The Trip to Italy: Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon at the Picturehouse

TIM O’BRIEN is blown away by a screening of The Trip to Italy which was followed by a Q&A with the stars…

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Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon came to the Picturehouse on Wednesday.

Well, strictly speaking they were broadcast live from the Hackney branch. And also to 178 other screens across the UK. But still – with surround sound and them taking questions from Twitter, they were basically in the room. And it was absolutely brilliant.

Preceding their Q&A was a screening of the feature-length version of The Trip to Italy, follow-up to the hugely successful 2010 series The Trip, and creation of legendary director Michael Winterbottom. The film/TV series (depending on where it’s released) sees loosely fictionalised versions of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel up the Italian coast to retrace the footsteps of Shelley and Byron via six of Italy’s finest restaurants.

Uncle Bryn and Alan Partridge, in the flesh… kind of…

Admittedly, most of it is just the pair chatting, driving about, taking in stunning views, and sitting in picturesque restaurants… chatting. And on the surface I know that sounds terribly self-indulgent. Coogan himself conceded as much at the event, recounting his initial dislike of the idea based on the fact ‘self-satirising celebrities’ had been ‘milked’ by shows like Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

But believe it or not, it works. Spectacularly.

For a start, it’s utterly hilarious. The improvised toing and froing between these comedy giants is honed to perfection – whether it’s Brydon mulling over his thoughts about cumquats or Coogan’s deadpan Brydon-baiting (visiting a skull-lined Catacomb in Naples, he tells Brydon it’s ‘like being at one of your shows’), their rapport is exceptional.

The gentle rivalry and friendly banter is visible in real life too. Whilst they insist that the ‘button-pushing’ in the film is a deliberate ploy to make these situations funnier, Coogan couldn’t seem to resist it onstage. Asked who he would want to replace Brydon if he left the series, he jokily claimed ‘Michael Macintrye… though I could say anyone really.’

Series three?

Of course, it’s not really for me to say how similar they are to the characters – both admitted they hugely play up certain traits for the camera. ‘I’m not quite that pretentious or portentous in real life – I exaggerate it,’ Coogan conceded. Similarly, Brydon, who has the energy of an excitable child throughout the film, apparently ‘doesn’t just go around doing funny voices all the time’ (although first hand reports from those who met him at Waterpsrite Film Festival suggest otherwise).

The best comedy of all though lies in the pair’s brilliant impressions. Joining them over long, drawn-out lunch scenes, we’re treated to everything from ‘Roger Moore shouting’, ‘Michael Caine at Batman’s funeral’, ‘butch Alan Bennett’, De Niro, Wogan, Pacino, Hopkins, Bublé – the list goes on. For me though, Brydon’s Parkinson has to take the crown:

Coogan, who spent years trying to move from impressions to characters, admitted he was a bit reluctant to bring them back to the screen, though Winterbottom offered the a pretty ‘post-modern and avant-garde’ way of doing it. Asked rather seriously by the interviewer if the film ‘elevates impressions to a fine art’, the pair broke down in laughter.

‘Err… no.’

Of course, the ‘fine art’ of the film is to be found elsewhere – it’s so much more than just a comedy. For starters, the cinematography is stunning. Combined with the rugged landscapes of the Italian coast and a soundtrack of Verdi and Puccini, the whole experience is painfully beautiful. Most surprisingly of all though, it’s touching. Occasionally, perhaps five or six times throughout the entire film, and never for more than a few fleeting moments, the comedy is replaced by a stark insight into these characters’ lives.

We learn that the fictional Coogan has recently come to terms with the fact he needs to be a better father to his teenage son. All the while, the fictional Brydon, feeling restricted by the harsh realities of middle age and parenthood, is desperately craving a bit of adventure. This all simmers away under the surface to give the film a real sense of melancholy. I’ll be honest, it nearly triggered me into a (worryingly premature) mid-life crisis.

This is also helped by its pacing – the whole thing just meanders slowly along. There are no big, dramatic moments, no huge reveals, no action sequences, and no sex scenes. As Coogan pointed out, ‘it goes against the idea that TV has to pander to the ADD generation.’ Brydon even recounted that his first thought upon seeing the first cut was ‘bloody hell, noone’s going to stay with this – something’s got to happen!’. But ultimately this works in its favour – it ends up being relaxing, like a holiday should be, but also contemplative and powerful.

The whole event was just one of multiple one-offs that re-affirm the Arts Picturehouse as one of Cambridge’s best venues. For those still here next year – I urge you, please look out for it. We can’t let those mouth-breathing bureaucratic cretins at the Competition Commission be successful in seeing it closed.

Oh, and watch The Trip to Italy. It’s great.