One of the very few lessons of real value I learnt at school is that it is impossible to be entirely free from bias. This point was made to a class of bemused fourteen year-olds by our English teacher, who then proceeded to illustrate his argument by making reference to how we perceived even the simple room in which we sat. We would all essentially notice the same characteristics, whereas, say, an Iraqi refugee, he insisted, would be predominately concerned with the presence of an intact ceiling.

Leaving aside this rather colourful example, it was a compelling argument: people can never fully escape the parameters of their own subjectivity. With that in mind, and in the interests of full disclosure, I ought to admit then that I love Steve Coogan. I love him with the kind of unquestioning adulation usually reserved for the relationship between Catholics and Popes. Or mawkish idiots and Princess Diana. And given this wholly unhealthy degree of appreciation, quite frankly Coogan’s new show (The Trip, BBC) could have consisted of him sitting in a darkened room silently grappling with an LSD-induced haze and I would have happily proclaimed it a masterpiece. However, fortunately for my critical credibility, it genuinely is an impressive work.

The premise takes its cue from the Michael Winterbottom feature, A Cock and Bull Story, a suitably post-modern retelling of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (an eighteenth century novel that managed to be post-modern before just plain ‘modern’ had really got going). The narrative of the film was punctuated throughout by scenes depicting its own fictional production, a technique that would have been extremely smug, if it weren’t so entertaining. The best of these consisted of pedantic bickering and mindless one-upmanship between slightly less fictional versions of Steve Coogan (the lead) and Rob Brydon (in his words, “the co-lead”). Ostensibly, The Trip follows the pair travelling the North in order to review a series of unreasonably exquisite lunches for The Observer. Of course, being a Coogan/Winterbottom project, the task at hand swiftly retreats to the background. In equal parts, it’s a voyage into the gently fractured psyche of a dysfunctional comedian, a mournful visual poem on the North itself and, most importantly, an excuse for some of the finest bickering ever recorded.

It is this pervasive rivalry that provides the lynchpin for the show’s obvious comedy. Much of the tension arises from their twin envies: Coogan’s for Brydon’s current populist success and Brydon’s for Coogan’s iconic status (that Brydon’s success was largely purchased at the Faustian price of associating with James Corden is elegantly glossed over). As the series progresses, the elements of their public personas are increasingly reflected in their private behaviour – Coogan is desperately dignified, aloof and awkward, Brydon is eager to please, unashamed and self-congratulatory. However, for all the jibes and petty slights, the best moments are those in which they connect, singing or riffing together alone in the car.

Some viewers, specifically half the members of the Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ section, have criticised the show on the grounds that the premise is both pretentious and self-indulgent. Not to worry though, because all these people are indisputably blind, mistaken fools. This is not a show that falls or soars on the crude register of belly laughs (although there are plenty if you’re willing to look for them) – it is to absorb one and to be absorbed. The Trip is one of the strangest, most beautiful and eloquent programs to have been produced in years and, what’s more, it’s got Steve Coogan in it.


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