With his latest film, Steve Coogan wants to start a big conversation. Greed is the tragi-comic tale of an obnoxious, super-rich retailer who has made billions on the back of paying poverty wages, aggressive tax avoidance, bullying, bribery and basking in the vicarious glow of paid-for celebrity friends.
The character of Sir Richard McCreadie is a sleazy, macho dinosaur who peddles a public image of a self-made man despite a private education and huge privilege. He’s known – affectionately – by the tabloids as Greedy McCreadie.
In the film, directed by Coogan’s frequent collaborator Michael Winterbottom, after draining more than a billion pounds from his company into his wife’s bank account, McCreadie prepares for his 60th birthday party, complete with bespoke Roman amphitheatre, performing lion and expensively procured celebrity guests.
He is closely based, says the actor, on Topshop supremo Philip Green. “There are even direct quotes from him in this film that we give to our character,” he says.
Coogan has some stuff he wants to get off his chest.
“I was interested in the fact that it was a story about poverty and wealth and the disparity between them,” the 54-year-old begins. “It’s about the huge yawning chasm between rich and poor in this world, which not many people seem to be talking about.
“There are lots of conversations about the environment, lots of conversations about gender politics – and all of these are important. But the one thing that there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of conversation about is the huge imbalance of wealth in the world. And I found that annoying.
“Commerce can adapt to changing social conditions and social mores, and cultural shifts surrounding identity politics and sexual politics, because it doesn’t ultimately cost them any money,” he says. “It doesn’t affect their stock value because they can adapt and survive – like a virus, or a parasite.
“The same goes for the environment. They can actually spin environmental issues and make them work for them – keeping quiet about their transgressions and shouting from the rooftops about small concessions so everyone thinks they are wonderful and some liberal-minded people might pay a bit extra for their products.”
Hitting his stride now, Coogan continues: “The one thing they are reluctant to speak about is poverty. Because addressing that issue will affect their bottom line. Because it’s about paying people more and not employing people on slave wages, which is what happens with a number of companies.” Coogan cites many of our high-street favourites as examples of brands whose supply chains are built on low-paid labour.
I think it will damage your creative antennae to hang out with too many rich, famous people
“Many of the [workers] don’t have any running water. And these are very respectable companies. But they distract our attention by using pictures of supermodels wearing their clothes so people don’t think about it.
“Everyone is complicit in it because of this drug, which is peddled to the general public, which is you need to have a different jacket every season. All this stuff is pernicious and needs somebody to try to shine a light on it. And I think Greed does that.”
He reaches a conclusion.
“This is the biggest issue, I think, facing the world. The issue of the imbalance of wealth in the world. So the more people talk about it, the better. I hope it becomes an issue. People buy Fairtrade coffee. For some reason clothes seems to have escaped that kind of scrutiny. So anyway, that’s the long, long answer to what attracted me to this film.”
Phew. As Coogan recovers his breath and sips his coffee, we dig into Greed’s exposé of how some UK retailers’ supply chains include garment factories (one step up from unregulated sweatshops) in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Does he agree that more and more people in this country are also facing hard times, despite being in work?
“[In-work poverty] is an issue in this country,” Coogan says. “And I fear that a deregulated Britain will become more attractive to pariah companies to come and set up here. It will be dressed up as work opportunities but in actual fact it’s just enslavement by another name.
“I’m hoping a discussion will start that results in people buying fewer clothes and making them last longer. I’m not going convince everyone. I don’t expect teenage girls to go, ‘Did you hear what Steve Coogan said the other day? I’m going to think twice about my fashion choices now.’ But you have to start somewhere.”
Greed also highlights the unsettling and rarely explored overlap between wealthy celebrities and the super-rich – the haves and the have-yachts. James Blunt, Fatboy Slim, Stephen Fry and Pixie Lott all appear in the movie accepting cash to join McCreadie’s celebrity circus.
“I have to take my hat off to the celebrities in our film,” says Coogan, “because they act as if they’re prostituting themselves for huge amounts of money. What they were doing is actually the reverse of that – they did it virtually for nothing because they wanted to help a film that highlights this issue.”
