Have you been watching … The Trip to Italy?

Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan's mockumentary sees the comedians impersonating Michael Caine and Roger Moore to humorous effect - but it's their take on their own personas that is most compulsive viewing

We're now halfway through The Trip to Italy, the continental sequel to Steve Coogan, Rob Brydon and director Michael Winterbottom's 2010 series The Trip. In the original, the pair were sent on a restaurant-reviewing tour of the north of England by the Observer. Now they're back for round two, this time exchanging slate-grey skies for shimmering Italian coastline.

What hasn't changed, thankfully, is the company. Not just Brydon and Coogan themselves, but those the pair lug around with them in impression form: Ronnie Corbett, Anthony Hopkins, Alan Bennett, et al. This time round, though, the surreal flavour of their impersonations has become a top note. Michael Caine solemnly buries a Batman costume. Terry Wogan furiously quizzes Brydon on why he ate Mo Farah's legs. Saddam Hussein does a spookily accurate Frank Spencer impersonation while being interrogated by a Bond-Blair hybrid played by Roger Moore.

The fact that these moments are improvised adds another layer of enjoyment to The Trip's postmodern spin on the impression show. What also makes their impersonations multidimensional – and The Trip such compulsive viewing – is that pair aren't just wheeling out the classics, they are also impersonating themselves: playing people who sound uncannily like Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, but who we know aren't quite the real thing.

These characters incorporate aspects of the pair's personas – Coogan, for instance, plays up to his perceived arrogance by regularly being dismissive of Brydon's impressions. It's also intriguing to watch them use the opportunity to undermine those same public caricatures. "I'm not as affable as people think I am," Brydon says in the first episode, before cheating on his wife. Coogan defends himself, rather surreptitiously at times, against his public image (debauched lothario with megalomaniacal tendencies). He pushes the idea that his involvement with press regulation is a selfless moral crusade: "It cost me 450,000 quid in legal fees when I tried to sue News International. And it doesn't make you very popular with certain people, but you know it's the right thing to do." His friendship with Owen Wilson, which was claimed by some in the press to be a trigger for the latter's 2007 suicide attempt, is reframed as a healthy one that sees the pair "run together on the beach".

Once these ideas have served their purpose, though, Brydon does a brilliant job of recycling them into comic ammunition. "Is he aware that you're running: is he running away from you?" he says of Wilson. After Coogan rants about drug companies, Brydon mocks his self-importance: "Not content with bringing the Murdoch empire to its knees, he now turns his steely gaze to Nurofen." By apparently sanctioning this teasing, Coogan automatically seems a lot more sympathetic. When Brydon describes him (while both are ensconced in an impersonation-related flight of fancy) as "pompous, aggrandising, self-conceited and up his own, shall we say, arse", Coogan ruptures two layers of characterisation with his genuine laughter. And it works both ways: Coogan continually makes digs at Brydon's panel show career and, in tonight's episode, loudly recounts Brydon's defence of Jimmy Savile in a 2011 interview.

Initially, Winterbottom's plotlines could feel a bit like a palate-cleanser – a break between the bouts of sheer joy that come with hearing Coogan make Roger Moore recite the lyrics of Alanis Morissette, for example. But as the series has gone on, the show's depiction of the lives of two middle-aged men has become equally compelling. Coogan's Skype conversations with his teenage son, who is on holiday with his mother and her new partner, contribute to a painfully accurate portrayal of an absent father/child relationship. But because we've got used to Coogan and Brydon mixing fact and fiction at the dinner table, it's difficult to know whether we're meant to be thinking of the actors' real lives here, too. Are his failed attempts to connect with his son made more poignant because we know that Coogan really does have a teenage daughter from a previous relationship? Brydon, quizzing Coogan on the situation, speaks as a man who has never been separated from his children: "I couldn't do it. If Sally and I ever split up, which we will not, but if we did, that would be the thing that would really break me up – the thought of another man being in that role." In reality, Brydon also has teenage children from a first marriage.

The Trip is part of a current trend for self-reflexive comedy. Like W1A, which parodies the corporation that made it, and Stewart Lee, who spends much of his Comedy Vehicle dissecting both real and imagined responses to his act, it has its creators as its central theme. But The Trip does seem to have a more complicated relationship with reality than its contemporaries; it's not just one big in-joke. In fact, one of the most impressive things about the show is just how multifaceted it manages to be. Sometimes it's a documentary, other times a drama. It's improvisation, an impression show, a blooper reel. Coogan and Brydon use The Trip to make themselves harder to pigeonhole, and it's also practically impossible for us to do that with the show itself. It's what makes it such compelling TV.

• The Trip continues tonight at 10pm on BBC2.

Are you enjoying the second series of The Trip? Let us know in the comments below.

Contributor

Rachel Aroesti

The GuardianTramp

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