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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

The Trip to Spain: a collision of comedy and the culinary on the menu

We meet the co-stars of The Trip to Spain, the third course of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s meal-based movies

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Trip to Spain. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment
Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in Trip to Spain. Courtesy Front Row Filmed Entertainment

It is an autumn afternoon, and Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon are sitting in a sun-dappled restaurant courtyard impersonating Kate Bush, waving a wicker place mat around and arguing over the lyrics of her song Babooshka. For most diners, this might be quite distracting, watching two British comedy gods ignore their Michelin-star food as they fool about. Fortunately, they are all extras on the set of The Trip to Spain.

The razor-sharp comedy that sees both Coogan and Brydon play exaggerated versions of themselves as they travel to various gourmet eateries – on the pretence that they are reviewing for British newspaper The Observer – it has already seen the pair munch their way around England and Italy. Now it is time for sunny Spain, marching through the Basque Country, Andalusia and Rioja.

Today, the production has moved to Sigüenza, an hour north of Madrid, setting up in the tranquil grounds of the restaurant Nöla. Director Michael Winterbottom is busy in the background, as Coogan and Brydon do long, improvised takes, while being served delicious delicacies.

“It’s all Michael. He drives it,” Brydon says. “He creates the outlines, and the way I always put it is we colour it in.”

With Spain being the destination of choice for this third film (which, like its predecessors, is an edited version of a six-part sitcom that had its premiere on British television), dinner topics up for discussion contain a very local flavour.

“We wanted to find things applicable to Spain,” Coogan says, “[Ernest] Hemingway, [George] Orwell, Laurie Lee, the Spanish Civil War, Cervantes, the Spanish Inquisition.”

The least interesting thing, sadly, is what they are eating. Despite visiting some wonderful restaurants, “the food is furthest down the list for me”, Brydon says. “All I’m thinking is what I’m saying and how I’m going to be funny.”

When I ask Coogan if he is into the trend of taking pictures of his dishes and putting them on social media, his eyes light up.

“We should talk about that: photographing food,” he says, reaching for his notebook.

For those who have never seen The Trip, much of the humour emerges from watching two men bickering and trading veiled insults in a gentle game of one-upmanship. As Coogan explains, he is the “slightly pretentious and a bit precious” one, while Brydon is “more contentedly middlebrow”.

“Although there is some truth in those things – we really crank those up and seek out the differences,” he adds. “Which sometimes are funny.”

With the film blending in personal elements – Coogan’s personal and professional troubles, Brydon’s domestic trials – it is a stirring look at middle-aged malaise, with two men on very different paths.

“Steve’s always struggling to reach a higher plane,” Brydon says. “He’s got these lofty ambitions – wanting to examine the human condition. I just have to take the opposite angle for comic effect.”

The reality is a little more complex. Brydon, who became known for shows such as Marion and Geoff and Gavin & Stacey, has also done plenty of stage work – most recently with Kenneth Branagh in The Painkiller.

“I’ve done dramas,” Brydon says. “Equally, if you look at Steve’s film record, he’s been in all sorts. Within having done a hell of a lot of films, he’s been in plenty of Hollywood pap…right?”

Coogan, who is still best known for creating iconic comic character Alan Partridge, has appeared in Hollywood comedies such as Tropic Thunder, Night at the Museum and The Other Guys. But his ambitions extend beyond comedy, not least with 2013 drama Philomena, in which he co-starred with Judi Dench, which was in post-production when he and Brydon were making The Trip to Italy.

Since then, with the film nominated for four Oscars – including two for Coogan as writer/producer – it has provided more ammunition for this Spanish jaunt.

“For the conceit of The Trip, he bangs on about it more than he does in real life and I get narked by it,” Brydon says. “The reality is ... he doesn’t bang on ... well, he bangs on about it a fair bit. But not that much. There’s a lot of this stuff where Michael has to tell me: ‘Be cross about this.’ In real life, I’m delighted for him.”

Having both worked with Winterbottom before The Trip on 2002 movie 24 Hour Party People and 2005’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, they are clearly good friends off camera.

“The funny thing is, when we’re together privately, we don’t really argue at all,” Coogan says. “Our conversations are much more toned-down. We just don’t needle each other.”

In the film, he calls it “an odd-couple” relationship. “We do try and find things where we’re in concert with each other. Otherwise you’d think: ‘Why do they hang out together?’”

A production that blurs the lines, often using real anecdotes alongside made-up material, “it’s constantly a mix of fact and fiction”, Coogan says. “The audience doesn’t know what is real and what isn’t. I like that tension.”

Both actors have experienced moments, off-camera, where members of the public believed something in the show was real; in Coogan’s case, some believed the actors depicting his parents were his actual mother and father.

He admits they are playing around with the audience, but you do have to wonder just how gullible some viewers are. Take the moment in The Trip to Italy where Brydon has a brief affair.

“The next day – and this is staggering – a teacher said to my wife as she dropped my son off at school: ‘This must be a very difficult time for you.’ Now let’s think that through. It was amazing,” Brydon says.

Hard-core fans will be keen to know what celebrity impressions Coogan and Brydon will be trading this time around. With both men expert at an array of voices – including Michael Caine, “the Sistine Chapel” of their impersonations according to one website – this time around you can expect David Bowie and Mick Jagger, actors Sir Tom Courtenay and Roger Moore, and even a Bee Gee. “I discovered yesterday I could do Barry Gibb,” Brydon laughs.

While this self-indulgent aspect is enjoyable, what makes The Trip work is its serious edge.

“It has to have some resonance,” Coogan says. “Obviously we talk about ourselves, but when you talk about getting older, family, children, what makes you happy – those are the things that everyone understands. You have to have some universality. I also like to have it not be too comfy and cozy, so I’ll attack lots of famous people in it. I don’t mind doing that. I feel a little bit dangerous.”

That can have some real-world consequences to such endeavours, however. In the first season, Coogan impersonated Richard Gere. They recently played brothers in movie, in which Gere’s character hits Coogan.

“We rehearsed it a few times ... he punched me right in the face and gave me a black eye,” Coogan says. “As I was holding the ice pack against my face, he came up to me and said: ‘That’s for The Trip. Do you think I’d let you get away with that?’”

The Trip to Spain is in cinemas across the UAE from September 14

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