Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan: 'We're not the big buddies people think we are'

The comedians play companions in their new TV series, The Trip. But their real-life relationship runs far from smoothly

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon in The Trip.
Steve Coogan (above right) and Rob Brydon in The Trip. Photograph: BBC/Revolution/Phil Fisk

It is somewhere in the region of lunchtime at the Inn at Whitewell, and from the dining room carries the gentle roar of the feast: spoons brush soup plates, wine glasses kiss, and conversation gathers and swells. Outside, it is a sharp, bright day and here in the Trough of Bowland, the light skims across the bare branches and seems to settle among the hills of the Hodder Valley.

Back indoors, sitting beside the log fire, is the comedian Rob Brydon. He is sipping a glass of red wine and surveying the local newspaper, pausing, occasionally, to bask in the warmth.

Into his post-prandial idyll stalks Steve Coogan; taller, sharper, slightly harried, he sits down heavily and scowls. Brydon, impervious, lowers his newspaper. "I have ordered you a sticky toffee pudding," he tells him grandly, and proceeds to quiz Coogan with a series of On This Day in History questions read aloud from the paper in a Terry Wogan voice. "1702," he begins, "King William the Third died, and Queen Anne ascended to the throne . . ."

Coogan ignores him, and the pair bicker lightly. Diners stroll past, oblivious to the famous comedians in their wake. "That is some of the nicest sticky toffee pudding . . . " Brydon purrs, devouring the entire dish. "Mmm, moreish, isn't it?" Coogan looks on, dismally. "You're eating my pudding," he says, "and we're sitting in a corridor."

In truth, Brydon has already eaten two of the puddings, and upon closer inspection looks a little green around the gills. There is an abrupt halt in the conversation. People scurry about in gilets and fleeces, carrying walkie-talkies and tape-measures. They adjust wires and lights, listen intently to headphones, and a makeup woman dashes over and dabs at the shine on Brydon's forehead.

The scene unfolding here is in fact being filmed for an episode of The Trip, a new BBC series that begins on Monday. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon essentially play themselves, amid the premise that Coogan has angled a role as a guest restaurant reviewer for the Observer, touring the best restaurants of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Lake District. His intention was to take a [fictional] American girlfriend named Mischa, but when he and Mischa split up shortly before the trip, he asks Brydon to accompany him in her stead.

It is a comedy of sorts, but it is much more than that. It is a homage to the north, and northern culture – its food, of course, as well as its music, its literature and its landscape. Fiction blurs with reality, and there is geology and Romanticism, sightseeing and wine-tasting and much rumination on ageing and masculinity, relationships, love, fame and comedy itself. Perhaps more than anything it is about identity – about where you belong and who you are, how others perceive you and how you perceive yourself. And it is funny, of course.

The idea was born out of A Cock and Bull Story, Winterbottom's masterful "adaptation" of the Laurence Sterne novel Tristram Shandy, which also starred Coogan and Brydon. "I'll always work with Michael," Coogan tells me that evening in the bar. "I love working with him and I trust his judgment. The very worst thing you could say about a Michael Winterbottom project is that it is a Noble Failure. It would never be a bad piece of work."

Winterbottom, it transpires, had particularly liked A Cock and Bull Story's improvised scenes between Coogan and Brydon. "He said, I want something more substantial based on what we felt when we did them," Coogan continues. "And all I could say was, 'Why do you want to do this? Why the hell do you want to do this? What is the interest?' And then he starts weaving in words like 'Coleridge', and slightly expanding on Rob's worldview." Coogan pauses a little theatrically. "I don't think Rob actually has a worldview," he says, "but you know . . . his opinion on things."

Coogan also worked with Winterbottom on the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, and enjoyed the process – a small crew, informal, minimally scripted. "So it appears to be chaotic. They began shooting on both those films when they were half-formed, which normally would scare me – in fact it did scare me on 24 Hour Party People, I didn't know how it worked then. I wouldn't do this with anyone else," he adds. "Because I just know it wouldn't be good."

