Baddiel and Skinner, Gervais and Merchant, Pegg and Frost, Adam and Joe… there are a number of great double-acts to have emerged over the last couple of decades in this country. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more natural, charming and harmonious on-screen couple than Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, the co-stars of The Trip. Rob Brydon hails from the cultural goldmine that is the rainy shores of Port Talbot, my hometown. And so do Anthony Hopkins, the late Richard Burton, Michael Sheen and the-first-winner-of-Britain’s Got Talent-turned-recent-biopic-recipient Paul Potts. Steve Coogan, on the other hand, was raised in Greater Manchester somewhere to the nation’s collective sympathy.
Still, he’s done well for himself. As well as playing Alan Partridge in I’m Alan Partridge and Knowing Me, Knowing You, he’s recently been on a bit of a renaissance. Inspired by his lead role alongside Hugh Grant in the Leveson Inquiry, he’s gone on to reprise his most-famous character in a feature film (Alpha Papa) and did a genuinely great job on Oscar-nominated favourite Philomena as co-star and co-writer. He was unstoppable last year, in fact, with further roles in What Maisie Knew and another lead performance in Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love. Rob Brydon, meanwhile, has continued to host Would I Lie To You?
Frivolity aside, it was The Trip – also from director Winterbottom – which reunited the two on our television screens in 2010 and its impact helped to re-launch Coogan’s assault on feature films. The three have previously collaborated on A Cock and Bull Story, a fact-meets-fiction production based on the idea of an adaptation as Rob and Steve take on dual roles. In The Trip, they play only themselves – albeit heightened, exaggerated versions of these figures – although there’s something which remains that lingers pretty close to home.
Watching the emotional journey of the two on-screen in season one – particularly Coogan – is a rather unexpected melancholy experience. Part of the beauty of the program was the chalk-and-cheese relationship between the two not-quite-imagined characters, and the real life experiences that their situations were clearly based on. The struggles of Coogan and his dissatisfactions at every turn are only fun when he’s with Rob; when it’s his love-life, career and perhaps sanity on the line in the more personal, isolated moments it’s an examination of a desperate man who craves the comfort and security of an easier life, but who refuses to give up his dreams and ideals in order to do so.
Again, this is most certainly a blown up version, but there’s truth in there: even if it isn’t for Coogan, the question of success versus happiness is certainly a pertinent sentiment that we can each buy into. This, thankfully, is balanced out by the humour which ebbs from almost every single scene, especially when the two are on-screen together, competing for laughs and attention. Though The Trip might be described as Coogan and Brydon rivalling each other for the best impressions over six episodes (and it might appear to be simply that at times), there really is a lot more to it than that.
Not least of which is the beauty of the British countryside as they travel around the North of England seeking sights and culinary delights. The thin premise of the show is that Coogan has been asked to review a series of restaurants for a national broadsheet. This is a way to get the two of them on the road – which happens immediately in season one, episode one – and it results in a British episodic version of Sideways. The food’s not bad either (all of the restaurants and menus are genuine), although they often come at extortionate prices.
And despite any objections, the descent-into-farce of constant impersonations (notables include Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Anthony Hopkins and Woody Allen) is a wonderful, hilarious sideshow that allows us to scratch the surface of their inherent competitive nature. Whilst the character of ‘Rob’ is able to let go and appears to be more easy-going (though not without fault of his own), ‘Steve’ is more prone to suffering – and not usually in silence.
It all adds up to something which manages to build into a quite cathartic experience come episode six – especially with the brilliant accompanying score perhaps best-known from the Gattaca soundtrack during the final scene – and we can only hope for more of the same in season two. Four years after the original, and entitled The Trip to Italy, this time it’s Rob who has been asked to venture out and do some reviewing of his own. I suspect it’s no coincidence that he’s been given a more exotic location which will lead to inevitable resentment from his regular partner-in-crime.
Make no mistake – and I can’t emphasise this enough – The Trip might have come out of nowhere, but it’s one of the best television shows of the past few years. It’s a masterpiece of mockumentary filmmaking (the six episodes have been edited down into a film for American audiences which is now available on Netflix, though you lose over an hour of footage via this option) and it’s one of the greatest shows we’ve ever produced in Britain. It mixes subtlety, charm and raucous humour and manages to dance the fine line between construction in pre-production and allowing space for its actors to breathe and work with each other in an act of improvisational virtuosity.
In case you can’t tell, it’s my firm belief that you should watch The Trip to Italy. It doesn’t rely on any backstory, so you can pick it up and then go back and watch (or re-watch) the first season afterwards. You won’t regret it.
The Trip to Italy debuts tonight (Friday 4th April) on BBC Two at 10pm and will be available on BBC iPlayer thereafter.