It must be frustrating being Steve Coogan. As the winner of numerous British Comedy and BAFTA awards (not to mention the 1992 Perrier Award, the 1997 Silver Rose of Montreux and a South Bank Show Award for his live show “The Man Who Thinks He’s It”) he’s also been listed amongst the 50 funniest acts working in British comedy as well as featuring in the Top 20 greatest comedy acts of all time as voted for by fellow comedians.
He’s forged himself a moderately successful Hollywood career and starred in a number of successful films from the likes of Sofia Coppola, Ben Stiller, Jim Jarmusch, Adam McKay and Frank Oz and starred alongside such names as Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson and Kirsten Dunst. And to top it all off he’s even founded his own production company, Baby Cow Productions, which itself has given birth to such comedic gems as “The Mighty Boosh”, “Marion and Geoff”, “Nighty Night” and “I Am Not An Animal”. Yet despite all this, he’ll always primarily be remembered for one thing and one thing only … Alan Partridge.
Which is why we should be eternally grateful to Michael Winterbottom. As one of the most gifted British filmmakers of this generation Winterbottom has not only notched up an impressive seventeen films since 1995 including the likes of “Welcome To Sarajevo” (1997), “Wonderland” (1999), “Code 46” (2003), “9 Songs” (2004), “A Mighty Heart” (2007) and “The Killer Inside Me” (2010) but he’s wholly responsible for giving Coogan by far his two greatest movie roles to date playing Madchester music mogul Tony Wilson in the hilarious “24 Hour Party People” (2002) and … well … himself in the equally witty not to mention highly metafictional “A Cock And Bull Story” (2006). And it’s to the latter of these roles with which we can draw obvious parallels with their latest collaboration “The Trip” (not to be confused with the 1967 Roger Corman directed film starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper) which has recently finished a six week run on BBC2 and is available to buy on DVD today.
Bringing along the infectiously entertaining Rob Brydon (who previously appeared alongside Coogan in “A Cock and Bull Story” and the 2002 BBC comedy drama “Cruise of the Gods”) “The Trip” is a partly fictionalised, partly improvised series that sees Coogan embarking on a restaurant tour of the North of England in order to write a series of culinary reviews for The Observer. But when Coogan’s girlfriend Mischa (played by Margo Stilley of “9 Songs” infamy!) insists they take a break from their relationship and heads back to America he’s left with no alternative than to turn to the Welsh charms of Mr. Brydon instead. Each episode thus involves the two comedians visiting a number of rather expensive restaurants (The Inn at Whitewell, L’Enclume, Holbeck Ghyll, Hipping Hall, The Yorke Arms and The Angel Pub at Hetton) where they indulge in much fine cuisine, partake of much wine, admire the stunning landscapes and talk … a lot!
Granted, on paper this doesn’t exactly get the comedy glands pumping so it’s to everyone’s credit, not least the talented triumvirate that is Coogan, Brydon and Winterbottom, that the finished product emerges as such a resounding triumph; a series that is, arguably, one of the best TV shows of 2010 and, quite possibly, amongst Coogan’s best work in years.
But before we continue how can we fail to mention the impressions? Both Brydon and Coogan are no strangers to the world of celebrity impressions and so clearly relished the opportunity to indulge in a spot of choice mimicry. And so conversation invariably turns to imitation as the likes of Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Sean Connery, Ronnie Corbett, Bruce Forsyth, Woody Allen, Ray Winstone, Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Stephen Hawking, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Al Pacino and Anthony Hopkins come under the vocal radar. And it’s with such celebrity “cameos” that “The Trip” gains a great deal of its comedic value as not only do Coogan and Brydon deliver time and time again with awe-inspiringly pitch perfect impersonations but subsequently weave them into such hilariously memorable vignettes that you’d happily sit there listening to the two of them for hours on end. To choose a favourite scene would be nigh on impossible but the sequence in which Coogan explains and then demonstrates the precise minutiae of Richard Gere’s various acting techniques had me in tears whilst Brydon’s discourse on the gradual metamorphosis of Michael Caine’s tone of voice is not only brilliantly witty but quite possibly the most convincing Caine expression I’ve yet heard!
