The Trip

This comedy vehicle is too knowing for its own good

The Trip

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

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Israel divided

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When John Lennon sang like Chopin

Where Bob Dylan fits 45 words into a six-word line, Lennon could be sorcerously expansive, as John Lennon: Verbatim  reminds us.

An Archive on 4 programme to mark John Lennon’s 75th birthday (3 October, 8pm, BBC Radio 4) used his music and the man talking. Lennon gave many revealing radio interviews between 1962 and 1980 – excerpts were used here, filleted and shaped so you heard him over the years sounding less furious, less defensive about Yoko, less likely to have a go at the Beatles, less convinced he’d been silenced by the band or couldn’t do anything politically for fear of being mocked. The savage edge for the most part in abeyance.

“We were going crackers,” he confesses, a grin in his voice, galloping on about his first acid trip, at a dinner party with his dentist, and being so helplessly amusing about it, so giddy and up-welling (“George somehow or other managed to drive us home in his Mini but we were going about ten miles an hour but it seemed like a thousand . . . And Pattie was saying, ‘Let’s jump out and play football . . .’”), you heard him for the supreme monologuist he was. A talker who couldn’t stop himself, very clearly the guy who wrote the two nonsense books in a matter of minutes. It brought you back to the unworked, off-the-top-of-the-head creativity of those books; Lennon was a brilliant surreal artist. Set the books against Spike Milligan’s and it becomes clear that Lennon was the more natural comedian. He showed such fluency.

Memorably, Lennon mentioned Dylan a couple of times in the show, hinting at Bob’s “delusions of grandeur” in the thick poetry of his lyrics. “Simple English,” he shrugged slyly of the kind of music he preferred. “Make it rhyme, and put a beat behind it.”

And although it’s true that nobody (still!) can challenge Lennon’s direct expressiveness (“Imagine there’s no countries”; “If you don’t take her out tonight/She’s gonna change her mind”; “Father, you left me”), like most people fascinated with their own talent, he was slightly skewed in his self-analysis. “I just knocked it off,” he glooms. “All these songs just came out of me.” His lyrics are straight but not simple, the work creating deep, inarticulate feelings: “And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown.” Where Dylan fits 45 words into a six-word line, Lennon could be sorcerously expansive, working with long lines of melody, like Chopin. Which the songs played in this blissful hour proved time and again. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis