"I don't want to do British TV", Steve Coogan tells his agent during The Trip's first episode, somewhat ironically. But thank goodness Coogan's more flexible in reality, as it would be a shame to permanently lose one of the UK's best comic actors to Hollywood. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are reunited for director Michael Winterbottom's six-part peripatetic comedy The Trip, playing exaggerated versions of themselves, for what's essentially a TV sequel to their 2005 movie A Cock & Bull Story. The Trip's concept is simplicity itself: Steve Coogan has been hired by The Observer newspaper to guest-write a food column, critiquing six restaurants across the picturesque Lake District, Lancashire and Yorkshire Dales. Accepting primarily because it means an expenses-paid jaunt around his beloved north with American girlfriend Mischa, Coogan's plans are dealt a blow when Mischa dumps him and returns to New York. Unable to quit the job and hating the idea of a week-long solo tour, Coogan enlists the help of friend and TV personality Rob Brydon, and so begins the half-improvised story of two middle-aged men on a road trip adventure; arguing and debating life's issues, from increasingly disparate showbiz perspectives. It's the relationship between Coogan and Brydon that's the beating heart of this series. The real-life pals have wonderful rapport and are incredibly engaging to watch, especially when they're competing for superiority. Coogan is "world-famous" thanks to roles in Night At The Museum, 24 Hour Party People, Tropic Thunder and The Other Guys, but on home turf it's ubiquitous Brydon who's the more recognizable face these days because of his many TV show appearances. Episode 1's best moment was an extended dinner scene at the Inn at Whitewell, with Coogan and Brydon trying to surpass each other with the best Michael Caine impression. This was especially funny because Coogan was initially derisive of anyone over 40 who communicates via impressions half the time, as Brydon is prone to. Coogan's frustration with impressionism is well-known, as it formed the crux of his early career before he started creating his own characters like Alan Partridge and Paul Calf, so it's amusing to see this bugbear rear its head for him. Brydon will mimic Ronnie Corbett, Richard Burton and Anthony Hopkins at the drop of a hat, but Coogan's less keen to perform like a money... but his ego can't resist trying to outdo his companion. For what it's worth, both men do uncannily excellent Michael Caine's. It's hard to resist referring to Coogan and Brydon as "themselves" in The Trip, but we mustn't forget these are comic embellishments. However, truth often comes from comedy, so it's an interesting insight into both performers and how they view themselves and their careers. Coogan's the more successful half, with a sexy girlfriend (albeit fictional) and 10 Hollywood credits to his name, while Brydon's painted as the modest family man (who in real life envied Coogan's success and has admitted it inspired his own ascension in British TV). But it's clear Brydon's the happier and most stable of the duo (he has no problem with the suggestion of sharing a double-bed with Coogan after a hotel booking mix-up, for example), while Coogan's success has made him egotistical, demanding, and slightly haughty. This premiere didn't give us much of a feel for what the overall direction of the comedy will be, but I suspect Coogan will slowly come to realize that the simple pleasures of beautiful scenery, delicious food, and friendship is more important than a movie career in sunny Los Angeles. Or maybe that's to clichéd and the show will avoid such moralizing? Whatever happens, there's a very appealing and amusing atmosphere whenever Coogan and Brydon are sharing scenes, which they do the majority of the time. I'm unsure how much of each episode is scripted and how much is improvised, but it certainly feels loose and natural. To be honest, I could watch a whole hour of Coogan and Brydon chewing the fat every week over plated meals (improvising arguments and trying to make each other laugh), so even at that basic level The Trip is a journey well worth taking.
DIRECTOR: Michael Winterbottom CAST: Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon, Rebecca Johnson, Elodie Harrod, Dolya Gavanski, Claire Keelan, Justin Edwards & Margo Stilley TRANSMISSION: 1 November 2010, BBC2/HD, 10PM