This comedy vehicle is too knowing for its own good
In 2006, the director Michael Winterbottom made A Cock and Bull Story, a film of Laurence Sterne's novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy. It starred Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, and included smart-alecky, postmodern bits in which these two could be seen back-stage playing themselves - or, at least, versions of themselves. Winterbottom thought these scenes were the funniest things in the film, so, a while later, he went back to Coogan and Brydon and asked if they would make a series in which all they had to do was play versions of themselves and bicker a little.
The result is The Trip (began 1 November, 10pm), whose simple set-up doubtless ensured that a delightful time was had by both stars and crew: essentially, they travel around the north, eating in its best restaurants. Coogan is supposedly writing about this for the Observer; Brydon is his companion because Coogan has split up with his latest trophy girlfriend. At the heart of their on-screen relationship lies the idea that Brydon, a happy family man, is entirely contented with his quiz-show-based fame, while Coogan, once the more famous and certainly the more talented, has not yet learned to cope with his star having unaccountably faded.
Does it work? No. It's the strangest, most self-indulgent thing I have ever seen, though I will keep watching, mesmerised as I am by both
its peculiarities and its brass neck. In the first programme, the two of them set off up the M6 to the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire. What happened next? Not a lot. On arrival, when it seemed they were going to have to share a bed, they made a few we're-not-homosexuals-don't-you-dare-touch-my-bottom jokes. Then they went to lunch in the hotel bar, where they had scallops (Brydon) and soup (Coogan), and Brydon annoyed Coogan by periodically lapsing into impressions. Coogan, of course, would secretly love to out-impression his upstart rival - that was how he began his career - but now he thinks of himself as a film star, he must affect a terrible boredom at the distinctive tones of Michael Caine and Jimmy Savile. After lunch, Coogan took a call from his agent, and there followed one of those clichéd agent-client conversations: the client wants a movie; the agent is offering a role as a baddie in Doctor Who. Finally, in the gloaming, Coogan lumbered up the nearest hill and rang his estranged girlfriend. She didn't sound too happy to hear from him.
The Trip is not funny, so don't watch it expecting laughs, and while there are poignant moments, I suspect they won't reach most people, either. For one thing, Coogan's on-screen persona is rebarbative; for another, the whole thing is so knowing, so pleased with its own edginess, there is a danger that the audience will fail to recognise how close it is to the truth (which, presumably, is what Coogan is counting on; I'm sure he doesn't see this as a Les-Dennis-in-Extras moment). I suppose they worked on me only because I am a huge fan of Coogan's and sort of miss him - and also because I once interviewed him and, although I liked him very much, he seemed to me to be one of those men who don't know how to make themselves happy. Brydon is just Brydon. Every office has one, and every school.
There is, however, a third character in these films - the English countryside, my beloved north. Winterbottom has filmed it in winter and it looks ravishing, a balm for the soul. Sometimes, when the Brydon-Coogan banter got too irritating, I just zoned out and stared at the dales instead. To be pretentious about it - and to exonerate Winterbottom for the overblown scale of his latest project (one hour-long film would have sufficed) - I suppose you could argue that Brydon and Coogan are mere representatives of an enfeebled population that enjoys the countryside only from behind the windscreen of a four-wheel drive, and contemplates every gradient only for the quality of the mobile-phone signal it will provide.
Now I think about it, perhaps this is what I found most poignant: those glorious hills acting as an unremarked backdrop for a competitive and cynical silliness that could perfectly well have been performed in Clerkenwell.
“The Trip" is broadcast on Mondays (10pm) on BBC2 until 6 December