The Trip to Italy, TV review: The Italian leg of the series could feel self-indulgent, but...

Give Coogan and Brydon the freedom to improvise and you’ve got a modern classic

The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s six-part mood piece, was one of the more unusual TV hits of 2010 – or any year.

In it, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon reprised the lightly fictionalised versions of themselves witnessed in Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy adaptation A Cock and Bull Story. They took a gastronomic tour of Cumbria. Light on plot, high on lingering shots of cooking at venues such as Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, even higher on long sequences of Brydon and Coogan doing Sean Connery impersonations. It was a strange three hours. Funny, melancholy, real, not-real, but certainly a rare feat for a mainstream TV show, in that it was completely unusual. It even achieved the unique feat of being cut into a movie for US audiences.

Now Brydon has been commissioned by The Observer (it was Coogan last time) and is flying Steve “business or Virgin Upper Class” to Italy to write a travel/food piece. (If there’s fiction in the characters, there’s even more in the budgets of its newspapers.)  

Both are in the dumps: Brydon because his plum deal doing voiceovers for a DIY chain has ended; and Coogan because Pathology, the US network TV show he’s “starring” in has been placed on hiatus. There are worse ways to get over it than cruising between some of Italy’s best restaurants in a Mini Cooper. The car was chosen, Coogan assumed, solely so Brydon could do his “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”

As soon as Michael Caine made his first appearance at the Trattoria della Posta in Piemonte, we were on to the real meat of the action. A long sequence saw the pair doing impressions of the cast of The Dark Knight, which culminated in an inspired, bizarre roleplay in which Coogan (as a hapless assistant director) tried unsuccessfully to relay to Christian Bale and Tom Hardy (both played by Brydon) that no one could understand their dialogue. Put that in a sitcom treatment and you won’t get past an intern’s slush pile, but give these two the freedom to improvise and you’ve got a modern classic.

It was the colourful little brushstrokes that give this Trip such depth: the first scene had Coogan answering the phone to Brydon and obviously not having his number in the phone; there was a lengthy discussion about the merits – health-wise – of eating Mo Farah; and the pair on a pilgrimage to one of Byron’s homes reading the lyrics of Alanis Morissette’s “All I Really Want” in the style of a Byronic canto.

That all this feels far from an indulgence is a triumph. Its stars weren’t convinced that the first series would work, but were content to trust Winterbottom. Brydon has said that as much as The Trip relies on the interplay between himself and Coogan (the food here takes even more of a back seat) this is Winterbottom’s vision. It’s a simple, uncopyable one in which talent is allowed to just be. And for that, all three ought to be applauded.

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