SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this review unless you have seen The Trip to Italy – episode one.
When the first series of The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s improvisational comedy in which Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon embark on a gastronomic tour of Cumbria, first aired in 2010 I have to admit I was not a fan.
I just didn’t get it. Yes, the lingering shots of sumptuous food and the misty panoramas of the north-west countryside were very beautiful, but the action, which mostly consisted of Brydon and Coogan competing to see who could do the least-worst impression of Michael Caine, and deliberate lack of plot felt overwhelmingly indulgent and not nearly funny enough to make up for it.
Happily, their second outing, where Brydon is this time commissioned to right a food piece on Italian cuisine and invites his sort-of friend along for the journey, is surprisingly hilarious.
This time out, Brydon and Coogan appear to be much more comfortable in sending their improvised impressions sequences into increasingly bizarre scenarios. One stand out moment from last night’s episode sees the pair impersonating the cast of The Dark Knight Rises and quickly segues into a brilliant role-play where Coogan acts as the unfortunate Assistant Director who has to tell Brydon’s Christian Bale and Tom Hardy that no one can understand a word they’re saying.
The genius of Michael Winterbottom is in allowing the creative talents of Brydon and Coogan to run wild with their imaginations. The fact that I could just as easily mention Brydon’s interrogation of Coogan for his own murder or the part where Coogan admits he’d prefer to eat Mo Farah’s legs if he was stranded on a desert island is testament to the excellence of the comedy pair’s form here.
The reason this is so much more enjoyable is because the tone is much lighter this time, aided greatly by the change in setting. In direct contrast to the gloomy isolation of northern England, the sunnier climbs of the Italian Riviera feels more appropriate for a comedy and everyone involved seems much more willing to have a good time as a result.
I also think this lighter mood makes the poignancy of Brydon and Coogan contemplating their advancing years much more affecting. Both men are dealing with rejection at the start of this journey – Brydon has lost a lucrative voiceover gig and Coogan is on an enforced hiatus after his US show “Pathology” was cancelled – and there is a sense they both fear they will soon be forgotten as Coogan laments that beautiful women no longer find him attractive. The culmination of this moment, where Coogan turns to face the sea and reflects that “nature never disappoints you”, is all the more profound because it is in direct contrast to the upbeat, silly tone of the restaurant scenes.
The Trip to Italy is something all to rare in the world of television: a sequel that is demonstrably better than it’s predecessor. It’s uproariously funny, genuinely unique and ties it all up with real moments of profound reflection, and features two of the greatest comedy performers of our time. I still think the first series was utter bunkum though.