Watching The Trip movies — which began with The Trip and continued through The Trip To Spain, The Trip To Italy, and now The Trip To Greece — is intensely calming in precisely the way that most comedies are not. Starring affable Welshman Rob Brydon and vaguely pompous Mancunian Steve Coogan as its semi-fictionalized Lennon-McCartney (with Brydon as the McCartney), The Trip follows two relatively rich guys as they travel Europe’s most beautiful sights eating gourmet food and doing impressions to each other. It’s not exactly Tolstoy but there are few things I’d rather watch.
The scenery is gorgeous, the stars affable, the stakes… almost impossibly low. That it isn’t life or death is exactly why The Trip series works. To put it another way, seeming so light on the surface allows The Trip to plumb occasional feelings of melancholy that wouldn’t work in most comedies. Its structure alone telegraphs it as something different. Directed by Michael Winterbottom since the beginning, each Trip season/movie runs as a six-part BBC series in the UK before becoming a movie most other places.
Curb Your Enthusiasm is probably The Trip‘s closest American comparison — improvised dialogue, famous-ish comedians playing fictionalized versions of themselves — but as much as I love it I’m not sure I could sit through 90 or 100 minutes of unbroken Curb. Compared to The Trip, Curb feels shouty and relentlessly adversarial.
Maybe that’s just The Trip‘s inherent Britishness. And certainly, that Britishness does make it a slightly tougher sell here. Not all of Coogan/Brydon’s impressions are of notables we instantly recognize. And then there’s Brydon himself. Truthfully I didn’t know who he was before The Trip, though I could tell he was meant to be somewhat famous. According to a British version of an interview much like this one, Brydon was “a presenter on a shopping channel and a regional radio DJ into his 30s – but after the success of 2000’s Marion and Geoff, closely followed by Human Remains, both co-written by Brydon and backed by Coogan’s production company, he’s been a near-constant presence on both stage and screen.”
I’m thankful I have those British interviews from which to draw, because “why are you famous” and “why aren’t you more well-known in America” aren’t questions I relish asking. Though it does feel like a very The Trip-esque dilemma. How much can anyone understand their own persona anyway?
Speaking of persona, Coogan and Brydon have always said that they are not their characters in The Trip. Though having spoken to Coogan as my last pre-quarantine interview and now Brydon, I can say that there is a bit of truth to them. Coogan comes off erudite and slightly closed off, Brydon approachable and self-effacing. There’s plenty of psychology to explore there, but I much prefer the basics. Like, are they really eating all that good food (yes) and are they really driving in those driving scenes (surprisingly, also yes).
So are you trapped at home? How’s the quarantine going for you?
Yeah, it’s going fine. We’re here at home. We’ve been having unusually good weather during this lockdown, so that’s meant that we’re basically camped into the garden and all is lovely.
Yes, it’s bittersweet. You have a lot of kids, right? How many are you sheltered with?
(Laughts) Yeah, that’s the number for me, “a lot.” I’ve got five, and the two youngest are here, 12 and eight. And homeschooling an eight-year-old… I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
Have you taken to the job of teacher very well?
No, that’s more my wife’s department, but, yeah, let’s not go there. It’s challenging.
Okay, so The Trip series is a show in the UK and, here, we get them as movies. When you watch it, do you watch them all in one go or broken into episodes?
Well, yeah, over here, they go out as episodes. Because I’m in it so much, I favor the episodes because I can maybe tolerate half an hour of me. I find a whole film where I’m rarely off the screen to be a bit rich, but I know that some people like them that way. I think I’d need an ego as big as the Rock of Gibraltar to like that. I’ll probably prefer watching just little bits and bobs.
Do you think there’s a reason that Americans are not trusted to experience this as a show?
(Laughs) I’ve never thought of it that way. No, I don’t know. It’s just, when we did the first one and the series, and then Michael, it was just Michael, he said, “Oh, I’m going to cut it as a film.” Because it’s not just America, it goes out as a film around Europe and Canada and Australia and New Zealand and all these places. But because Michael’s background is filmmaking, so I suppose… well, I’ve never really asked him. I try to be a go-with-the-flow kind of person. And I remember, when we did the first one, he said, “This is going to be a film as well and we’ll put it out in America.” I remember saying, “Yeah, right.” I didn’t think it would be, so I was surprised when it was and delightfully surprised at how well it’s gone down with you chaps.
Yeah, I’ve never seen it as a show, but I do enjoy them a lot as movies.
It is a different vibe, the film cut. I think you might find it interesting to watch it as a series as well.
I’ve been wanting to do that. Do you know if there are things that are added and taken away from the film version versus the series?
Well, no, there’s only stuff taken away, basically. Because the film is made from, if you think, there are six half hours all laid out and they just get squeezed together, so some stuff is lost. What you might find is that maybe some of your favorite bits from the film are longer in the series sometimes.
What elements of your personality do you think are heightened when you play this fictionalized version of yourself?
Well, oh, doing impressions. I don’t go around doing impressions all the time. And the niggliness with Steve, trying to undermine him, I don’t do that. In The Trip To Greece, I talk about Stan and Ollie as being “a great impression.” I don’t. I think [Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel] is a wonderful performance. And I say I went to the kitchen three times while watching it, that’s not true. The reality is I watched it and then sent him a text that was glowing in its praise. Those things are exaggerated. My idyllic home life is slightly played up by Michael, who always wants, whenever my wife and I are talking, she’s chiseling away at everything I say. That’s not the reality of my life. I don’t know if it’s the reality of anybody’s life, so I find those things hilarious. What else? And just the general being a bit of a dick, when we’re driving in the car in this and I’m bamboozling him with facts about Grease, the film. Now, the fact is I do know those facts about Grease, but I probably wouldn’t be offering them up.
There’s a lot of footage of restaurants and you guys eating good food. Do you actually get to eat the food that they show you eating?
Very much so. We eat each course three times, so we’ll have three starters before we go on to the main course and then three main courses and then three puddings, and they move the cameras around. We hone some material. If we’ve hit on a scene, we’ll hone it each time, get it better. Yeah, we do, we eat a lot.
That sounds like my dream. Are there particular meals that stand out in your mind over the course of doing this series? Do you have a top five?
Yeah. There was, in Spain, on the one where we visited the plastic dinosaur and Steve says, “Which one is the dinosaur?” when he’s taking a photo of me — the restaurant that was near there had an incredible stuffed potato. It was basically a jacket potato, but it was the Rolls-Royce of jacket potatoes, I remember that. And when we were in Italy, around the Amalfi coast, oh, yes, the food, the last meal in The Trip To Italy, which was on the isle of Capri, that was stunning, that was absolutely stunning.
Every single meal is very, very good because you’re at a level of restaurant where everything is very good. By the end of it, you have a yearning for simple food because you’ve been having this very rich, complex food, so you do just want beans on toast. But, yeah, it’s a real treat. Although, all the time we’re shooting the meals, there’s always a lot of improvised material there, so I’m really just thinking, “What am I going to say next?” I’m just thinking, “I’ve got to keep up with Steve. I’ve got to be funny. I’ve got to be interesting.” I’m not giving the food as much attention as it might look on screen.
If you had to rank them, the food you had, Italy, Spain, Greece, what are your-
Oh, wow, here we go, how to make enemies. Oh, what, are you trying to get me banned from a country?
I particularly liked Italy. It’s just my kind of thing, and what was interesting was, when I’ve been to Italy myself as a traveler, a tourist, holiday-maker, I found the food a little repetitive, but when I went on The Trip and the food was all curated for me, I was blown away by it. Yeah, I’m going to say Italy, and then I’m not going to give a descending order because someone is going to come last and I don’t want to do that.
Are there foods that you don’t like or that you don’t order?
I’ve got quite a broad palate these days. I’ve got things I can’t eat. I have trouble with yeast, it affects my skin and citrus affects my skin, so I have to avoid that. So bready things, no good for me because of the yeast, unless it’s sourdough. No, I wouldn’t avoid anything. People have noticed that I’ve ordered a hell of a lot of scallops over the years. I do tend to go for those starters quite often, but no.
Do you get to order what you want or do they choose?
Well, they’ll send us, in advance, when Michael is planning the series, he’ll send us the menus and we’ll choose. But then he might say, “Oh, this is a bit repetitive,” and he’ll say, “Could you have this instead?” And we’ll say, “Yes.” It’s not something that Steve or I devote any thought to because it’s a prop, essentially. It’s almost we pay no more attention to it than we would the furniture in the scene. We’re really just thinking about what we’re going to say.
