Think of a top-quality franchise which spans the last decade and I’m sure only one name comes to mind. Some of you maaaaaay be thinking of large green angry men, shields wielded by America’s ass, men made of iron and a Nordic hunk with a God-complex…but for me, there is a series that trumps those block-busting heroes and it is Michael Winterbottom’s The Trip, which has purportedly now reached its endgame with The Trip to Greece.
What Winterbottom, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have achieved here is extremely complex and layered, but because it’s mostly perceived as improvisational comedy, it can be dismissed as easy to do. Brydon and Coogan are playing fictionalised versions of themselves and actors play their partners, children, exes and assistants/agents. Coogan’s character, in particular is insecure, competitive, easily threatened by other men, awards-obsessed and incredibly vain but this ironically results in one of his best and most vanity-free performances, because he is willing for people to believe that this is what he is actually like. Brydon’s character is more likeable, but he is also flawed (he has an affair in The Trip to Italy) and his chirpy demeanour which relies on incessant impressions grates on Coogan and this can transfer to the audience.
In the UK, viewers know The Trip as a television series (4 seasons of 6 episodes), but in the US, each season has been edited together into a film (and I believe they were even released in cinemas). Confusingly, I saw the first two when I lived in the UK as TV shows and the latter two after I moved to the US, as films. For this piece, I have watched The Trip to Greece film and re-watched the first three in their film versions as a refresher, so it is the film versions I will be discussing in this piece.
Clear as mud? Good, let’s move on.
The Trip to Greece (2020)
One of the best qualities of The Trip series is that each installment has had different literary influences, which of course, Coogan and Brydon get to argue over (as they do with almost everything). For the latest trip, it’s the hero’s journey of Odysseus that they are following, from Troy to Ithaca, via Pelion, Athens and Hydra. As always, the stunning scenery and the settings of the luxury hotels and restaurants (with their mouthwatering Michelin-starred food) are a big selling point, but the glamorous backdrop frequently contrasts with the misery of our travellers.
Aging and death have always been a huge themes throughout the series, and this is certainly something that hangs over Steve, in particular, in this one. He makes frequent phone-calls to his son Joe played by Tim Leach (who is now in his early twenties), who has been visiting Steve’s ailing father. Steve doesn’t reveal to Rob that he is worried about his Dad on the trip, leading Rob to put his foot in it, even more than usual.
Another strong presence in all of the trips is the choice of music. An album, song or band becomes the ‘theme’ for each one and because it was the Bee Gees who wrote the title song of Grease, it is they who are subjected to Rob and Steve’s competitive car singing. Winterbottom has repurposed Michael Nyman scores in each of the films/seasons, borrowing heavily from Nyman’s score from one of Winterbottom’s other films, the little-known, but wonderful Wonderland. If you asked me to score a film using tracks which had already been used in other films, it would sound almost exactly like The Trip to Greece. Winterbottom uses Nyman’s Molly, Debbie and Jack (from Wonderland) and Nyman’s Diary of Love (from Neil Jordan’s The End of the Affair). He also uses two Philip Glass pieces: Violin Concerto No 2 Movement II and Satyagraha (Protest) and finally, a much-used Max Richter piece – On the Nature of Daylight (from Shutter Island, Arrival, Winterbottom’s The Face of an Angel and others).
The Trip to Spain (2017)
The literary influences on this occasion are (obviously) Don Quixote and also Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. The Trip to Spain would make an excellent double-bill with Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (which was finally finished after 25 or so years in development hell and released in 2019). The presence of ancient windmills (a feature of the Don Quixote story), as well as modern-day wind turbines lead Rob to sing “Windmills of the Mind” for the much of the film. Even the awkward discussions of the moors and ISIS, up to and including the cringy finale of The Trip to Spain are echoed in Gilliam’s film. Both Winterbottom and Gilliam are imperfect filmmakers, but their humour and inventiveness win out over any clunky commentary (for me).
Since The Trip to Italy, Philomena has come out, so instead of Steve banging on about his BAFTAs, he can now one-up himself by name-dropping the Pope, as well as his Oscar nominations. Something else that has occurred is the 2016 spate of celebrity deaths, chiefly David Bowie, which of course calls for more impressions. One of the best and most excruciating scenes is when Steve invites a busker to have a drink with him and Rob, only for Steve to immediately feel threatened and get his back up over this young upstart suggesting places “off the beaten track” that they should go to. Coogan’s performance, once again, is so good – he is threatened by men who are are younger than him, better looking than him or who might be more knowledgeable/intellectual or successful than him.
To be fair to Steve, the locations that are covered in this installment aren’t the usual Spanish tourist destinations and include Bilbao/Biscay, Rioja, Guadalajara and Almagro (in Central Spain). However, the trip does conclude in Malaga on the Costa del Sol.