It is early afternoon, and Coogan and Brydon are sitting at a table, filming another scene. Coogan is remonstrating with Brydon for his stereotyped impression of a northern accent. It is unclear whether this is actually part of the scene, or just Coogan airing his own bugbear – though this blurred patch of reality is precisely where the series sits. The makeup woman leans across and whispers to me: "Michael works like this. You don't know what's going on. He knows what's going on . . . You just have to go with it."

The waiter brings the wine and pours a little for Coogan to taste. "Yeah, that's lovely," he says. "What are you doing with the wine-tasting?" hisses Brydon after the waiter has departed. "When you taste wine you're not saying whether you like it, you're saying if it's not corked." He illustrates his point, showing how to sip and then curtly nod. Coogan looks at him with some detachment. "Can you do that and not be camp?" he wonders. There is an awkward silence, the pair discuss their starters of scallops and tomato soup, the constitution of fishcakes, and Brydon idly sings He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother. It's the casual conversation of people who know one another well, charged with the certain frisson of two men who have lately spent more time in one another's company than they would normally wish.

It's Coogan who breaks the volley of insults. "Deciduous trees," he says, looking out of the window. "You don't often see deciduous trees round here, because they were chopped down for firewood and for ships in the 17th and 18th centuries." These kind of comments anchor The Trip and, in particular, Coogan's character. His notes on landscape, limestone and poetry, serve to re-route the squabbling and bring a peculiar kind of melancholy to the series.

Is he genuinely interested in geology? Does Brydon truly know more about wine? Are the quarrels raging across the dinner tables of the north's best restaurants, from L'Enclume to Holbeck Ghyll, Hipping Hall to the Angel Inn, real or fattened up for the occasion? "Rob has a sort of a lightness of touch, and I'm a little more contemplative about things," Coogan explains. "I wouldn't say tortured . . . but the aspects of ourselves that help the comedy, we play up to more.

"I like playing with the fact that it might be me, to give it a bit more edge," he continues. "So some of the conversations with Rob are funny, but some of them are very uncomfortable. They're sort of genuine arguments. It's a sort of an exaggeration of real life." He thinks for a moment and plucks out an example: "He called me a prick the other day. It was slightly unwarranted, just because I'd annoyed him, and I made him apologise to me. And I meant it. The thing is," he concludes, "I quite like people, in between laughing, to feel discomfort. I'm not sure why. Rob is less comfortable with discomfort. I think he walks away from conflict, whereas I gravitate towards it."

The essence of the programme really sits here, in the relationship between Coogan and Brydon, their innate differences, and their diverging careers. Raised in Manchester, Coogan began his comedy career in Ipswich in the 1980s, supplementing stand-up with voiceover work and impressions for Spitting Image, before moving to Radio 4 to work with Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci on On the Hour. It was this programme that spawned Coogan's most popular comic creation, Alan Partridge. There have been other great characters, of course – Paul Calf, the Mancunian waster, Tommy Saxondale and Tony Ferrino among them, but few have rivalled Partridge, the gaffe-prone Norfolk chatshow and radio host with catchphrases galore.

It was Coogan who helped Brydon get his first big break. Born in Swansea, he carved out a career on BBC Radio Wales, before a move to television in the form of Marion and Geoff, a mock-umentary series in which he played a divorced taxi driver still infatuated with his ex-wife; Coogan was the associate producer. But as their careers have continued, Brydon's success, in broad, populist terms, has come to eclipse that of his mentor. He enjoyed a role in the primetime sitcom Gavin and Stacey, for example, and regularly appears on panel show programmes on both television and radio, hosting two: Annually Retentive and Would I Lie to You? He is a hugely popular standup performer and voiceover artist, and, earlier this year, launched his own chatshow, The Rob Brydon Show.

By comparison, Coogan seems to have wilfully shied away from mainstream success, taking a sideways step into film roles, playing Tony Wilson in 24 Hour Party People and Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days. In 2008, he returned to standup with a tour entitled Steve Coogan is Alan Partridge and Other Less Successful Characters. The result is that, in an age of panel show ubiquity, impressionists and Michael McIntyre roadshows, Coogan pointedly refuses to join in the giddiness.

This discrepancy helps feeds the friction in The Trip. "Ian McKellen told me I'm a national treasure," says Coogan, over the lunch table. "Ian McKellen told me I'm a very funny man," replies Brydon. "Rob," Coogan says, "I think you are one of the funniest panel show guests of the late-noughties." To which Brydon responds with a Basil Brush impression: "Come on Mr Steve! Come on Mr Steve!"

There is a scene in The Trip that sums up their diverging public profiles rather perfectly. Arriving late to Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth's home in Grasmere, the pair are only admitted because the attendant recognises Brydon from the television, asking him for an autograph for her grandson who is a huge fan of his trademark Small Man in a Box impression, in which he makes his voice sound very small and high and far away and declares "Help! I'm stuck in a box!" It is an impression so successful that it apparently now has its own iPhone app.

It is also an image evoked by some of the series's most moving scenes; in the evening, after dinner, we are shown Brydon, in bed, talking warmly on the phone to his wife, while Coogan cuts a lonely figure, standing before the mirror in his hotel bathroom, applying eye gel and attempting his own Small Man in A Box impression. "Help! Help! I'm trapped in a box!" he squeals, and there hovers the thought that maybe Coogan is a man trapped in a box, for ever unable to escape the association of Alan Partridge. "I don't care about silly voices," he half-shouts at his reflection. "They're stupid." Later, he will climb to the top of a steep hill, and into the windy nothingness bellow Partridge's famous catchphrase: "Ah-HAAAAAA!" Is it an affirmation of who he is, one wonders, or is he ostensibly throwing Alan off the cliff?

"Often a jibe against comics is 'you're not funny any more'," Coogan tells me, halfway through his fishcakes. "And Rob might say that to me sometimes, 'Why don't you just lighten up?' And I think I am still funny, but even if I wasn't, if you define yourself as funny, well . . . " he lets the threat hang incomplete. "I don't define myself as that," he says. "I define myself as lots of things, not just my career, my life."

There is a shake of the head. "I don't keep up with things in pop culture," he admits with a curmudgeonly set to his face. "Probably Rob thinks that's failing, because I won't be able to relate to ordinary people. And it might be good to keep up with pop culture, but I also think if you envelop yourself in it, it starts to rot your brain. And in some ways, I'd rather keep my imagination separate, be slightly out of touch."

Perhaps the prevailing argument running through the series is that of a contest between Coogan's north and Brydon's Wales. "The north has more cultural identity than Wales," announces Coogan at one stage. Brydon splutters. "The north isn't a country!" he replies. "Wales is a nation! The north is a district!" Coogan hurrumphs. "The north might as well be a country," he says, arguing that it has made a greater cultural contribution to mankind than Wales.

Brydon fights back with a string of impressions of Welsh stars, from Anthony Hopkins to Catherine Zeta Jones, Shirley Bassey and Shakin' Stevens. Coogan sighs. "The north is where the industrial revolution started. The railways started in Manchester." "There's railways in Wales," Brydon insists. "Colossus, who cracked the Enigma code," Coogan ploughs on, "the bouncing bomb, Manchester United, unions, people who galvanised the working people." Brydon looks suddenly puffed up with victory. "Who set up the National Health Service?" he wonders. "Aneurin Bevan. Was he from Manchester?"

For all their intersecting careers, both actors are keen to stress their distance from one another. Coogan notes that he does not socialise with Brydon, and later, when Brydon sits down with me, one of his first points is that "we're not the big buddies that some people think we are. I mean, before this I don't think I'd really seen him properly for about two years." There is no quarrel, he insists. "When we do get back together, we slot in quite easily."

Brydon admits he gets a bit upset sometimes, when they argue. "It can get a little heated and we're really nasty to each other . . . " he says, looking downcast. "It's good for him. I don't know . . . You saw today, you shake it off, and then we'll be laughing."

After all, this is, essentially, a love story. It is about a love for the north, and for Britain, of course, about love for their children and their families and their work, about rediscovering a love for life, in a funny old way. But it is also about a love for each other. As the series progresses we see how Coogan, brittle at first, begins to soften in Brydon's company. In one episode, we even see them singing Abba's The Winner Takes It All in the bar of the Yorke Arms.

"It's trying to find the meaning out of life beyond a cheap laugh," Coogan tells me. "It's not cynical – and don't get me wrong, there's some great cynical comedy. But there'll be some love within it. And if you're making anything with a comic element and you put love in it, perversely, it's the most avant-garde thing you can do."

And perhaps love is the best way to describe the relationship between Coogan and Brydon. Though it is a crabby, unacknowledged, unnamed kind of love. They are not a double act, and this is not a romance, or a buddy movie, but still, they seem to belong together, somehow. There is a scene they shoot at the Inn at Whitewell, which illustrates this well: Coogan and Brydon arrive at the hotel and head to the reception desk to check in. "Are you friends?" asks the receptionist. "No," says Brydon, "we work together." "Oh," she replies. "Are you his assistant?" Brydon pauses and smiles. "In a way," he says, "yes."

• The Trip starts on BBC2 on 1 November at 10pm.


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Comments in chronological order (Total 121 comments)

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  • getinthecarlance getinthecarlance

    27 October 2010 12:41AM

    great article, true, but I count the reveal of Coogan doing the small voice in a box as a touch spoilerish... could have touched a nerve if I hadn't been preinformed, shame.

  • davetinsel davetinsel

    27 October 2010 1:39AM

    Or a film would suffice.

    I believe one in in the pipeline, I think it was in NME a couple of months back or some music magazine.

    Looking forward to this series though, sounds like it could be a good one.

  • WoolOnWire WoolOnWire

    27 October 2010 5:40AM

    Laura FGS, you're a Lancastrian, you should know Rule One - we don't talk about the Hodder Valley in front of Southerners.

    Nice piece of writing, as ever, though.

  • 5432Hun 5432Hun

    27 October 2010 7:10AM

    By comparison, Coogan seems to have wilfully shied away from mainstream success, taking a sideways step into film roles

    I thought it was him in those little-seen independent movies, Around the World in 80 Days, Tropic Thunder, Night at the Museum and Night at the Museum 2.

    Outside of Sundance I doubt anyone has ever seen them.

  • thrillmeister thrillmeister

    27 October 2010 7:37AM

    Sounds a bit like that movie Sideways.

    And you're being a bit down on Coogan's success v Brydon, after all, Brydon's not done much in Hollywood whereas Coogan's now well known there and starred in a load of films. Not classic films, admittedly, but you can't say he's shied away from mainstream success.

  • Benulek Benulek

    27 October 2010 7:58AM

    Please hand out a copy of this article to all CiF contributors along with the style sheet.

  • DiMatteo DiMatteo

    27 October 2010 8:07AM

    I've loved Coogan ever since Partridge which rates amongst the great comedies of our time and Rob Brydon is also superb.

    But Cock and Bull story was THE worst film i have ever seen. Utterly devoid of direction, structure or shape and disasterously over indulgent to it's start. Struck me that a production company had left them wholly to their own devices "We've got a couple of geniuses here, let them run free, it's a sure fire hit!" and that totally backfired.

    If some kind of strange alchemy had occured then perhaps something like this could of worked against the odds but that SO didn't happen. Very dissapointing.

    Liked the sound of this right up untill the mention of Cock and Bull and the suggestion that it will follow that lead. Expect a turkey.

  • internecine internecine

    27 October 2010 8:12AM

    This article paints Coogan as having failed slightly in recent years, which I don't think is really true. He may not have done anything as good as Alan Partridge, but I think he's had quite a degree of success.