Consorting with the wealthy is not something Coogan indulges in.
“I think it will damage your creative antennae to hang out with too many rich, famous people,” he explains. “And, as Michael Winterbottom says, most rich and famous people are boring as well.”
The issue, however, remains one that such folk would, on the whole, like to avoid.
“There are lots of celebrities who do it. Remember a few years ago, when Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank performed for that Chechen ne’er-do-well and claimed to not know who they were? [In 2011 the actors were castigated by the Human Rights Foundation after they attended the 35th birthday party of ruthless Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.] To aid and abet anyone who has been done for human rights violations or who has what I will call pernicious and exploitative business practices by lending your credibility and your followers as an artist is indefensible.”
I suggest that, through his early success as Alan Partridge, Coogan achieved a level of fame and importance in the industry that could have afforded him a licence to act badly at work if he had chosen to – as Greedy McCreadie is shown doing in the film. He seems taken aback.
“I mean, I took drugs and partied,” he says. “So I’m not going around like St Bernadette, you know.”
But did he get an insight into how powerful people fall into bad habits in a world where everyone says yes to them?
Comedy was a sort of day job and now it’s like a holiday
“Bad behaviour is tolerated if you make people money,” he says. “If you’re successful then people tolerate it. If you are in the middle of that and you are a scoundrel and a bully, people let you. But I have never behaved like that.
“Most of the time people who drink too much, take drugs, party too much, only hurt themselves. I have been self-destructive in the past, but I’ve never behaved badly to other people.”
“I think the Labour Party needs to really take a long, hard look at itself and how it presents itself and its ideas,” is all he will say. “I don’t have a fixed solution. But it needs to eat a big fat dose of humble pie before it starts addressing how to win back support or adapt to this new landscape.
“We’re in a state of flux. Let’s see what happens. But I certainly hope the leadership election leads to someone making brave decisions – it requires imagination, not just tribal thinking. Right now I’m just sitting tight, watching and not into voicing opinions.”
It’s tempting to assume the type of preposterous tycoon satirised in the eighth film collaboration between Coogan and Winterbottom as a dying breed. But one look at the leader of the free world suggests otherwise.
“I certainly hope the misogyny of that kind of macho business culture is coming to an end,” Coogan says. “Because beyond how morally reprehensible it might be, it’s just unimaginative and boring. It’s so limiting, that kind of red-blooded macho culture of the stock market, the Gordon Gekko greed culture of the Eighties.”
Whether the film reaches an audience beyond an echo chamber of likeminded people is up for debate – something which is, it seems, the modern satirist’s dilemma.
“There’s always a problem of just preaching to the converted,” says Coogan. “I mean, I’ve seen some very good, serious films this year that I admired. Dark Waters with Mark Ruffalo was wonderful and The Report, about torture during America’s supposed War on Terror. But we need more people to watch those films.”
Coogan’s lofty motivations for making Greed are part of an ongoing search for substance in his work. A new seriousness that began with co-writing Philomena with Jeff Pope – which starred Judi Dench as a woman searching for her forcibly adopted son – has left him seeming happier in his own skin, and more creatively fulfilled.
“I love comedy – but you want something else besides,” he says. “It’s like chocolate, you know? You need some sustenance and nutrition – and for me I wanted to talk about stuff that mattered.
“Philomena was an epiphany. I realised I could talk about things, I could write something moving, I could work outside of my comfort zone and I could still use comedy.”
Satisfying a search for more meaning in his work also freed Coogan to return to his most famous creation with renewed passion. And he has good news for Alan Partridge’s loyal fans – there will be a new podcast plus two further series.
“Comedy was a sort of day job and now it’s like a holiday,” he says. “So when I do serious or nuanced stuff, let’s come back and just do daft Alan Partridge. It is fun. It makes me laugh. So I’ve got a lot of yin to go with my yang.”
Greed is in cinemas now. The Trip to Greece, with Rob Brydon, is on Sky One on March 3 at 10pm