The Trip to Greece, review: Very sad, very funny television from two of Britain’s best comic performers

Steve and Rob are back to visit salubrious restaurants and hotels – and mock each other’s careers

Ed Cumming
Tuesday 03 March 2020 23:10 GMT
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Coogan and Brydon are towers of neediness, unable to go for more than a few seconds without seeking a laugh
Coogan and Brydon are towers of neediness, unable to go for more than a few seconds without seeking a laugh (Sky)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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In the wake of the lamentable Philip Green satire Greed, it’s a relief to discover that Steve Coogan plus Michael Winterbottom plus Greece needn’t be a recipe for a complete sense-of-humour failure. After England, Italy and Spain, The Trip to Greece (Sky One) takes Coogan and his long-standing partner-in-jolly Rob Brydon on a tour through the Hellenic lands, from Turkey through modern Macedonia and Greece. Winterbottom directs.

Although the programme has hopped from the BBC to Sky Atlantic and Sky One, the format is unchanged. Over the course of six half-hour episodes, “Steve” and “Rob” visit salubrious restaurants and hotels. Between fancy meals, impressions of celebrities and mocking each other’s careers, they privately worry about their home lives. It isn’t easy, being a star.

This time around, the hook is a retracing of the route of the Odyssey, starting in Turkey, with a new journey every day. Nobody is watching for the plot, but the conceit is a clothesline from which to hang the series’ familiar pleasures. Midway through their first lunch, Brydon starts quoting passages from Aristotle’s Poetics, in between impressions of Ronnie Corbett. “Originality is overrated,” Coogan says, arguing that his performance as Stan Laurel in Stan and Ollie was “impressionistic” rather than imitative. It’s like they never went away.

Coogan’s character is less anxious and vain than before, and he laughs more freely at Brydon’s antics. Brydon has been given slightly more edge, asserting himself more often. It feels as if there has been a subtle shift in dynamic, and Brydon is no longer the Sancho Panza to Coogan’s Don Quixote.

Nearly 10 years after the first The Trip, we are deep underground in self-reference, and nobody bothers to pretend otherwise, although given the tragic recent history of their route, it is not all cosy. When they land on Lesbos, they are spotted by Kareem, a real-life refugee actor who also appeared in Greed. They give him a lift to the refugee camp while Brydon talks about Coogan’s large collection of cars. “That was sobering,” says Coogan.

Both men are towers of neediness, unable to go for more than a few seconds without seeking a laugh or some other physical form of affirmation. When it’s just the two of them, they turn to each other, but otherwise it is waitresses, passers-by and their own assistants on the phone. It’s all very sad and very funny. The direction is deceptively sharp, and it commits to the joys of its setting. Traditional food and travel directors could learn plenty from Winterbottom’s sense of place. The Greek landscape bathes in honey-golden sunshine. In the cutaway shots to the kitchen we hear knives clopping down on wooden boards, the hiss of lamb as it sears on the grill, the tinkle of cutlery and wine glasses.

The Trip’s genius is that the format lets two of Britain’s best comic performers the chance to have their cake, eat it, and then have some petits fours with the coffee afterwards. If all this self-love winds you up, you will be hurling the remote at the screen within minutes. For the rest of us, though, the cake gets richer with each new layer. We laugh at the dialogue and mimicry, even if it feels they reached the limits of their repertoire by season two, because we know part of the joke is precisely this fatigue. We laugh at them sending themselves up, but we know that they are only versions of themselves. Everyone’s in on the jokes. In this hall of mirrors, the real Coogan and Brydon vanish, leaving only the impressions. They are more than enough.

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