Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are walking barefoot along the white sand of a Ligurian beach, backed by houses the colour of birthday cake. "Reminds you of Rhyl Sun Centre, doesn't it?" ruminates Brydon.
That one baffled the audience in Park City, Utah, but most of the gags found fertile ground to fall on. The director of The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom, and the film's two stars were at the world premiere, cuddled in knitwear and tweed against the bracing cold. They looked infinitely more suited for their first gastronomic adventure, The Trip, where Coogan and Brydon visited some of the finest restaurants in the North of England.
Their sequel, set in a glorious Italian summer, is also snort-out-of-your-nose funny, even if it too relies on the winning formula described by Coogan as "we drive through the most spellbinding scenery that I've ever seen in my life, and then we diminish it by talking crap".
The Trip was originally a BBC TV series where Coogan and Brydon continued the fictionalised versions of themselves created in Michael Winterbottom's A Cock and Bull Story. Then it was edited into a feature film that premiered at Toronto in 2010. In it, the pair drove, ate, bickered, pretended to be Michael Caine and spouted Wordsworth at each other. In Italy, they also drive, eat, bicker, pretend to be Michael Caine and spout Byron and Shelley at each other, when Alanis Morissette's "Jagged Little Pill" isn't on the car stereo. " You liked the Nineties, didn't you Steve?" quips Brydon. "You and Blur and Oasis, hanging out in London, you had it going on."
Winterbottom says the idea of the sequel is supposed to be "a homage to Byron and Shelley, a pilgrimage to the places they lived in". It would be cruel to compare our heroes to a pair of ageing Romantics, but there's a touch of the genteel middle-aged English gentlemen on their Grand Tour, in their Panama hats, linen trousers and jackets, sandals and, unforgivably, mid-calf shorts. Not that it stops Brydon from adopting local customs and acting like a Lothario to a yacht attendant, or as he puts it, "She shivers my timbers."
Once again the entire film is improvised, with Coogan describing how "Michael came to us with a framework of where he wanted the script to go and then we just talk. When he likes something, he'll just wander up and say, 'Do some more of that stuff.' Actually, I wouldn't even call what we were given a script. And I never bother learning it as every day Michael would look at it and say, 'That's not very interesting is it? Let's do something else.'"
His "methods" help produce arguably some of the finest improv in British comedy, with some great one-liners ("Where do you stand on Michael Bublé?" "On his windpipe?") and a side-splitting exchange over lunch as Bane and Batman from The Dark Knight try to make themselves understood. Tom Hardy and Christian Bale aren't the only celebrities to cop it. Jude Law is described as a " young-looking bald man" while Tom Jones, Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, Michael Parkinson and, it being Italy, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola are all mimicked by Brydon. "I did everyone that I know how to do well," he recalls. " And some I don't do at all well. I think everything aired."
Their exchanges make improvisation look easy, but then on-screen they have the air of a long-married couple, finishing each other's sentences. Off screen too, Brydon says they've spent so much time together – The Trip to Italy was completed in a month – that they make good travelling companions: "Except I only talk to Steve through a third party now, since he got an Oscar nomination."
The tension in Coogan and Brydon's relationship is exemplified by Brydon supposedly getting his big break in America: an audition for a part in a Michael Mann film, where he'll play a Mafia accountant, or as Coogan bitchily puts it: "He'll be lethal with a pen." An audition scene ensues with a Godfather/Goodfellas send-up that one feels is not entirely just a vehicle for Brydon's impersonation skills, but for Winterbottom to pay his own hammy homage to the mob film genre. When Brydon, astonishingly, gets the part, Coogan blurts out jealously that he'll be rubbish.
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Quite the opposite sentiment seems to be true in real life – this Trip is very much centred on Brydon, with his partner generously content to play the straight man. When Brydon is in full flow in Capri, pretending to be Parky interviewing Coogan, his companion is laughing so hard that it's obvious he's fallen out of character.
In the past year, of course, Steve Coogan can do no wrong: the Oscar nomination for adapting the screenplay of Philomena, and a triumphant return for his best know creation in Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa. Clearly, in North America, he's the better known of the two, receiving heartfelt congratulations from the audience at Sundance for Philomena, leading Brydon to comment: "So nice of you, Steve, to bring your agent here tonight."
However, if The Trip to Italy gets a cinema release in the US, Brydon's star should shine brightly too. Already, he says, fans come up to him worldwide, "and they like to quote things to me from the first series. I find that if people love The Trip, they really, really, love it. It's got a cult following outside Britain."
The Trip to Italy also provides plenty of quote-alongs, even if they are very British in-jokes: (" I want to be remembered for having six Baftas," comments Coogan. "You've only got five," Brydon ripostes. "I'm getting the sixth for this," comes the reply.) The comedians so clearly enjoy riffing off each other that it's surprising that once again, Winterbottom was the driving force behind getting the sequel made, and that the combination of the words "Italy", "food" and "scenery", all to be filmed in June, didn't cause an immediate stampede.
"He had to persuade us to do the first one in England," Steve Coogan says, "and it was only halfway through that I realised that it really was something different, that this was actually original. And it had been a couple of years since we'd toured the Lakes and Dales, and Michael got in touch with us and said, 'How about a second one? Why don't we go to Italy?' This is the fifth time we've worked together, so he's like family, and I thought, 'Why not?' And the scenery and the food was terrific, I don't think we can complain."
Winterbottom clearly loves Italia. He's making The Face of an Angel, the story of Amanda Knox, which will be his third film set in that country. As Coogan and Brydon's Mini Cooper speeds through the countryside, one catches delicious glimpses of vineyards, church spires, terracotta walls, stone angels, dappled sea, all set to the soaring soundtrack of Verdi or Puccini, (when they can tear themselves away from "Jagged Little Pill").
This though, can only be an appetiser. The main course for all the senses – apart from, frustratingly for the viewer, taste – has to be the food. As they work their way down from Liguria, through Rome and Amalfi and Capri, so the meals lighten from heavy quail, creamy ravioli, roasted lamb, to calamari, linguine, lobster, accompanied by sunshine-coloured wines. You will come away starving.
Brydon remembers that on The Trip around the North of England, he put on half a stone, and this time made some half-hearted efforts not to eat everything that was put in front of him. "We tried to go for runs and do a couple of push-ups, but after that we gave up the ghost, as we were eating in some of Italy's best restaurants," he continues. "It was pretty pathetic, two middle-aged men who would meet every morning at breakfast and ask each other, "Did you do any sit-ups today?"
At nearly two hours long, the film does make too much of a meal of it and would benefit from rationing, but overall this Trip is, as the Italians say, spumante. "Did you ever hear of a good sequel?" Brydon says to Coogan at one point, having a sly dig. " The Godfather II," replies Coogan. "That's what they all say," Brydon retorts. " The Godfather II, the exception that proves the rule." Not quite up there with the work of a Coppola, yet The Trip to Italy is another exception for a sequel.
'The Trip to Italy' will be broadcast on TV in the UK later in the year
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