STEVE COOGAN has never shied away from playing slightly odious people. From narcissist Alan Partridge, to the grandiose version of himself that he plays in The Trip series, he’s never been afraid of the unlikeable.
But Sir Richard McCreadie in the film Greed might be his vilest creation yet, a ruthless, white-toothed, perma-tanned retail tycoon in the midst of throwing an extravagant party on the Greek island of Mykonos, to celebrate his 60th birthday.
“There are little bits of Philip Green in there,” 54-year-old Coogan acknowledges, when asked about comparisons with the Topshop tycoon.
“Philip Green is a gift, because he’s larger than life, he’s very charismatic. Whatever you think of him, he’s certainly attention grabbing and he’s interesting, if nothing else.
“So that was the basis for the character, but then we took a lot from elsewhere — from someone else, who has very white teeth.
“Funny people tend to be larger than life and slightly vulgar, and so that suited the character of Richard McCreadie, so we borrowed that from Philip Green.
“It’s not really an attack, or a satire of Philip Green; it’s about a lot of people who behave a bit like Philip Green. There are many, many people out there.
“So it’s to make people think about people who behave in that way, rather than an individual.”
But writer and director Michael Winterbottom, who is Coogan’s frequent collaborator, says the idea for the film came a few years ago, when he was chatting with a friend about... you guessed it, Philip Green.
“He was telling me stories about Green calling him up, correcting his articles on him quite aggressively, quite loudly and sometimes in the middle of the night,” the filmmaker says.
“It felt like that might be a jovial way into retail fashion, and in particular looking at the inequalities in retail fashion.
“Obviously it’s a huge industry, workers that are mainly women, that work for incredibly low wages, but the bosses at the top.”
He notes that owners of Zara and H&M, for instance, are worth billions of dollars.
“It just felt, if we could show those grotesque contrasts, people might get angry.”
What does Coogan think about such retail moguls?
“I think they operate in a moral vacuum, but really, Philip Green is not to be blamed for this.
“There’s a system called the ‘free market’ and he’s a product of that,” he explains. “He’s obeying the rules of the market.”
“People need to talk about that, how people become super rich,” he continues.
“They become super rich by subjugating people and creating the super-super poor, and that’s something that is becoming more and more prevalent.
“What we are hoping is that people will put this on the agenda and talk about it in the same way we talk about the environment, gender, and sexual identity and gender politics.
“We want people to talk about how people are treated and how much we want very, very cheap clothes, and what price are we prepared to pay for that.”
Indeed, the film juxtaposes the lavish party “Greedy” McCreadie is throwing in Greece with the plight of workers making the clothes for his shops in Sri Lanka, as well as refugees from Syria who have set up camp on the beach near the bash.
Does he think there is immorality in the retail industry?
“I think there certainly is,” he replies.
“There are certain ethical retailers in all areas, but there’s a collusion of vested interests that tell you to look at supermodels in clothes, say to ‘Look over here’ and not look over here at people who have been paid so little they can’t even afford running water.
“They don’t want you to think about that, so they employ techniques to distract you, and yes, it’s a collusion of immoral forces at play.”
The film also makes a point of calling out celebrities who endorse brands that use factories with poor working conditions and low wages, saying they too should not be let off the hook.
“Anyone who has a high profile should be held more to account for their behaviour, whether it’s the practitioners themselves, or people who endorse them,” says Coogan.
“Or people who enable them - whether it be governments, institutions — through colluding to create a system of omerta (the Italian Mafia’s code of silence), where we don’t talk about certain things.”
“Globalised multinational companies are happy to embrace gender politics, the environment, they can spin all these things in their interest,” he adds.
“The one thing they don’t want to talk about is poverty, because people who live in poverty don’t buy their stuff, so the other way to elevate that is to make the people who do buy their stuff talk about it. I’m hoping that’s what the film does.”
While the movie was filmed on location on a luxury yacht in Greece, Coogan also visited garment workers in Sri Lanka, something he described as “quite a jolt”.
“The super-yachts cost £100,000 a day to rent, and then the next week we are at garment factories and they’re paying 3.50 US dollars a day.
“It’s good to look at those things next to each other and ask some questions.”