The irresistibly unbearable Steve and Rob

Ricky Gervais cemented his comic talent in 2005 with the two-season series Extras, in which struggling actor Andy Millman keeps himself and the dream of a real acting career alive with freelance gigs as a movie extra. Each episode he rubs cold shoulders with a genuine star for some truly unforgettable awkward moments. Kate Winslet, Samuel L. Jackson, David Bowie, and Ian McKellen were all game. The bit where Diana ‘Miss Emma Peel’ Rigg gets a condom (albeit unused) flung into her hair by teenager Daniel Radcliffe amazingly sounds far grosser in words than it looked on screen.

Under this genre of celebrity embarrassment porn – a term I just made up – you may class the films that veteran Michael Winterbottom made with his favourite comedian Steve Coogan. It started with The Trip in 2010. Steve is asked to write a series of culinary reviews for the prestigious Observer newspaper and takes along his old friend and fellow comedian Rob Brydon for the trip. In between footage of busy kitchen staff dousing steaming pots of scallops with alcohol, our heroes sit around, eat, bicker, and laugh in a barely adult effort to outwit and outsmart each other. There’s a hundred minutes of the stuff per serving, with not much more plot to go round.

There turned out to be enough viewers with the same sense of humour, seeing as we are now on the fourth course with The Trip to Greece (2020), after the trips to Italy (2014) and Spain (2017). Yep, it’s no secret that it’s more of the same. They can keep this going until Steve, Rob, or the audience is fed up.

There’s classic British comedy like Fawlty Towers and Mr. Bean, that cannot fail to wrench a smile from even the most humourless. There’s the broad stuff of the eighties like Benny Hill and ‘Allo ‘Allo, which is not for everybody. But the unbearable specimens Steve and Rob are in their own league of acquired tastes. You either love it or hate it and I’m hedging the bet that most fans or in the cohort of men born before 1975.

The duo’s antics remind me strongest of myself with my two best friends from school aged seventeen, only wittier than we would ever be. Having given up hope that we would lose our virginity to any of our fellow female students before graduation, we tried to live our lives as true contrarians and acted out our pedantic sense of humour as editors of the school paper the way we bloody well pleased.

But Coogan and Brydon are in their mid-fifties, so you’re watching a nostalgia trip of men who have trouble growing up and cling to the heroes of their teenage years. Brydon is a brilliant impersonator, but everyone he so flawlessly imitates is either dead or octogenarian on average: Sean Connery, Roger Moore, Michael Caine, Mich Jagger, David Bowie. You imagine the DVDs that line his shelves.

Yet the movies are not an anachronism, and in a sense even a refreshing antidote to today’s never-ending stream of braindead reality tv. The more we revere celebrities and their enviable lifestyles, the more we relish their embarrassing downfall. In the Trips as well. Who wouldn’t want to savour the culinary highlights of the Mediterranean, all expenses paid? But all the five-star hospitality is merely the backdrop to a sad life, and we easily cut through the gilded layer. Coogan’s version of himself is petty, insecure, and resentful. He keeps rubbing it in that his friend is at best a B-list celebrity with not a single BAFTA to his name. Some friendship! But it’s all sublimated jealousy of Brydon’s stable and loving family life, in contrast to his own malfunctioning romantic life.

How close to the truth is it really? Coogan himself isn’t reputed to be easy to work with, but remember that this is still fiction. I for one don’t care what he is like in private, although for the sake of those near to him I hope the distorted version that he plays of himself is largely self-parody. Reciting an opinion of his performance in Stan & Ollie, he chuckles that the reviewer thinks him such a brilliant actor that he can convey Stan Laurel’s likability so well that for the duration of the film “we forget what a self-regarding arse Coogan is in real life”.

“My takeaway from that is that he thinks I’m a brilliant actor”, he tells Brydon without a hint of irony. Great comedy and brilliant acting indeed.