Distant Voices: The Trip & The Trip To Italy

Over the past decade, the director Michael Winterbottom has established himself as arguably the most vital force in British cinema, and certainly the hardest to pin down or predict. His last three features make the case eloquently. In a blind test, surely few would identify the man behind the desperately moving A Mighty Heart – in which Angelina Jolie gives the performance of her career as Mariane Pearl, wife of the kidnapped and murdered journalist Daniel – as the same man responsible for The Killer Inside Me, the first English-language adaptation of a Jim Thompson novel to stay true to Thompson and his implications, and, as such, the most infamous movie of 2010. In between those two, Winterbottom slipped in something else again, in the warm, fragile shape of Genova, with Colin Firth, a film that looks at first like a ghost story, then becomes far harder to touch or define, and far more haunting.

With its long hard stare prompting serious debates on screen violence and heated accusations of outright misogyny, how does a filmmaker possibly follow the harsh controversy of The Killer Inside Me? Well, of course – isn’t it obvious? With Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, eating tomato soup and scallops, and bickering gently, while both impersonating Michael Caine.

This is The Trip, in which Coogan and Brydon tour restaurants in the north of England while arguing, and it is easily one of the greatest things we have seen on television this year – in many years, come to that – although not everyone will agree. If you have an aversion to Coogan or Brydon, for instance, there is probably not a lot of point tuning in for the series. Equally, if you prefer a comedy to be fast, bright and packed with incident, it’s probably best to move along.

The Trip is very funny very often, but it is also slow and quiet, in touch and in tune with a real, deep melancholy, and packed with nothing happening. Except, as with all the best of the wide and varied “nothing happens” genre – Genova itself and Roberto Rosellini’s Voyage To Italy are prime examples – if you stop waiting to be told where to look and how to feel about it, and actually just look, you might begin to notice there’s so much going on it’s almost overwhelming.

The series is very much a sequel to A Cock And Bull Story, the beautifully scattershot version of Tristram Shandy that Winterbottom made with Coogan and Brydon in 2005; an adaptation that occasionally collided with the letter of Laurence Sterne’s novel, but stayed faithful mostly by digressing, to chew on its spirit.

In that film, Coogan and Brydon played fictionalised versions of themselves, as they do again in The Trip, and both movie and TV series mount a freewheeling dissection of the persona Coogan presents: essentially, a man who would like to be considered not merely as Alan Partridge, but as an artist, with all the layers, ambitions, hungers and traumas it implies. (Partridge’s ghost appears in The Trip in a brilliant moment when Coogan turns to the northern wilderness and bellows a huge “AH-HAAAAAH” to the horizon; it’s hard to tell if it’s a Whitmanesque yawp, or a distress signal.)

Meanwhile, Brydon needles and nibbles away at him simply by seeming mystifyingly content to just be a clever, funny guy, who everybody seems to like. “I don’t understand why you have this aversion to people just doing things that make people laugh,” Brydon, the panel-show regular, prods Coogan early in the series, and, although the other sighs something vague and dismissive about finding it all “so tiresome,” this becomes the question that will chew away at him, even as he chases women and puffs on spliffs to get away from it. With Brydon out to make the most of things, and Coogan slumping in on himself, The Trip has the outline of a classic odd couple piece: one buddy born to sweet delight, the other born to endless night.

As it is, it’s Brydon who should have most to moan about. He’s doing Coogan a favour, and he’s left behind a comfy home, a loving wife and newborn baby to come and do it. The set-up is that Coogan has been commissioned by The Observer newspaper to write a series of food articles, reviewing the finest out-of-the-way spots scattered around the Yorkshire Dales and Lake District. (The restaurants, and the meals they eat, are genuine.)

Originally, Coogan agreed to the assignment because he figured the weeklong roadtrip would make a romantic jaunt for him and his American girlfriend, Mischa. Since accepting, though, he and Mischa have split up and she’s flown home. “Why me?” is Brydon’s immediate response when Coogan asks him to come along instead of his girlfriend – in the world of the show, the two are friends, but not close ones – and the implication is that Coogan has realised he has no one else to ask.

The programme is consciously repetitive, itself lapsing into the rhythm of the trip. The routine is quickly established, and fairly unchanging, as they admit over dinner a few days in: “We start out being a bit awkward with each other. Have a little bit of wine. Exchange a few frivolities, loosen up and enjoy each other’s company. Have a bit more wine. Get cantakereous, pick faults with each other, and then it descends into a bitter, unhappy end to the meal.”

One aspect not mentioned in that summary, though, is the impressions. One of the highlights of A Cock And Bull Story came during the closing credits, as Coogan and Brydon, who both did imitations and voicework early in their careers, got caught in an increasingly serious battle to see which of them could do the best Al Pacino, Coogan looking desperate to win, even as he professed the whole thing beneath him.

Again, if you didn’t like that, it’s best not to try this because, in one respect, The Trip is that single sequence drawn out to three hours. Brydon continually entertains himself with a raft of voices, to Coogan’s growing despair, and perhaps the audience’s. You get a clear sense of how being stuck in a car with Rob Brydon for a week could result in murder. But Coogan can’t help getting pulled in, and as they rise to each other like jazzmen in a cutting session, their duelling Pacinos – and Caines, James Masons, Anthony Hopkins, Ronnie Corbetts, Woody Allens, Allan Bennetts and on an on – are hilarious.

