Despite our island nation’s belief in ourselves as thoroughly amusing chaps, decent British-made televisual comedy has been a bit thin on the ground recently, so it was with some trepidation that I approached new comedy series The Trip (BBC 2 Mondays 10pm.)
In this six part show, comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel around a wintry North, stopping off at posh restaurants along the way. Whilst they dine, we are treated to a sort of existential play, where both men portray exaggerated versions of ‘themselves’ – a conceit that we’ve seen before in The Larry Sanders Show and Extras and director Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story, (the 2005 film of Sterne’s novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, also starring both actors.) Over elaborately foamy menus the two men conduct conversations that quickly disintegrate into improvised impersonation competitions. In beween they trample around the countryside, utterly indifferent to the grandeur of the mottled winter moors that fill the screen behind them. These are two entirely self absorbed egos.
The initial premise doesn’t seem very exciting, but where the programme works so well is in the careful unveiling of the back story. Both men are obviously fearful of middle age. We are shown that Brydon is essentially a shallow little puppy, a mediocre talent, yet a man who is blissfully contented with his lot. Coogan on the other hand is portrayed as the tortured comedic Icarus who achieved massive early success and reached for stardom in Hollywood but finds himself back in Britain wondering if and where it all went wrong. You can feel that he thinks he no longer belongs here in this provincial island.
“I like humour, I like levity… I just find it all a bit tiresome… I don’t want to do British TV,” he tells his agent upon being offered the role of a baddie in Doctor Who.”I want to be in films. Good films,” he pleads.
“Coogan” medicates his emptiness with women and drugs, but he’s reached an age where he’s not sure if they work anymore. He seems embittered that nobody will let him forget his most famous creation, Alan Partridge, who looms over him like Frankenstein’s monster. His fans don’t want him to be a serious actor, they want him to keep making Alan Partridge episodes for ever and ever. The pathos lies in watching an actor tread an incredibly fine line between reality and tabloid mythology and it seems brave for Coogan to portray himself as so vulnerable and unsure of his worth. In episode three we see him standing alone in a valley as he shouts out his Partridge catchphrase ‘AHA!’ impotently into the dead brown hills.
Between the banter Winterbottom manages to sell the North as an attractive place, and the restaurants and hotels the two men stay in all seem very nice indeed. My only gripe with the programme has already been outlined by Brydon in episode three when he mentions to Coogan that “Essentially we’ll have the same conversation in every restaurant we review” – with more judicious editing it would perhaps have made a better film than the eked out 6 TV episodes that we have (Brydon’s impersonation oeuvre seems slim and he soon starts to look a bit desperate) But overall there is plenty to like about this series. Fans of Steve Coogan’s sublime comedic acting had more or less given him up for dead, so his return was well made with this series, as The Trip is one of the better things that’s been on television lately.