The Trip to Italy (2014)
This is probably my favourite of the series, mainly because of the stunning settings, which include Rome, Siena, Portofino (with its colourful buildings), the Amalfi Coast, Naples, Pompeii and Capri. The literary influences here are, of course, Byron (with a visit to his house in Genoa), Keats and Shelley and less obviously (but hilariously), the soundtrack is Jagged Little Pill by Alanis Morissette. Steve starts off not drinking, but gradually succumbs, the longer the trip goes on. Rob has an affair with a young British yachtswoman, upending the perception that it is Coogan who is the ladies’ man.
The Godfather is a big obsession of Rob’s on this trip (cue Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino impressions) and he’s very much looking forward to going to Sicily. Rob’s agent (played by Ronni Ancona) tells him that he has an audition for a mob movie directed by Michael Mann, leading to professional jealousy from Steve.
Death and aging are once again, big themes in this installment, with them discussing the eulogies they would give one another at their funerals. Steve’s long-suffering assistant Emma (Claire Keelan) flies out with Steve’s son Joe and it’s revealed that she’s pregnant.
I think anyone over 40 who amuses themselves by doing impressions needs to take a long hard look in the mirror
The Trip (2010)
So, this is where it all started. A trip around the North of England, specifically, the Lake District, with a focus on Coleridge, Wordsworth and the Brontes. The musical accompaniment for this trip is mainly ABBA. The theme of Steve’s womanising is introduced very early, with him regularly calling his young American girlfriend Mischa, but also almost immediately sleeping with the receptionist at the first hotel they arrive at.
One of the interesting things to track across the series is the changing dynamic of who is “in charge” on the trip and the purpose of each one. For this one, Steve was supposed to be doing the trip with Mischa, but she drops out at the last minute and he reluctantly invites Rob along as a substitute. He is petty about who gets the biggest and best room in each hotel and when the photographer Yolanda (Marta Barrio) arrives (a recurring character), he doesn’t even ask Rob to be in the photos with him (which hurts Rob and leads him to an ill-advised flirtation with Emma). Even in the next one (Italy), Rob is more in the driving seat, in terms of it being him writing the restaurant reviews for The Observer and him deciding the itinerary. In Spain, it’s more of a personal odyssey for Steve, with his aim to write a book akin to Laurie Lee’s.
Something I had totally forgotten until my recent re-watch is the amount of ‘gay panic’ in this one (and to a lesser extent, Italy) with Steve constantly at pains to point out that he and Rob are not together and can’t share a room or a bed – “we’re bumless chums.” The supporting characters, including Rob’s wife Sally (Rebecca Johnson), Steve’s son Joe, his assistant Emma, his on-again/off-again girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) all being played by the same actors throughout the decade is a testament to everyone’s commitment to Winterbottom. Let’s face it, no one here is making Marvel money.
Steve’s dream sequences are introduced in this first installment – in this one he dreams that his Dad calls him a c*nt in the newspapers, in Spain he dreams of being interrogated by Rob in the style of The Spanish Inquisition. In Italy, Rob dreams that he betrays Steve, The Godfather-style, which is obviously echoing the fact that Steve’s agent has approached him.
Steve calls himself Don Quixote in this one (foreshadowing Spain), comparing himself to an aristocrat or knight who wanders the land seducing women. There is an extensive sequence in a graveyard (the theme of death being introduced, which will be one of the main throughlines of the series) and they have an argument about geology on one of their walks and Steve storms off, only to meet his match in an even bigger bore. It’s really interesting to watch Greece and straight afterwards, go back to the beginning and watch this one (as I did) because you can track the development of their friendship. There is definitely more spikiness and iciness from Steve at the start and he does seem to gradually soften and thaw towards Rob as the series progresses.
If The Trip to Greece does indeed signal the end of this franchise, it’s a shame, but we should appreciate the gift of these four trips, chronicling a middle-aged male friendship across a decade. What Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon have achieved is truly unique. Coogan and Brydon have had some uncomfortable aspects of their real personalities and real lives heightened, scrutinised and laid bare for an audience, making themselves vulnerable in a way that shows how much trust and faith they have in their creative collaboration with Winterbottom. Their impressions and the comedic aspects are hilariously laugh-out-loud, but the thought and detail that has gone into aspects such as the cinematography and the melancholic score (which works so well) are equally impressive. This is almost an Alan Partridge-worthy performance from Coogan and this is probably the best thing Brydon has ever done, what they are doing in these four films/shows is deeply impressive and should be valued a lot more highly for the skill involved. The pathos underlying the relentless Michael Caine and Mick Jagger impressions makes these ‘episodes’ have a lasting impact. A special series that is well worth a revisit.