Underneath it all, though, runs the question of what it is that the Coogan character thinks he’s looking for in life, and the programme blooms into a very touching exploration of friendship and aging. Then, too, come passages on literature, on poets’ lives, on geology.

Meanwhile, Winterbottom casually balances it all on the tip of eternity. In his first movie with Coogan, the superb, shaggy Factory Records fable 24 Hour Party People, Winterbottom included odd, striking shots of the countryside pressing around Manchester, and those stray images seem another root for The Trip. The director has an astonishing, almost mysterious gift for place – Genova conjures the feeling of being in an unknown city like few other films – and it is all over this series. There may have been other shows that have captured the British landscape like this, but I can’t think of any that have ever made it feel so vast or so raw. Often, the show is about sunlight over the tops of hills, about bare branches, about ice forming on the surface of dark lakes at twilight.

Another recurring joke is that Coogan, having filled his head with guidebook facts and figures about the places they visit, is actually blind to the glory around him, even as he tries to prove how much he knows about it. He babbles on his mobile phone to his agent while the world explodes in beauty behind him. When he does finally shut up, stop thinking, and just look, The Trip becomes, for a moment, a serious contemplation of the sublime – until, rather brilliantly, they turn it into another gag.

Nothing happens. Everything is happening. Toward the end of the series, there comes another version of another scene that recurs throughout the series: Coogan stands alone in the bathroom of his hotel room, staring into the mirror, trying to do something that Brydon can do and he can’t. Meanwhile, in another room, Brydon sits in his bed, chatting sleepily to his wife on the phone about how things are back home. Finally, Coogan says this to the reflection staring back at him in sad, slightly horrified bewilderment: “I don’t care about silly voices. They’re stupid.”

It doesn’t sound much, but because of the steady accretion of all the other moments leading up to it, I found it one of the most moving moments British TV has delivered in a long, long time. This is all the more unaccountable given that, when he says those words, Coogan is actually speaking in a very silly voice indeed, sounding like Donald Duck might if he were impersonating the Elephant Man on helium, and had just been punched hard in the heart. The only thing wrong with The Trip is that it has to end.

A version of this review appeared in The Sunday Herald, October 31 2010


THE TRIP
TO ITALY

When the first series of The Trip went out, in 2010, it took me roughly four minutes to fall hopelessly in love. Many people went the other way. The main complaint was that the programme was “self indulgent,” a criticism I have a hard time unpacking when it’s directed at any kind of creative endeavour, even the bad ones. With The Trip, the accusation amounted to this: it’s just Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon sitting around showing off how smart they reckon they are, while stuffing their faces with expensive food and doing funny voices, and nothing happens. That’s a pretty fair summary. But it misses what else was going on in all the nothing that was happening.

The Trip was slow, but never lazy. Around a thin fictional core, Coogan and Brydon were improvising, each rising to the challenge the other presented with a tightrope tension. Beneath the banter, the acute versions of themselves they were drawing before our eyes were hardly flattering: this “Steve Coogan” was vain, pedantic, condescending, competitive, pretentious, needy, scared, lonely. The main focus of the story that emerged was his slow crisis.

Meanwhile, director Michael Winterbottom mounted their bickering, purposeless odyssey inside a cosmic frame, time and again putting them against raw shots of the wild, bare landscapes of the north of England – a true contemplation of the sublime, disturbed only by the tiny sound of two men impersonating Les Dawson doing a Woody Allen routine.

So, here we are, four years later. “The Observer wants us to do more restaurant reviews, but this time in Italy,” Brydon tells Coogan, and with that insolent nod to motivation, they are off, moving among ridiculously, disdainfully beautiful Mediterranean landscapes for more of the same.

It may be the stupefying sunshine, but, if anything, this Trip is even slower. The focus has shifted a little, too, with Brydon’s journey moving slightly toward centre stage. The imitations come thick and fast, of course. Among the new arrivals Coogan and Brydon perform a hilarious extended duet about whatever Tom Hardy thought he was doing with his voice as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. But old favourites remain on maddening, magnificent repeat: Anthony Hopkins, Alan Bennett, Al Pacino. In particular, with weird poignancy, Michael Caine and Roger Moore. In Episode 2, by the ocean, comes a stupendous depiction of Saddam Hussein impersonating Frank Spencer, delivered by a man who knows exactly how pathetic and yet how very great it is to be doing Frank Spencer impressions in 2014.

Reviewing The Trip last time, I compared what Winterbottom was doing to Journey To Italy, the small, but majestically moving 1953 movie by Roberto Rossellini, one of the greatest “nothing happens” films. I can’t help thinking the new series is another heavy nod. Rossellini similarly gave his stars, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, only the bare bones of a situation, then left them to improvise. As a result, they stumble beautifully, trying to discover their story.

The Trip shares the loose, random feel, the devastating use of landscape, but has slightly different ends. Bergman and Sanders came up with the closest depiction of a marriage ever seen in a film. Coogan and Brydon arrive at the closest thing to friendship ever in a sitcom. They never stop talking, but never quite say the things they’d really like to talk to someone about, and time keeps passing. Melancholy, funny, pointless. It’s far more than two guys doing silly voices. Although, thank god, it’s completely that, too. Indulge yourself.

A version of this review appeared in The Sunday Herald, March 30 2014