The Trip to Italy: worth the return journey?

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's food-fuelled journey through Italy has an undercurrent of despair beneath the impressions. Would you join the pair on future trips?

There's always a moment of concern when you return to a beloved holiday destination: will this visit amplify golden memories, or reveal it to be something less than you fondly remember? Those same feelings greeted the second series of The Trip. I loved Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's food-fuelled journeys around the Lake District. But could they repeat the trick in Italy?

As we approach the final episode, the answer, for me, is not entirely. I know some who have adored the pair's new set of escapades, and others who despair of them. I am somewhere in the middle: there have been moments when I've guffawed – "Where do you stand on Michael Buble?" "His windpipe?" – but others where I've found the series slightly wanting.

It's nothing to do with the location, which is both glorious and fitting. Three-quarter-length trousers flapping in the breeze, panamas pulled down firmly, faces glowing, Coogan and Brydon look ordinary and slightly defeated. The ice-cream-coloured buildings and wide skies serve as a perfect counterpoint to the melancholia that suffuses the pair's adventures.

And their Italian trip has been soaked with the despair of male middle-age. The realisation that they are now invisible to younger women (although not that invisible), their hair is thinning, their glory days behind them. The stunning Italian backdrop only serves to highlight the sadness of youth lost, relationships mourned, even as they desperately try to not surrender. (For about three episodes Coogan seemed not to touch a single carb, despite being presented with all that delicious pasta.) The sex is grubby, a terrible feeling of gloom lurks, a dissatisfaction lingers even in palatial suites.

This second series has focused more on Coogan and Brydon, or these fictionalised versions of them, than the first: the food and the scenery overshadowed by the pair's tense relationship. Coogan attempting to be cool and then coming unstuck, Brydon needling and sniping at his friend. They are men suspended in boyhood; older and younger brother who have never entirely left their awkward teenage selves behind. The couple after 20 years of marriage, each wondering if they might not have done better.

The results are tinged with unbearable emptiness, but also hilarious. The ridiculous impressions and quickfire jokes ("She's got a lovely gait." "Probably padlocked."), constant desire to outdo each other's lines, and Brydon's inability to recite poetry save in a different accent, are clever and funny.

Of course some of the appeal remains in deciphering what is fictional and what is real – hence complaints about the pair spending the equivalent of a licence fee on a lunch – although the conceit feels somewhat more contrived this time around. That's maybe inevitable if you take a format and give it a second spin (or indeed third, in this case), but I've wondered if at times The Trip to Italy has become slightly too self-aware: Brydon poking fun at his affable image, Coogan proving that he isn't a self-important lothario by accepting the joke that he is. The Shelley has felt rather strong-armed in, too.

And sometimes it's a bit tricky as a woman to know quite what to think of The Trip. Coogan and Brydon might mourn their lost youth, but young, beautiful women still flock to them. (Although of course, as Coogan reasons, fame might have something to do with that.) I'd like to think that women always have the upper hand, and Coogan and Brydon are always on the back foot, but I'm not always sure how true that really is.

I have reservations too about the sheer volume of impressions. Perhaps it is more palatable in 30-minute chunks – I caught up in binges – but I have begun to tire of them. Hilarious moments aside (I, too, think Neil Kinnock is Coogan's best one) I sometimes find myself looking at the pair as if they were the tedious, rowdy, boozy tourists on the next table, rather than delighting in their repartee.

Is that the point? Perhaps. The Trip to Italy certainly feels less funny, more despairing than their Lake District jaunt. That isn't necessarily a bad thing. But it does make me wonder how many future trips I could watch. What about you?


Vicky Frost

The GuardianTramp

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