There is nothing quite like talking over food. A fine meal, with its heightened and precise powers of evocation, can wash away inhibitions and power over pretensions. How could anyone keep a guard up when being disarmed by a fantastical forkful? And as we chew and converse, letting deep thoughts — fears, guilty pleasures, secrets — spill onto the table, so do our oddest, least connected digressions. Therefore it makes perfect sense for Rob Brydon to ask Steve Coogan whether, hypothetically, Coogan would allow his child to get sick and require surgery in exchange for Coogan getting a Best Actor nomination at the Academy Awards.
Coogan makes a dismissive gesture but stops himself. He chews on it.
The Trip, directed by Michael Winterbottom, stars Coogan and Brydon as exaggerated versions of themselves. The British comedians talk and bicker — and, perhaps most importantly, trade celebrity impressions — sitting across from each other. Asked by a newspaper to go review some restaurants, and armed with little culinary knowledge, they go at it, both desperate to avoid a comedian’s mortal enemy: silence. There are four seasons of The Trip, set respectively in Northern England, Italy, Spain and Greece, and all four are finally streaming in India on Amazon Prime Video. Tuck in.
(Winterbottom, director of fine films as 24 Hour Party People, Wonderland and Welcome To Sarajevo, also edited each series into individual feature films, which are fascinating — particularly to see what he leaves out — but I would recommend the series format. As with desserts, you can’t have too much of a good thing.)
Who needs a plot when you have these many carbohydrates? The gents make their way through shallots and ribs while passive-aggressively playing a game of (mostly) affable oneupmanship. How can one get passive-aggressive while taking turns imitating Michael Caine? That has to be watched to be believed, but the two combatants provide a true masterclass in comedic jousting.
While Coogan and Brydon are beloved by fans of British comedy, neither enjoys the mass adulation of, say, Ricky Gervais. Both believe their best is yet to come, but are fearful of having already peaked: Coogan’s ‘Alan Partridge’ alter-ego is iconic, as is Brydon’s “little man in a box” routine. Both are from ages ago, and time isn’t standing still. Coogan even shares a hack to pose for photographs that flatters his neck and chin.
The conversations flow marvellously free. Bound together for every mealtime, and for long car-rides in between, at times accompanied by nothing but an Alanis Morissette CD, no topics can stay off the table. It’s enchanting to watch them riff comedically, each picking up on the other’s cue, one imitation matched by another, duelling magicians — each competing for the big prize, the other’s laugh.
Therefore they bicker pedantically about the pitch of celebrity voices, like Al Pacino and Mick Jagger and Christian Bale, and of course their mainstay Michael Caine, disagreeing on just how nasal and how whiny and how cartoonishly high-pitched these famed voices can get, and it is here that we witness and appreciate the nuances of craft that has been honed over decades. Sitting across from each other arguing about Robert De Niro’s scowl, these pros appear paradoxically inimitable even as they do imitations.
Sometimes, however, their gaze turns unexpectedly inward, like when Coogan talks at length about the ABBA song The Winner Takes It All, about how Björn Ulvaeus wrote the song about the ending of a relationship which was then sung by his ex-wife Agnetha Fältskog. Both men sing it with feeling, and Coogan singles out the lines “But tell me does she kiss, like I used to kiss you? / Does it feel the same, when she calls your name?” as particularly devastating, pondering on the writer, the singer and their marriage gone sour. (Brydon, meanwhile, takes umbrage to the lines “Seeing me so tense, no self-confidence” because he considers it presumptuous for the writer to expect the singer to feel that lost without him.)
We hear this kind of pop-cultural back-and-forth on podcasts all the time now, for instance, and even in movies — ever since Quentin Tarantino expounded about the meaning of Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ in his 1992 debut Reservoir Dogs. Yet the thing about The Trip, almost entirely made up of conversational digressions, is that it feels as realistic and free as if we were sitting at the next table bathed in sunshine, eavesdropping on two men talking a touch too loud. The show takes us out with them.
Brydon looks up historical and geographical facts about the place they’re visiting in order to be able to appreciate the places, yes, but also in order to spout that knowledge in front of Coogan. Coogan takes the diva role, forever acting automatically superior to Brydon, who seems nicer — at least in the first season. As we accompany them on future trips, we see the tables turn and re-turn as the actors — and characters — age. Brydon gets a part in a Martin Scorsese movie, Coogan gets deeply sentimental about the boy he once hypothetically sent to hospital.
Between bites, the show offers fascinating insights into male insecurity. Despite the four seasons shot over ten years, the actual happenings seem less eventful — and infinitely less telling — than the conversations and the asides. These evoke chats we have ourselves had, and even prompt some that we ought to have with friends and lovers. While we may momentarily take sides, this isn’t about that. The Trip celebrates not merely food, but the ritual of a meal. When the right meal falls into place, the ego, overcompensation, frailties just fade away. The dinner takes it all.
Michael Winterbottom’s Greed (Amazon) is a dark comedy where Steve Coogan plays a blustery billionaire throwing himself a massive star-studded party for his sixtieth birthday. It’s a prickly, enjoyable satire on the one-percent, featuring cameos by Stephen Fry, Ben Stiller and Keith Richards.