Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, as one of the legless, senile, dustbin-dwelling creatures in Samuel Beckett’s “Endgame” once observed. The fifty-something British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are probably still a few decades off becoming legless, senile, dustbin-dwelling creatures themselves, but much of the grim, convulsive amusement of their series “The Trip to Spain” derives from its awareness of how the dustbin will yawn for us all in due time.
“The Trip” is, and always was, a bizarre idea for a show. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, it began as a televised offshoot of his film from 2005, “A Cock and Bull Story”, itself a heavily improvised postmodern adaptation of Lawrence Sterne’s 18th-century novel “Tristram Shandy”, in which Coogan and Brydon played exaggeratedly dreadful versions of themselves. In the film, which followed the actors both on- and off-set, Coogan’s Coogan was thin-skinned, tetchy, know-it-all, lecherous and dogged by the career-eclipsing fame of his earlier comic character Alan Partridge. Brydon’s Brydon, a less well-known actor with a lethal sideline in impersonations, specialised in semi-amiably goading and undercutting him. “Sorry, that was my agent,” Coogan would begin, humblebragging with a disarming smirk to Naomie Harris’s attractive assistant producer. “My agent too,” Brydon would chime in, grinning like a shark. “Wanted me to discuss some roles in America,” Coogan soldiered on. “Foark you, asshole. Foooark yooou,” contributed Brydon in an Al Pacino voice of unearthly precision.
“The Trip”, the third season of which is currently showing on Sky Atlantic, expanded this relationship in an unlikely direction: to a faux fly-on-the-wall documentary about two middle-aged actors reviewing restaurants for British newspapers, first in England’s Lake District (series 1), then in Italy (series 2) and now in Spain. The glum mid-life picaresque of Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church in “Sideways” was an obvious parallel – so is James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke”, vigorously satirised by Coogan and Brydon in the latest episodes. But “The Trip” has a bleakly existential vibe all its own, as the pair zoom around picturesque locations, eating food of spectacular deliciousness at the kinds of restaurants where you wait months for a table, and morbidly trying to outdo each other with imitations of better-known celebrities.
The series has a pleasingly drifting structure, something that was lost when the first two series were adapted into films for the American market. Each half-hour episode consists of little more than sequences of barbed competitive impersonations (Roger Moore, Michael Caine, Mick Jagger, David Bowie), combined with tuneless drivetime singalongs, distantly poisonous professional one-upmanship, panoramic shots of wondrous landscapes and lovingly filmed scenes of restaurant meals being prepared and eaten.
So what keeps us watching? In a word, death. “The Trip” is often achingly comic, but its laughs come against a jet-black background of mortality, insecurity and disappointment. Watching the fourth episode of the latest series, I realised that dread, envy and the fear of being supplanted run through almost every scene. Coogan and Brydon wander through a cathedral, discussing the fact that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day. Coogan shivers theatrically at a statue depicting a couple lying forever, as in Larkin’s poem, with marble hands lovingly clasped. They discuss whether Brydon needs to dye his hair; they do a horrible imitation of an elderly father being stopped from taking his son on a rollercoaster; they chat about George Orwell being shot in the throat in Catalonia. “Where’s a bullet in the throat when you need one?” wonders Brydon blandly, staring fixedly at Coogan across a table loaded with fish.
They move on to war. Coogan, blustering, says that he might go to war if he didn’t have kids. “You’d entertain the troops,” Brydon comments acidly. “You’d do Alan Partridge for the troops. And all these proper men, who were giving everything, would love it as you came out and went “Ah-ha!’. Do you know what: I’d love it if a sniper got you at that moment.” It’s lunch-table chat of weapons-grade toxicity, but Coogan doesn’t bat an eyelid. “I’d do the ‘Ha’ with my dying breath,” he says quietly. Over pudding, they discuss whether younger, posher actors (“Tim Huddleston” et al) ought to be “culled”.
And the food – the world-beating, delicious food – keeps coming, keeps being shovelled in. In the same week as I watched the fourth series of “The Trip”, I also caught a screening of “La Grande Bouffe”, Marco Ferreri’s lavish, nihilistic black comedy from 1973 in which four prosperous, successful middle-aged men retreat to a palatial villa to eat themselves to death. It’s a frightening film, less because of its dreadful depictions of the consequences of gluttony (gastric explosion, death by blancmange) than because of the nightmarish calm with which it reverses the traditional flow-chart of indulgence and pleasure. The Lucullan orgy of food and sex in “La Grande Bouffe” seems to occur without the slightest uptick in pleasure for its protagonists, who continue to smirk doggedly, make bourgeois chit-chat and comment distantly on the “bonne qualité” of the extraordinary food that is killing them.
Is it crazy to see in Winterbottom’s show a similar streak of anarchy and darkness? Do the foodies of Instagram, poring over the lavish tasting menus in “The Trip”, see the same thing: two quivering, insecure meatbags, filling themselves with food, terrified of being ignored, terrified of being left alone and terrified of being replaced by younger, more talented, more vigorous meatbags? Are we laughing in sympathy, or in horror? There’s clearly something very wrong with me for thinking that this is the funniest show I’ve seen for years. Perhaps it is the Roger Moore impressions that make it, after all.
The Trip to Spain available now on Sky Atlantic