But whilst Brydon remains his usual amiable self and simply astounds with his consummate skill of top notch celebrity impressions (and, lest we forget, the legendary “Small Man Trapped In A Box” routine) it’s Coogan who ultimately comes out tops, delivering a wonderfully nuanced performance that is both self deprecating, subtly layered and really rather fascinating. For much as he did in “A Cock and Bull Story” he once again takes what is, ostensibly, an easy role (playing himself!) and injects it with enough ambiguity as to have audiences questioning what is real and what is fictional.
Back in 2001 Hotdog (a UK film magazine that ran from 2000 – 2006) had memorably labelled Coogan “the new Peter Sellers” when his latest film, “The Parole Officer”, had opened in cinemas. And whilst such hyperbole was, perhaps, more instigated by Coogan’s skill in inhabiting a variety of successful comic creations there were certain moments during “The Trip” when such comparisons floated once more to the surface. It’s a well documented fact that not only did Sellers harbour many deep-seated anxieties of artistic and personal failure but he famously refused to appear on Michael Parkinson’s chat show back in 1974 unless he could do so in character. Likewise, Coogan (or should that be Meta-Coogan?) is constantly plagued by fears of failure, loss, rejection and the soul crushing ignominy of artistic obscurity in a role that is surprisingly revealing whilst also being cunningly concealing.
As Rob and Steve continually try to outdo each other in a battle of both comedic skill and artistic integrity we see Brydon as a decidedly carefree individual who hankers not for illustrious fame and fortune but is simply content with the simple pleasures in life; a glass of wine, a fine meal, a spot of poetry, a damn good laugh and the love of his wife to whom he makes a series of charmingly affectionate yet childishly innocent late night phonecalls. Steve, on the other hand, not only indulges in a series of one night stands but seems to be increasingly going nowhere fast, floundering with his overseas relationship and waiting for that one big Hollywood role to come a-calling.
And it’s this very factor that makes “The Trip” not just a great series but a truly exceptional one, expertly balancing the comedy with scenes of surprising poignancy as we see the cracks slowly form in Coogan’s typically cocksure façade and the sadness, regret and insecurity that lies beneath. And it’s also in such moments that Winterbottom truly excels as a filmmaker as he scores said scenes with the beautiful music of Michael Nyman; a gentle piano rendition of “If” (the original of which was written for the 1995 Japanese animation “Anne No Nikki” aka “The Diary of Anne Frank”) underscoring the action with a haunting fragility that is both unexpected and utterly beguiling. Nyman’s music is similarly employed in the closing scenes as the haunting strains of “The Departure” (from Mike Niccol’s “Gattaca”) greet Coogan’s return home to an empty apartment. Whilst Brydon embraces his wife and child, slips in a few more exquisite impressions and enjoys a home cooked meal Coogan stands alone in his expensive surroundings, replaying a video on his phone showing him and Mischa in happier times whilst staring forlornly at the nighttime view from his apartment window. As the scene plays out we cut back and forth between the two of them with Winterbottom successfully employing colour and lighting to both accentuate mood and juxtapose the varying emotions; Brydon’s scenes are full of both colour and warmth whilst Coogan’s utilise a blue palette and thus exude a cold emptiness. For a series that relied so much on conversation it’s perhaps fitting that it ends with few words; a beautifully understated coda to a wonderful series and undeniable proof that, given the right material, Coogan is that rarest of things … an exceptional talent, a brilliant comedian, an accomplished actor and a true national treasure.
As if the series itself wasn’t reason enough to buy the DVD we’re treated to an enjoyable, if not awe-inspiring, selection of extras. Sadly not included is a commentary as to be treated to a further 3 hours of banter between Coogan and Brydon would have been the icing on an already mouth watering cake. We do, however, get a healthy side serving of deleted footage which provides further proof of the dynamic duos immense talent, undeniable chemistry, outstanding impressions and improvisational skills. But quite frankly it’s not the extra features that are the draw here as the show itself is so damn good that the BBC could have released a vanilla DVD and I’d still be here urging you all to buy a copy immediately. In an age when television schedules are full to bursting with uninspiring, insipid and quite frankly depressing fare “The Trip” is a divine breath of fresh air and a journey that I’ll be more than happy to take time and time again. Did I enjoy it? Abso – bloody – EXACTLY!!
The series was edited into a feature film which premiered at the Toronto International Film festival in September 2010 and is set for release in the US by IFC Films some time in 2011 …