Ever since Seinfeld, story arcs in comedy centred on nothing in particular have grown to become something of a genre standard. No show took that quite as literally as The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, which first aired on BBC Two in 2010. The original conceit, and the comedy, were simple: two well-established comedians (and quasi-friends) have expensive meals at fancy Lake District restaurants while doing impressions of the likes of Michael Caine, Marlon Brando and Ronnie Corbett. On paper that doesn’t sound like comedy gold, but something in the chemistry of Brydon and Coogan’s easy banter and Michael Winterbottom’s skilful direction made for an immediate hit.
Sadly, that journey – or, this time, that Odyssey – looks to have reached its conclusion. Ten years, four series and three more countries (with some minor detours) later, Winterbottom confirmed at an intimate press preview in London in early February that the pair’s latest adventure in the cradle of democracy is almost certain to be their final one. “Quit while you’re ahead”, Coogan added, “or at least when you’re not that far behind.”In person, Coogan shows a modesty rarely worn by his semi-fictional character. And Brydon is more assertive than his meek travel companion would have us believe.
Yet, beyond these minor caveats, the pair are strikingly similar to their on-screen personas. Despite saying that they don’t do impressions over dinner together, Coogan and Brydon soon bound effortlessly into some of their favourites at the press and industry screening.
Not that they’re necessarily popular favourites, mind you: very few comedians would be willing to stake their reputations on imitations of Jeremy Irons in Brideshead Revisited this side of the year 2000. To call Coogan and Brydon’s natural repertoire “retro” would be the polite phrasing – but that’s what first made The Trip so charming, and this time is no different.
Even more than previous seasons, The Trip to Greece combines a taste for light observational jokes with existential, often profound reflections on the places they travel through. When they arrive on the Aegean island of Lesbos, unexacting digs at the modern meaning of “lesbian” are combined with a visit to a refugee camp, from which Lesbos has derived its more recent fame. Winterbottom said at the launch event that to gloss over the contemporary political issues facing Greece today would amount to a failure to recognise to the inherent topicality of Homer’s Odyssey, the course of which The Trip to Greece seeks playfully to chart in much the same way The Trip to Italy followed the route of Romantic poets Byron and Shelley and The Trip to Spain made a Don Quixote of Coogan and Brydon into a modern-day Sancho Panza. Winterbottom said, “In a way, the Odyssey is about people trying to find their way home. There’s an echo of that in the story itself, of [Coogan and Brydon] finally going home after ten years’ travelling.”
In this way, The Trip to Greece is still Curb Your Enthusiasm-like in its loose, easy-going style – although this time around it’s also more of a philosophical two-hander than it’s ever been, ultimately resembling The Two Popes much of the time (Anthony Hopkins’ Port Talbot brogue included). As the preview’s host and Heat magazine’s Boyd Hilton posed to the trio, “There’s a darkness that carries through the show.” Brydon replied, “Yes there is. But the line we always remember from the first series is Michael seeing us do the scenes, us not really knowing what we were doing, and then yelling, ‘Do more Basil Brush!’”
In a similar vein, one exchange that stands out of these latest episodes is the pair’s recollections of Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman in the 1976 Nazi thriller Marathon Man. Between – of course – impressions of the starkly contrasting actors, Brydon tells the famous story in which Olivier swatted down Hoffman’s fixation on staying in character: Olivier is said to have asked wearily, “My dear boy, why don’t you just try acting?”
The notion that The Trip has always been something of an Olivier to other shows’ Hoffman – known for its un-flashy, competent style and conventional focus on wit and wisdom, compared to the glitz and novelty of other TV comedies, particularly out of the US – is an interesting, if unintentional, one.
The organisers have time for only one question, and with no one else willing to bite, I posed this ironic similarity to the three. Coogan was first to comment, seemingly reflecting on this for the first time.“We’re not really method actors, are we? I think we’re more like Anthony Hopkins – obviously not as good, I’m not saying that.” (Brydon chimed in, “He’s obviously not saying that.”) Coogan continued, “But in the sense that we put a voice on, we put some clothes on and just do it.”“I grew up worshipping Hoffman”, Brydon adds after a pause. “But from what you hear about his techniques … as wonderful as the results may be … it’s not for me.”Coogan finally quips, “You can’t r