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Likable has-been bumbles along

Steve Coogan's new show about a former rock roadie is an essentially affectionate look into oddball British suburban lives.

October 13, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"Saxondale," about a 1970s rock roadie turned exterminator (as in rats and ants), is the latest series from Steve Coogan, the British comedian and actor best known as the aggressively self-defeating talk-show host Alan Partridge and for his starring roles in Michael Winterbottom's films "24 Hour Party People" and "Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story." (He's also in Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette.")

At age 41, 15 years after Partridge made his first appearance on the radio news spoof "On the Hour," Coogan, a pillar as well as a promoter of contemporary British comedy, has finally become a bit of a hot property in the United States: In June, NBC signed a two-year development deal with his Baby Cow Productions; among their projects is said to be an American version of "Saxondale," the original of which gets its domestic premiere tonight on BBC America.

The show's title and its opening credits, which show Tommy Saxondale at the wheel of a bright yellow Mustang Mach 1, suggest a 1970s detective show, though Saxondale is a somewhat less dashing figure than Starsky or Hutch. But he is thoroughly a creature of the '70s.

As with Partridge, Coogan plays a character older than himself: Here, he is gray-wigged and -bearded, with a prosthetic beer gut, his head full of memories of rock stars and festivals past, of John Bonham, "Lou-cifer Reed, as I used to call him" and the punctual Iggy Pop ("Mr. Osterberg to those who kept his show on the road.... When it came to running a schedule you could set your watch by the guy"), and of being a "two-day hire assistant to Jimmy Page's guitar tech."

If "Saxondale," written by Coogan and Neil Maclennan, isn't as funny in a quantifiable sense of laughs per minute or as hilariously nerve-racking as the Partridge pieces, that doesn't seem quite the point.

A half-satirical, essentially affectionate look into oddball British suburban lives -- Coogan grew up outside Manchester, and most of his characters have provincial roots -- it's closer in feel to something like "Weeds," a comedy with occasional, not constant, laughs, or to the portrait pieces in his own anthology "Coogan's Run." Tommy is a character, not a caricature, and as modern British comedy goes, fairly well adjusted and secure (in his out-of-time way), the anger management classes notwithstanding.

He likes to think of himself as a person who can Get the Job Done and a bit of a tough guy. (Firing his assistant, over the phone: "You left me no choice, dude; hard nose the highway, no more encores, exit stage left, house lights up.") Like Alan Partridge, he has a tendency to bluff extravagantly when caught in a lie or an embarrassing situation, to drop names and be dazzled by fame, to worship his car.

But Tommy is more likable than Alan, and where Alan is a compulsively status-conscious petit bourgeois, Tommy sees himself as a rebel, if a rebel steeped in tradition: American muscle cars, classic rock. ("If I want to hear electronic bleeps and farts," he says of modern dance music, "I'll put my foot through the windscreen

Morwenna Banks plays Vicky, the receptionist for the pest control subcontractor Tommy goes to for work and who talks a constant stream of sexual innuendo and backhanded insults.

The estimable Ruth Jones (familiar to fans of "Little Britain" as the barmaid in the Welsh village where David Walliams believes he is "the only gay") is Tommy's girlfriend and fellow self-styled rebel, Magz. She owns a shop called Smash the System, which sells posters and T-shirts of things like the queen smoking dope, a nun smoking dope, a policeman smoking dope.... They are in love, which is not an emotion Coogan has heretofore much explored. "You rock my world," she says, trembling. "You rock my world too," he replies, equally moved.



Where: BBC America

When: 8 tonight

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under 17)

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