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The satirist who skewered the 1980s in What a Carve Up! is approaching elder statesman status. He talks about Brexit, prizes, cancel culture – and his Hollywood hero Billy Wilder
One Sunday evening in 1975 in a leafy suburb of Birmingham, 14-year-old Jonathan Coe put off his school dread by switching on the telly. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes was on BBC One, the beginning of the author’s lifelong fascination with director Billy Wilder, who was to become “a far more influential figure on the way that I write than any novelist,” he says, 45 years later. Such was the impact on the young Coe that he started recording the soundtracks of his favourite films from the TV so he could lie in bed listening to Wilder on his Walkman until “the rhythm to his dialogue kind of seeped into my subconscious”. That screening “set a lot of ripples in motion,” he says (young film buffs Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat also watched it that evening, leading to the hit TV series Sherlock). Coe’s latest novel, Mr Wilder & Me, has been “growing” in his head ever since.
When we meet, Coe, who talks with the unassuming solemnity of the off-duty comic, is without the beard of recent author photos. “I only grew it so people would take me more seriously and start giving me prizes,” he jokes. A few months later he won the Prix du livre européen and the 2019 Costa novel award for his last novel Middle England. So, going against lockdown trends, in March he “decided it had served its purpose and shaved it off”. He was already well into the new novel by the time the restrictions struck, which “really took my mind off the horror that was going on around me,” he says in the socially distanced autumnal sunshine of a cafe garden in Earl’s Court, west London, where he has lived for many years.
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