Proof that, when we put our minds to it, the British can still create great TV, BBC TV’s The Trip re-united director Michael Winterbottom with his “A Cock and Bull Story” stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon to produce one of the best and most original comedy series in recent years. Steve Coogan, playing (a version of) himself, has agreed to travel the north of England reviewing restaurants for The Observer, the hitch being that the girlfriend he had planned to take the trip with has left him and gone back to America.
After being turned down by everyone else he has asked, he has one choice left; his “friend” Rob Brydon. Relentlessly upbeat, flitting from impression to impression, Brydon tires Coogan out instantly and effortlessly and the resulting comedy as they ping-pong from location to location is sometimes hilariously broad (the pair – inspired by a thick, green soup – improvising a scene from a gangster film in which Ray Winstone is forcing to get a hapless stooge to drink his snot) and at other times small, poignant and beautifully observed (“I don’t care about silly voices”).
Mostly improvised, each episode follows a near identical template; the drive to the restaurant, during which Brydon annoys Coogan and then the meal, in which Brydon annoys Coogan some more. But this is more than just self-indulgent, odd-couple riffing; the whole thing is played with a simmering melancholy and it’s this angle that really brings The Trip to life. There is a streak of sadness that runs a mile-wide throughout the series; Coogan’s fear of aging is a key component in his personality and it sits just lurking behind almost everything he says and does. Playing a kind of tabloid version of himself, all one night stands and pharmaceuticals, Coogan is just not where he wants to be, not in his career and not in his relationships. He feels that he should be working with the auteurs of Hollywood and doesn’t even attempt to hide the disdain he feels for Brydon’s brand of entertainment, classing himself as an “actor” and Brydon an “impressionist”.
He’s struggling badly and not hiding it very well; his struggle exacerbated by the feeling he has of time breathing down his neck, of the toll of age on his physique and – most currently – by the fact that his travelling companion can do an immensely popular voice (“small man in a box” – YouTube it) that he cannot. To quote the song, he’s empty and aching and he doesn’t know why.
Brydon meanwhile is happy. He has a loving wife and a newborn baby that he dislikes being away from, work he enjoys (on the radio panel shows Coogan is constantly mocking) and just seems to take life as it comes (although he’s not above sticking the knife in when he feels it’s necessary, constantly invoking the spectre of Alan Partridge as some great past victory that Coogan will not see the like of again). When the pair really get into it, usually by trying to out-impression one another (“Come, come Mister Bond, you enjoy killing just as much as I do…”), the interaction between them is inspired and hilarious. One of my favourite moments from the whole show comes in the final episode’s singing competition.
Having shared a duet on the motorway (on a quasi-operatic take on Abba’s Winner Takes It All) Coogan asks Brydon what his vocal range is; unsure, the pair go about testing themselves and, as Coogan squawks out just shy of his third octave (Brydon’s benchmark), he grins. A real grin, one of the very few that he’s experienced on the entire trip; he’s finally having fun and we feel, for a second, that he might be glad he invited his irritating buddy after all. Then Brydon blows the moment: “I beat you,” he says. Coogan’s smile vanishes instantly and he slumps against the window, beaten, worthless and tired. It’s a beautiful moment, inconsequential as far as narrative or plot goes, but one that says so much about Coogan’s emptiness and his shark-like search for the “next thing”, be it women, drugs or (in his mind) long overdue stardom (also right up there, in a show crammed full of favourite bits, is Brydon asking Coogan if he would allow one of his children to be taken ill if, in return, it would win him an Oscar. After a lengthy silence, Brydon prompts him for an answer. “I’m thinking about it…” he replies).
Too soon, the series rolls to an end. After the most perfunctory of goodbyes (Coogan doesn’t even get out of the car) Brydon goes home to his warm Victorian terraced house, his wife’s arms and a home cooked meal and vows never to stay away for so long again. Coogan, meanwhile, goes back to his cool, ultra-modern flat, idly thumbs though a magazine and stares out over the darkening city, alone. Effortlessly funny, beautifully shot and performed and yet – as the best comedy can be – still more than that, The Trip is a modern classic.