Steve Coogan And Rob Brydon Discuss The Trip 2

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon discuss growing old, comedy jousting and the brilliant new series of The Trip

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The first series of The Trip became so beloved so quickly that it’s easy to forget it was initially an unknown quantity. There was no guarantee that three hours of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon rambling around England, eating and improvising would be as hilarious as it was. There was certainly no promise that it would resonate as it did.

While the Michael Caine and Al Pacino impressions went viral, it was the nuances, brought to the fore by creator / director Michael Winterbottom, that truly transcended. Playing exaggerated versions of themselves – Coogan’s promiscuous exploits were but a smokescreen for a professional desperation and vulnerability not worlds away from what we knew of his attempts to make it in America, while Brydon was portrayed as more grounded, save for the incessant impressions – The Trip was quite simply unique, and we wanted more.

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I interviewed Winterbottom three years ago, not long after the first series had broadcast, and asked if they might make another. “It’s about whether there’s any other situation we can do,” he said. “Although it’s just the two of them sitting around talking, there was a rough idea of Steve at this stage of his life, Rob at this stage, and there are ideas about how you should live your life. That’s what they’re chatting about, and by the end they feel slightly differently about each other than they did at the beginning. So, although that’s a very thin kind of story, at least there is some idea that that’s what the series is engaging with. We’d have to think of some equivalent if we’re going to do any more.”

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As it transpires, the underlying theme for series two – the bedrock that props up the belly laughs – is age. The Trip to Italy is gentler, with a more melancholic edge. Brydon and Coogan are both 48, and that reality is explored to touching effect. “There was a time when I used to make eye contact with a woman and she’d flash a smile back,” says Coogan in episode one. “The smile you get from them [now] is a smile you give to a benevolent uncle. Or a pest,” he laments.

“They think we’re two elderly homosexuals on a last tour of the Riviera before we die,” adds Brydon. The truth hurts. And it’s still very funny.

Speaking in January to an audience of American fans at Utah’s Sundance Festival, where a movie version of the new series premièred, Coogan explained, “As we get a little bit older, self-deprecating humour tends to be the way forward. If you can’t laugh at the inevitability of mortality then there’s not a lot else you can do. When you’re younger you’re less inclined to laugh at yourself because you want people to respect you, then when you get older you don’t really care any more.”

The conceit is similar to the last: once again they’ve been hired by The Observer to wine and dine, only the UK has been replaced by Italy as the pair follow in the footsteps of Byron and Shelley, soaking up culture as they stop off at spots visited by the exiled poets. Other than that though, it’s basically more of the same tomfoolery.

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“I quite like the fact that we had these lofty ideas to go to Italy to better ourselves, or elevate ourselves to be more nuanced introspective individuals,” Coogan said at Sundance. “But we just end up doing impersonations. I think life’s a bit like that.”

Once again, the dialogue is improvised, and it’s the spontaneity and authentic camaraderie that really bring the show to life. In reality, and due to work and family, Coogan and Brydon don’t see each other all that often (“I don’t like to be with Steve unless I’m being financially compensated,” joked Brydon), which seems to work in their favour when they do get together on camera.

“This was probably the most enjoyable job I’ve ever had,” Brydon told a crowd of fans in central London’s Apple Store last week.

“I’d just finished the Partridge film and Philomena back to back,” added Coogan, “so this was like a holiday.”

The kick they get from being in each other’s company is plain to see. Promoting the show together, the jokey one-upmanship is very much in evidence, as are the impressions and the joy in their eyes as they crack each other up. As a scene from the new series is previewed for the audience, Coogan laughs in delight as he watches Brydon laying into him.

Somebody asks if there are lots of outtakes. “There aren’t any outtakes,” says Coogan, “because if I laugh at something he says it stays in. Everything’s in there.”

 

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The two have collaborated before, beginning with 2000’s Marion and Geoff, Brydon’s sublimely observed and performed series about a lonely, endearingly deluded taxi driver, which Coogan helped bring to the BBC. They’ve also appeared together in two Winterbottom films, 24 Hour Party People (2002) and A Cock and Bull Story (2005), the latter sowing the seeds for The Trip.

Last Thursday evening, a small invited audience gathered in an intimate central London screening room to watch the final episodes of the new series. Brydon confides that this was in fact the place where it all began.

“It all started on A Cock and Bull Story. Because of rain we couldn’t shoot outside so Michael said, ‘Let’s go into the make-up room.’ He’d seen us messing about on-set and he said, ‘Just talk.’ We just improvised. Then we did a similar thing in here, where we filmed the final scene. We’re in this screening room and we’re watching the film [within the film] back and we do stuff about Al Pacino. That’s where all this improvising and little picking at each other started. And there’s no one better to do it with than Steve Coogan.”

