“Round, like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel, never ending nor beginning on an ever-spinning reel…” Those were the words heard at the end of I’m Alan Partridge, when Steve Coogan’s chat show host went to see his autobiography being pulped. How fitting, then, for Windmills of Your Mind to form a bedrock for the third season of The Trip, Michael Winterbottom’s deceptively complex comedy. “It could be a post-modern manifesto,” Coogan suggests, during one dinner conversation. It certainly could be the manifesto for this post-modern masterpiece, which repeats itself over and over, an endless cycle of shallow, strangely philosophical nonsense that gets more delectable with every portion.
Reuniting Coogan and Rob Brydon for yet another culinary tour of foreign climes, The Trip to Spain sees the pair embark on a trek across, well, Spain, sampling restaurants, writing and waxing lyrical about every topic under the sun – as long as that topic involves Michael Caine. They’re like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, and, just like Quixote, they undertake a third quest across 1,000 miles of Spanish terrain. Such literary touchpoints are irresistible for Coogan, who hopes to write a book during their trip, in the manner of poet Laurie Lee. (His current day job, as the series begins, is a Martin Scorsese-produced TV series about a chef, brilliantly called “Medium Rare”.) Rob, meanwhile, is relieved to escape the crying children of home and jumps at the chance to review some cuisine.
These fictionalised versions of themselves require little introduction, not least because they’re so deliciously close to their real life personas that you easily believe it’s all true: Steve is as ambitious and insecure as ever, while Rob is far comfier with his lot in life, but nonetheless feels himself ageing. Now at the milestone of 50, they both cut visibly older figures compares to the first season of The Trip, which only feeds into the neuroses, melancholy and incessant one-upmanship that slowly eats away at them both.
It’s that competitive streak that gives The Trip so much depth for viewers to chew over: the two men are scathingly cruel to each other, belittling or undermining their counterpart to give themselves a brief boost of self-esteem. But rather than do it explicitly, their harshest digs come when trading impressions of Michael Caine or Sean Connery. Their impersonations are still hilarious (“She was only 15 years old!” makes a return), but they’re also as revealing as ever: it takes a special kind of insecurity to only be at one’s most honest when taking on another person’s persona. (The fact that this all also operates under another layer of fake personas only makes The Trip even more wonderfully crafted.)
The pair debut some new voices this time, most notably Mick Jagger and David Bowie – the latter of which adds to the poignant mood of men in their twilight years reflecting on their achievements through the prism of other mens’ legacies. As if to draw the comparison, they even quote themselves (when they were playing themselves in Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story), as Steve praises Cervantes for being “post-modern before there was any modern to be ‘post’ about”. It’s a reference that gets to the heart of this whole endeavour, which started back in 2005, when the trio first painted Steve and Rob as two success-hungry fools.
Their presence in Spain adds a fish-out-of-water flavour to the brewing incompetence, while also continuing the time-honoured tradition of writing about Spain from an outsider’s perspective, one that goes back to Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. Steve is most susceptible to it – one amusingly spiky encounter with a travelling guitarist in a pub sees Coogan gradually get more annoyed that the musician knows more about Spain than he does. Trying to position himself as a cool, rebellious man who still believes in going off the beaten track (a track that he’s beaten himself for decades), Coogan gets as riled by one busker as he does by David Bowie, never missing a chance to bring up his Oscar nominated screenplay for Philomena (already mentioned endlessly in The Trip to Italy). (Even the way he subtly nods and smiles when he doesn’t understand waiters is one of countless little touches that pay off in dividends.)
Just as their adopting other voices is when the show is at its most effective, the programme also peaks when our protagonists are joined by a third party. In previous seasons, that’s given us Steve trying to bond with his son and Rob having an affair with the female sailor escorting them up and down the Amalfi Coast. Here, we get the excellent Claire Keelan reprising her role as Steve’s knowing assistant, Emma, and Marta Barrio as local tour guide Yolanda. They only join Rob and Steve for one episode, but it’s a corker, as Steve and Rob sling Shakespeare back and forth across a period theatre. A later round of the usual guess-the-bill game, now with a new audience, takes on a fresh pettiness, as both men end up preening to impress their companions, complete with Jagger and Bowie cameos. (“Are you saying I can’t get down there?” asks Rob at one point, after Steve mocks his inability to do a low-pitched Bowie voice, as though it’s some kind of affront on his masculinity.)
Two men trying to outdo their friend to comic, dramatic and tragic effect? It’s the same old circle, spiralling in on itself; there’s a sense of limbo in The Trip’s familiar, easy-to-watch cadences, repetitively served up in bite-sized 30-minute courses. Steve, who was once the new talent on the block, is now fending off rivalry from newer talents – “He’s up-and-coming,” he says to his agent, of a young Hollywood hotshot who’s doing rewrites on his next script, “I’ve up-and-come!” – but he’s not progressed any further in his career, nor, perhaps, everything else, as he inevitably chases a romantic spark with Yolanda. The show has always enjoyed using music to intercut the gastronomic gassing, but here, the sequences in which they sing along to what’s on the car stereo have a renewed pathos, as they recall James Corden’s now ubiquitous Carpool Karaoke: when Corden does it with famous passengers, it’s a viral hit; when they do it, it’s just two old men singing in a car.
The world, meanwhile, has also changed. “There are few things in life worse than a tasteless tomato,” opines Rob, wistfully. “Well,” retorts Steve, “there’s bombing in Syria.” There’s even more of a sense of the wider landscape around them. Perhaps thanks to the show’s move to Sky Atlantic from the BBC, there are multiple stunning aerial shots of the Spanish countryside, framing their tiny car against the gorgeous backdrop. “The winds of change are always blowing,” they serenade to the sky, duetting Willie Nelson’s To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before, as the helicopter shot slowly drifts off the coastal road and out over the sea.
That limbo particularly seems to apply to Steve. Rob has always been the one with a more stable and satisfied personal life – it’s a shame that, aside from a passing reference, his affair in The Trip to Italy isn’t pursued – but Coogan, on the other hand, cuts an increasingly lonely figure. “That’s my mantra,” he observes, half-seriously, early on. “You can’t have everything.” And so, after three seasons of their witty double-act, The Trip to Spain gives us our first taste of the duo apart: Steve, so desperate to be a writer, continues his venture across Spain by himself, staying at a B&B run by an affectionate father and son (only reinforcing his own struggle to bond with his boy). Within days, he goes from swapping impressions loudly and confidently to doing carpool karaoke by himself.
A surprise finale leaves him seemingly stuck in a whole new kind of limbo – a conclusion that, despite several brief passing references that vaguely foreshadow it, is nonetheless jarring. It could be a sign of how out-of-step our self-involved protagonists are with reality on a wider scale, as they spend their days tilting at windmills in their minds; a suggestion that the only thing to jolt these never-beginning men out of their ever-spinning reels is an ending imposed by life itself; or maybe it’s simply a cliffhanger (at least, as close as this uneventful series ever gets to one) that promises more sobering meals to come. Is the ending intentional? Definitely. Does it sour your enjoyment of what’s gone before? Definitely not. This is a layered dish that caters to all appetites: there’s a lot to unpack in it about ego, identity, maturity and mortality. Plus the Michael Caine impressions are really funny. Like a snowball down a mountain, or a carnival balloon, the chance to go round one more time with Steve and Rob is a treat to be savoured, over and over again.
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