabled Coogan to take on a second role, as a perpetually off-his-tits whining Mancunian who has changed his name by deed poll to ‘Keanu Reeves’. In certain scenes, then, Coogan is playing alongside himself.
It’s rumoured that Coogan modelled Tommy’s distinctive East Midlands accent on that of his Baby Cow co-founder Henry Normal. There’s also a sense of the celebrated co-owner of Britain’s hottest comedy production company assembling a knock-out cast around himself, from Ruth Jones – on the eve of her Baby Cow-produced Gavin & Stacey breakthrough – to Darren Boyd, Mark Williams, Kevin Eldon, Daisy Haggard, Rosie Cavaliero and Liza Tarbuck.
It also features very early TV roles for James Bachman, Greg Davies and Tim Key. Armstrong’s partner Ben Miller crops up as a rival pest controller, as well as script-editing the show and directing the pilot. It’s a positive bevy of talent, though of particular note are Rasmus Hardiker as Tommy’s assistant, the delightfully dimwitted Raymond, and Morwenna Banks as Vicky, office manager of the local pest control agency. Banks is reliably great in everything she’s in, but her turn here, equal parts saucy party girl and vicious harpy, is a highlight of the show.
Another part of the show’s considerable charms is the sheer feel of the thing. It has a very specific tone and a keen eye for detail. At times it’s unusually still, even formulaic, for a sitcom, with repeated shots of Stevenage’s dog-walkers passing Tommy’s house at dusk, or of Raymond and Tommy striding purposefully towards Vicky’s office. As well as appearing in a recurring cameo during series 2, Matt Berry wrote and recorded the show’s period-appropriate music cues, which mesh perfectly with the show’s chosen main theme, Focus’ flute-tastic 1971 instrumental House of the King, and its driving end theme, Hocus Pocus by, yes, Focus.
The pre-credits sequence for each episode features one Tommy’s anger management sessions, held after hours at the local library and lead by twitchy therapist Alastair (James Bachman). But only on a couple of occasions does Alastair pop up for a cameo within the episode itself. Otherwise the sessions are never mentioned at all, though they sometimes foreshadow that week’s theme.
There’s also the matter of Vicky’s co-worker, again never referred to, sitting motionless at a PC in the background like a posed dummy. In fact it probably was, but it lends a weird air to those scenes, almost like the mysterious ‘fifth housemate’ from The Young Ones.
It all gels best when Tommy gets riled by something in his suburban environment, be it thoughtless squatters, his daughter’s tactless new boyfriend, an over-zealous ticket inspector, or, most often, the merciless Vicky. He can never quite decide whether he craves middle-class shangri-la or his old drugs and rock ‘n’ roll days – though with Magz, he seems sorted on the sex front. Their relationship does have its wobbles though, for all her tolerance, while another of the show’s finest episodes sees Tommy save a suicidal man (played by Kevin Eldon) who the couple struggle to shake off.
The second series broadened Tommy’s world a little and brought in some new characters – Darren Boyd’s ill-advisedly matey neighbour Jonathan, Rosie Cavaliero as Magz’s humourless pal Penny – but never strayed too far from the existing format. Beyond the two series that were produced, Saxondale seems to have spluttered to a complete halt. There was talk of a US remake which came to nothing, and Tommy made a brief turn in Coogan’s 2008 …Other Less Successful Characters live tour but he was never cut out to be that sort of show-stopper. With his evidential fondness for the character, Coogan has been known to imply that a Saxondale film would be a project he’d consider. That could certainly work, because Tommy still has plenty of fuel in the tank.
It would be a crying shame for Saxondale to become a footnote in Steve Coogan’s career, though. At a point when he was estranged from Alan Partridge, he was trying instead to do something different, creating a character who was more likeable and relateable in comparison – albeit, as Coogan himself noted, “still a bit of a dick”. The show fitted well into the then-modish trend for toe-curling awkwardness in shows free of a laughter track, and to be fair, British sitcom still hasn’t shaken off the influence of The Office twenty years later, as you’ll know if you’ve watched any of BBC Three’s current output.
Come 2010, Coogan had revived Partridge in collaboration with new co-writers Neil and Rob Gibbons, a set-up which has since brought us the Alpha Papa film, two glorious volumes of Partridge ‘memoirs’, and now the full-on BBC comeback This Time with Alan Partridge. The Gibbons have helped to make today’s Alan Partridge more rounded and a little less objectionable, and in that respect it’s tempting to see Tommy Saxondale as a key, influential moment of career evolution for Coogan rather than an abandoned dead end.
Yes, there were too many gags about Ruth Jones’ Magz not being a size 8, but Saxondale succeeded as a kind of low-key, bitter-sweet love story about class, ageing and compromise. It might be the closest Coogan ever gets to making a Mike Leigh film, and it richly deserves a wave or reappraisal, or at the very least a binge rewatch.
Or a film version. Oh, go on, Steve. You know you want to.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.