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“I agree,” responds Coogan, as if on cue. In this second series, though, the picking at each other is more playful, less acidic.

Despite appearances, The Trip is not a documentary. Coogan maintains that both series have had to go beyond self-satire to be of any value, yet it all springs from some sort of truth. For example, Coogan’s on-screen persona is now free of the bitterness he previously exhibited.

It’s hard not to draw real-life parallels. Since they filmed the first series Coogan’s fortunes have improved considerably, starting with the success of The Trip, and Mid-Morning Matters with Alan Partridge, which began broadcasting the same week in November 2010. Then, last year saw the release of both the enthusiastically received Partridge film and Philomena, the latter (which he co-wrote, produced and starred in) earned him four Oscar nominations. Such success has been the source of ammunition, as illustrated by this exchange from their Q&A earlier in the evening:

Coogan: “I’m glad my film hadn’t had four Oscar nominations before we did the series because that would have basically rendered a lot of Rob’s abuse of me redundant.”

Brydon: “To lose in four categories… you take it on the chin, and all credit to you for that.”

Coogan: “You can imagine how that feels, can’t you? Because that’s all you’ll ever be able to do.”

Brydon: “Listen, listen, all jokes aside, when I heard about the nominations I was fuckin’ livid.”

Here in the screening room an hour later, there’s more, as Brydon recounts how Coogan was looking at rough cuts of Philomena and Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa while shooting The Trip to Italy. “I was genuinely thrilled for you. And I am,” he says, affectionately, before delivering the inevitable kicker. “But I’m glad you didn’t actually win.”

Coogan certainly has less to prove now, and when he comes over to the bar to talk, he’s relaxed and warm. Middle age and success seem to have mellowed him, and it’s a good look. And while the series was filmed before his recent successes, this new, agreeably settled Coogan is reflected in the show.

In fact, Brydon is the playboy this time around. Often the more boisterous of the two, there were clearly none of the off-screen hang-ups he had for the first series. Winterbottom has said Brydon was uncomfortable with the scene in which he comes on to Coogan’s assistant, which is one of the reasons why it was excised from the American film version.

“I [generally] appear as me,” Brydon says now. “I do shows as my name. Steve doesn’t, he creates characters. So I think people perhaps feel they know me. But that makes it appealing, to play with that. That scene where I make a pass at Steve’s assistant was improvised, and part of it was just me going, ‘This’ll be fun because I never get to do those sort of scenes.’ Again, we’d been drinking…”

“You were worried about it,” Coogan cuts in.

“I was a bit,” admits Brydon.

Winterbottom, who’s not on stage but is watching from the wings, says, “I can remember you saying, ‘I’m not doing this, I’m not doing this.’”

“I know,” says Brydon. “There’s the bit where I sing Tom Jones, which is cringeworthy. I met Tom Jones and he said, ‘I love The Trip.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, you’ve seen it? You’ve seen that scene where I sing “Delilah” to the girl? Oh God, I thought that was awful, it was so horribly real.’ He said [emphatically], ‘That’s why it was good.’”

Will there be a third series? It seems likely. Brydon talks of the appeal of revisiting it as the years progress. Coogan agrees, likening it to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight films (“Theirs is a sort of version of ours which is not funny”).

The USA might be a good idea, Coogan muses: “What’s interesting about America is that we consider ourselves to be culturally superior to the Americans. And that’s an interesting card to play, along with also being slightly enamoured with Hollywood. That paradox is quite an interesting one.”

There will certainly be demand. The Trip to Italy is not so much a magnificent return to form as a continuation of it; an alluring combination of comedy, pathos and beautiful scenery, perfectly weaved together by Michael Winterbottom.

A final anecdote here in the screening room speaks volumes of its winning formula:

“You just reminded me of something,” says Coogan after Brydon explains how he was an Italian food novice. “Before Rob was successful he was quite unworldly,” he continues. “My favourite story he told me is, years ago, he and his other half went to Brighton for the first time.”

“Oh this is good,” Brydon says. “It shows me in a very bad light.”

“I said, ‘Where did you have lunch?’,” adds Coogan. “And he said, ‘In Debenhams.’”

“My life has been a journey,” says Brydon above the din of laughter. “Then I met Steve and my life changed.”

The Trip to Italy begins on Friday 4 April at 10pm on BBC Two

This article first appeared in Esquire Weekly, our iPad-only edition. Containing 100 per cent new and original content, it’s published every Thursday on the Apple Newsstand.