Do you have to eat differently, when you’re being filmed, to maintain the dialogue and all that?
I’ve seen a few people on social media saying how I eat with my mouth open, that I talk with my mouth full, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t looked at it myself. And yes, they’re right. It’s appalling. But I find that I want to eat the food because it’s very realistic and it helps convince that what you’re watching is real, but I also, of course, have got to try and get a word in edgewise with Steve. I think he eats less than I do. Yes, you do find me eating, and I’ve seen a few people say they’re appalled by it on Twitter and what have you, and I really wasn’t aware of it until I saw it.
In terms of your career before The Trip, I feel like I want to ask about it, but that it’s something that people in the UK would already know and I’m being disrespectful just asking–
Oh, be as disrespectful as you like.
What’re the Cliffs Notes of your career path before The Trip?
Before The Trip, well, I got known in Britain, first of all, for two shows, in 2000, called Marion and Geoff, which is a series of monologues about a minicab driver whose wife has left him, and then another series called Human Remains, which were six couples written and performed by me and Julia Davis. And both those shows won awards and suddenly changed my life. Then, after that, I’ve done a variety of different shows and what have you. The most notable one would be there’s a sitcom over here called Gavin & Stacey that was written by James Corden and Ruth Jones, and I’m one of the characters in that, and that ran for a long time and then stopped about nine years ago and recently came back for a Christmas special that broke all the viewing figures over here. And then there’s a panel show that I host on BBC One called Would I Lie to You that’s run for about 13 or 14 series, which is very popular. And then I popped up in the odd film. I was in Cinderella, Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella. I did Holmes & Watson with the brilliant Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly. Not the hit we’d hoped, but a wonderful experience making it, just fantastic. And, over here, well, not just here, I toured in Australia and New Zealand with my stand-up show. And when this hit, I was just touring with a band. I got a band together because I love singing, and I was touring with a band, doing a show with music and comedy, and that’s what I want to get back to as soon as I can.
When you were younger and in school and whatnot, was the goal acting or comedy or…?
I think it was acting, performing, comedy — all of it, really. What I didn’t anticipate was writing. I didn’t start to write until I was well into my late twenties, really. I never really had the confidence. And then I’ve written some of this stuff usually with someone else. I think I work best with another person. But, yeah, I always wanted to perform. I always wanted to act, make people laugh.
Now that you’re doing stand-up and touring around, where are your biggest audiences when you’re doing stand-up around the world?
Well, I did three nights at the Sydney Opera House on this last tour. I think we could have done more if we wanted to. I suppose Wales, I’m Welsh, so when I play Wales, I think I did seven nights at one of the big venues in Wales, in Cardiff. I’m not an arena comedian, I play theaters, so the biggest of those would be, say, 3000 seats, but I could do a few nights. But I prefer an 1100 or a 1400 seater. Although, actually, it’s not the capacity, it’s the shape of the venue is what really dictates it. In Britain, we have these theaters that were designed by a guy called Frank Matcham — they’re the traditional English, British theaters, and they’re wonderful for comedy. You’re very close to the audience. The seats are not especially comfortable, so your audience stays alert the whole time. A lot of the modern theaters, the seats are a night out in themselves and you’re competing with the bloody seat for what’s the most enjoyable part of the evening.
You want your audience to be uncomfortable, that’s what you’re saying?
Yeah. Well, there’s a famous thing where David Letterman always wanted the studio to be kept cold because it kept the audience alert, and there’s a lot of truth in that.
You mentioned eating while you guys are performing these, what about the driving? Is any of the driving real or are you stationary during those?
No, lots of it is real, more and more actually in The Trip to Greece. But when we started the series, a fair bit of it will be on what they call a low loader, where they put it on a low truck and pull you along. But now the cameras have gotten so small… I think it was almost all real driving in The Trip to Greece. There’s certainly never any green screen.
That’s interesting. I almost felt dumb asking that because I was like, “Oh, of course, it’s a green screen. It’s always a green screen when they’re driving.”
No, no. The driving is interesting as an actor because, a bit like eating, it’s real and it switches off a part of your brain and it helps you to be free. If you’re driving, I think it helps your acting because part of your brain is taken up with doing that.