The Trip seems to me almost perfect – but I’m intrigued to see that it is selling in North America and around Europe and I do wonder what audiences outside the UK will make of it. Actually, I wonder what some UK audiences outside the North of England will make of it.
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play two characters who are fictional versions of their ‘real life’ selves. They first did this in A Cock and Bull Story (UK 2005), in which they are actors playing in a film production of the famously ‘unfilmable novel’, Tristram Shandy, directed by a fictional Michael Winterbottom (played by Jeremy Northam). The ‘real’ Winterbottom is the ringmaster of this postmodern comedy which proved to be a modest hit. The Trip is similarly a Winterbottom-directed Revolution Films production, again with BBC Films and Coogan’s Baby Cow.
Coogan is sent on a ‘Northern tour’ of gourmet restaurants in the most beautiful locations imaginable in North Lancashire, North Yorkshire and the Lake District. He’s meant to be writing an article for the Observer and had intended to take his girlfriend but they have just split up, so he ropes in Brydon as a travelling companion – but it’s work, “we aren’t on holiday”. In the UK this is a TV series (6 x 30 minutes) but it is also being sold outside the UK as a 100 minute film. Some territories seem to be taking both the series and the film.
Each episode of the TV series features a different location, usually a country house style guesthouse/inn with a dining room or a separate restaurant in the vicinity. There is a continuous narrative in which Coogan keeps in touch with his office, his children and his exes and sometimes a local conquest like the lovely Magda in Episode 1. Otherwise, the main ‘content’ of the show is the banter between Coogan and Brydon between the endless courses of beautifully-prepared food and their trips in a Range Rover between each location.
I confess that the best thing about the series for me is the camerawork and the proper representation of what is the most beautiful landscape in the UK. This isn’t the ‘chocolate box’ imagery of much of the Lakes, although there is some of that, but the much more subtle and mysterious beauty of the dales and the Forest of Bowland (‘forest’ in its original English meaning doesn’t imply trees – it means hunting land). many films and television programmes have filmed in the region, but rarely do they capture these qualities. One of the few exceptions is Whistle Down the Wind (UK 1961) shot in the Ribble Valley by Arthur Ibbetson (who was from Bishop Auckland in Co. Durham and no doubt knew how to handle the light). I’m not sure what Simon Tindall’s background is but he has worked on Michael Winterbottom’s productions for several years. I do wonder if the real motivation for The Trip comes from Winterbottom having some form of mid-life epiphany and remembering his Blackburn childhood and trips into the Dales. The series is filmed in winter and I think that was a good decision. The YouTube link at the foot of this post shows the opening of the first episode and the couple’s arrival at the Inn at Whitewell in Bowland. I know that the landscape isn’t what attracts most viewers to the series, but I wanted to foreground it because I was so pissed off with a couple of London reviewers who moaned because the restaurants weren’t going to be in Manchester or some other urban area. In the UK, Lancashire is often assumed to be dirty and industrial so this is me trying to get my retaliation in first. (These are real restaurants by the way and you can get reasonable bar meals in the pubs and avoid the expensive gourmet stuff.)
What will attract audiences is the banter. Coogan and Brydon are brave actors, prepared to improvise around exaggerated versions of themselves. The exaggerations make Coogan even more paranoid and egocentric and Brydon perhaps more of a put-upon companion, always ready to bounce back like one of those toy figures you can’t knock over. I guess all male double acts are like this and there are one or two elements of Laurel (Brydon) and Hardy (Coogan) at certain moments. In the Q&As from the Toronto Film Festival on YouTube, both men said that they wouldn’t have been happy doing the same thing with any other director, only Michael Winterbottom – and that rings true to me. The jokes are mainly about the assumed characters of the two men and the ‘mimic wars’ are the crowning glory of the banter. I marvelled at Brydon’s skill in taking off Michael Caine, Ray Winstone etc. (there were plenty I didn’t get, however) but then Coogan tops it with a version that is even better. This is where the brilliance of the concept really shows itself. I was left thinking that Brydon is entertaining and very likable (yet also possibly irritating) but Coogan is actually more of a star and more skilled as an actor, even if he is a pillock. How close is that to the ‘real’ Rob and Steve? Brave men indeed and they’ve provided the only TV entertainment I’ve positively looked forward to since the last time Victoria Wood offered something new. Good on yer, Lads!
Here’s a taster if the show hasn’t reached you yet.