Steve Brown obituary

<span>Steve Brown in 2011.</span><span>Photograph: Richard Ecclestone/Redferns</span>
Steve Brown in 2011.Photograph: Richard Ecclestone/Redferns

The composer and lyricist Steve Brown, who has died of pulmonary fibrosis aged 69, had a career unlike anyone else’s. As a writer of musical theatre, he co-created Spend, Spend, Spend (1998) – about the football pools winner Viv Nicholson – which prompted fan mail, cherished by Brown, from Stephen Sondheim calling it “the first good British musical”.

As a comedian, he worked closely with Rory Bremner, Harry Hill and Steve Coogan on TV shows and tours, most notably starring as the bandleader Glenn Ponder in the latter’s Alan Partridge talkshow Knowing Me, Knowing You (1994). Brown also produced acclaimed debut albums by the singer-songwriters Rumer and Laura Mvula. The latter’s was nominated in 2013 for the Mercury prize, a stratum of musical prestige you might have thought beyond the man who also wrote the Wonky Donkey jingle for Ant and Dec’s SM:TV.

But Brown did not make distinctions between his work for stage and screen, comedy and music – or indeed kids’ television. “He elevated all the songs we did together,” Coogan said, “to a level they didn’t need to be at to make the joke land. He’d say ‘let’s make the music good too’. Why? Because we can. Because he could.”

Brown’s collaboration with Coogan straddled 30 years, after they met on the satirical puppet show Spitting Image, for which Brown wrote songs. It spawned a fondly remembered moment on Knowing Me, Knowing You, when a peevish Partridge sacked Brown’s character live on air (“You are sacked, I’m sacking you. In fact … it’s already happened, you are a sacked man”); as well as a duet between Coogan (as his Tony Ferrino character) and Björk for Comic Relief in 1997 about an affair between a sleazebag and his au pair (“The memory still lingers / You cooking the kids’ fish fingers”); and a song – performed on Coogan’s touring stage show – teasing at the comedian’s vexed tabloid reputation, Everyone’s a Bit of a Cunt Sometimes.

Brown – “a really kind man with really good values”, in Coogan’s words – was held in high regard by most who worked with him, the more so because he didn’t seek (or didn’t find) the limelight himself. “Comedy’s best kept secret,” Hill called him, although Brown did have brushes with recognition, winning an edition of Pointless Celebrities (with Barbara Dickson) in 2021, and appearing briefly as Noel Gallagher alongside Jon Culshaw’s Liam on the television version of Dead Ringers.

While he played second fiddle to Hill on TV shows and tours, Brown was an equal partner – and close friend – to the comedian in their theatre endeavours. Their 2014 X Factor musical I Can’t Sing, produced by Simon Cowell, was a hit with critics and a flop at the box office. In 2022, their show about the New Labour years Tony! (The Tony Blair Rock Opera) did serviceable business at the Park theatre in north London and on tour.

Brown was born in south-east London, the third child of Margie (nee Sewell) and Len Brown. Having taught himself to play guitar and piano as a child, Brown left Bromley grammar school for boys at 16, playing in a variety of bands on the same south London pub circuit from which his near contemporary David Bowie sprang.

He got his break writing music for West End and radio comedy, and when the alternative comedy wave crested in the 1980s, Brown surfed it – in the Perrier award-winning sketch group Writer’s Inc, alongside Smack the Pony co-creator Victoria Pile among others, and on Radio 4’s late-night comedy offering In One Ear.

Work on Spitting Image – on which Brown joined his first wife, the impressionist Jan Ravens (to whom he was married from 1983 to 1993) – followed, and he was by Coogan’s side in the 1990s when the character of Alan Partridge took flight. Success in his own right came with Spend, Spend, Spend (co-written with Justin Greene), which – in the first West End production, at the Piccadilly theatre, starring Dickson – won the 1999 Evening Standard award for best musical. It “fully deserves to join Blood Brothers as a working-class ‘up yours’ fixture amongst West End musicals,” wrote the Financial Times reviewer, calling it “the most glorious new musical I can ever recall seeing”.

Brown struggled to replicate that early success. Due to rights issues, a musical adaptation of the film It’s a Wonderful Life never made it past its first outing at the New Wolsey theatre in Ipswich. Brown’s two comic musicals with Hill were a source of joy to both, and professional satisfaction – but they did not flourish commercially. “My wife,” said Hill, “refers to us as the Flop Twins.”

Before his death, Brown was laying plans with Coogan for an Alan Partridge musical, and a stage adaptation of Coogan’s 2013 film Philomena. (A revival of Spend, Spend, Spend is in the works – as yet unannounced – for Christmas 2024.)

But Brown took pleasure in his TV work – composing for Lenny Henry, the sitcom Not Going Out and Hill’s TV Burp, among many others – and great pride in nurturing the careers of Mvula and Rumer, on whose debut album Seasons of My Soul, wrote one critic, “every song sounds like a standard”. He took pride too in the careers of his sons with Ravens, Alfie and Lenny, who followed their father into comedy and music respectively, benefiting from his encouragement and insight. Brown later married the actor Deborah Cornelius in 2010. His family remember a man with a voracious appetite for learning, but for mischief and play too, who valued his accomplishments while believing he still had lots left to achieve.

“So then what is life? / What does it mean, what’s it about?” Brown once asked, in a My Way-esque song written – tongue firmly in cheek – for Coogan’s Portuguese lounge-singer alter ego Tony Ferrino. “Is there a God above? / Why is he there? What does he do? / Don’t ask me. I’m not sure.” According to Coogan: “Whenever I turned around onstage and looked back at Steve, he was always smiling and laughing, even though he wrote lots of it and had heard it all a thousand times before.”

Brown is survived by Deborah, by Alfie and Lenny and his stepdaughter Manon, and by his siblings Christopher and Susanne.

• Steven James Brown, composer and lyricist, born 25 October 1954; died 2 February 2024