The Trip to Italy: Britain's best ever improv comedy series?

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's culinary travelogue comedy The Trip to Italy may well be the most sustained and successful example of genuine ad-libbing that Britain has ever produced

In order to protect itself from editorial scandal, the BBC asks producers of recorded programmes to complete what it calls a "compliance form". Much as it sounds, it warns of potentially contentious content. One of the boxes to be filled concerns "references to living individuals."

When it comes to tonight's return of The TripSteve Coogan and Rob Brydon's culinary travelogue series (the first was set in the Lake District, this one is in Italy), this section of the document must be almost funnier than the programme itself (which is saying something). In the first episode we see Coogan and Rob Brydon having a conversation about whether – if forced to resort to cannibalism of dead passengers after surviving a plane crash - they would prefer the legs of Mo Farah or Stephen Hawking. It's an amusing start.

But there is another section of the pre-transmission document: one that deals with possible complaints about taste. This exchange might also be mentioned here, as would a conversation in which the men fantasise about Brydon - if he were jailed for the murder of Coogan - receiving a Bafta award by satellite link-up to his maximum security prison (while a love-sick cell-mate summons him to his bunk for a cuddle).

What's interesting is that, if The Trip to Italy were a drama or sitcom, there would be a risk of some of this material getting caught up in BBC admin; questioned or censored at script stage. But under the direction of their regular collaborator, Michael Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon are improvising. The enjoyable sense of edge in the sitcom results from the fact they are playing their parts off the cuff.

In a medium where senior executives often take the title of "controller", making it up as you go along is an extremely infrequent method - much more infrequent than you'd think. If asked to name an improv show on the spot, most viewers would reach for Whose Line is it Anyway?, the 90s Channel 4 series that aired for a decade. The comedian Robin Williams starred in an American edition of this series and his own sitcom, Mork and Mindy, used the same technique (the latter was deliberately written with gaps in the script to permit Williams to riff). In British television, we've intermittently had improvised dramas, most famously Mike Leigh's TV versions of rehearsal-created stage plays Abigail's Party and Nuts in May, but also in the work of the writer-director Dominic Savage (Freefall, Love and Hate). In drama, though, improvisation has mostly been used to help generate a fixed script; as a chance to experiment until the desired result is reached. Surely this makes Coogan and Brydon's show the most sustained and successful example we've had of genuine ad-libbing.

If you didn't see the first series, the general conceit of the show is that Brydon is writing restaurant reviews for the Observer and has invited along friend-rival Coogan to join him on his trip. Both men are given fake families, played by actors, with whom they have phone and Skype conversations from their hotels. What feels real, however, is the sense of needle between the performers and their desperation to get the better of each improvised conversation. Whose Line is it Anyway? was driven by the rabid competition between male performers in particular and The Trip is most reminiscent of that series in this sense.

In the first series of The Trip, "impersonation face-offs", in which Coogan and Brydon duelled to death their versions of Roger Moore and Michael Caine, were a running gag. And, although Coogan objects in an early scene ("We're not going to be doing any impersonations, are we? We talked about that"), this thankfully proves to be another pretence. The second episode of series two features an extraordinary exchange in which Brydon is doing Roger Moore playing Tony Blair and Coogan is Saddam Hussein doing a Frank Spencer impression.

Even more so than in first series, we are offered the pleasure of seeing two clever comics genuinely thinking on their seat at restaurant tables. When Brydon begins the conceit of winning a Bafta for killing Coogan, you can see the glint in the Coogan's eye when he starts to think about where they can go with this. Until now, any debate about the best use of improvisation on TV has suffered from a general assumption about whose title it is, anyway. The ultra-competitive comedians, though, make it a genuine fight.

The Trip to Italy airs on Fridays at 10pm on BBC2


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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