    I'm glad that he doesn't do the panel-game thing, though. I get sick of seeing the same faces doing the rounds on those endless, poorer variations of HIGNFY.

  • ExPatJon ExPatJon

    27 October 2010 8:36AM

    I always assumed he wasn't on panel shows because he had a different agent to the one who was producing it. That said he would probably be made to go on them in one of his characters rather than as himself.

  • blobbydavro blobbydavro

    27 October 2010 8:44AM

    This comment has been removed by a moderator. Replies may also be deleted.

  • Ackworth Ackworth

    27 October 2010 8:48AM

    Cock and Bull story was wonderful
    Tristram Shandy is a complete joy of a novel
    If you didn't get the film, read the book, I defy you not to be utterly charmed

  • JoeOrdinary JoeOrdinary

    27 October 2010 8:51AM

    A well written piece but should have ended when Coogan was bellowing into the wind. The rest just repeats itself.

    Sometimes less is more.

  • char2ie char2ie

    27 October 2010 8:52AM

    @ PhotoJoe: could not agree more, Coogan is having her pants down. Coogan is a comic genius and any suggestion that he would be genuinely riled by Brydon's success is 'laughable'. Sounds like another Coogan masterstroke.

  • ctmf ctmf

    27 October 2010 8:58AM

    Really, really beautiful article. Best thing I've read on CiF for ages.

    Only quibble is that you didn't manage to work in a reference to Paul Calf's line about how hell is being in Rhyl on a rainy Bank Holiday Monday, outside a closed chip shop, with Dave Lee Travis.

  • bigcecil bigcecil

    27 October 2010 9:04AM

    Lovely! Not often I read an article all the way through. I have to watch their programme now. Beautiful insight into their work and lives. Beautiful article!

  • fibmac70 fibmac70

    27 October 2010 9:06AM

    They are both self-inventions, but while Coogan has the more natural genius for comedy
    Brydon seems to have manufactured and packaged himself for TV

  • pretzelberg pretzelberg

    27 October 2010 9:11AM

    I'm immediately reminded of that Coffee & Cigarettes episode with Coogan and Albert Molina:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9-F-Izif3Y

  • anatianblogger anatianblogger

    27 October 2010 9:19AM

    A most enjoyable article about two excellent representatives of creative Britain. I live abroad and these two in anything give me a sense that being British should still fill one with some pride. I have to disagree that Steve Cougan has been eclipsed though or is no longer mainstream. He is truly verstile and no longer being referred to as Alan Partridge in passing, but has carved out his real true identity as steve Cougan. We are a year or so behind the UK in terms of BBC programming so we only recently got "Sunshine". Cougan and Bernard Hill were wonderful and I was so pleased to see how Cougan's character has evolved. However Brydon is only as good as his guests on his chat shows and in my opinion needs good people around him more than Cougan. Both though have such depth of creative talent. Cougan is up there with Ricky Gervais, whom you mighty also say is no longer mainstream I suppose.

  • roastpudding roastpudding

    27 October 2010 9:20AM

    But as their careers have continued, Brydon's success, in broad, populist terms, has come to eclipse that of his mentor.

    You're kidding me right?


    Bouncing Back!!

  • Reflexive Reflexive

    27 October 2010 9:26AM

    Enjoyed that, and now vErY mUcH looking forward to the series. hElP I"m StUcK oN a WoNkY kEyBoArD!

  • Poit Poit

    27 October 2010 9:34AM

    Excellent piece, but I confess I can't see how Coogan making a film with Jackie Chan (which managed to make money in spite of the critics) puts him in Brydon's shadow. Brydon is provincial in many ways, and their relative standings could be comapred to those of Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers.

  • Contributor

    Rotwatcher Rotwatcher

    27 October 2010 9:37AM

    I love Coogan but I just don't "get" Brydon. I've tried - God knows, I've tried. That taxi driver thing. I even endured the unendurable James Corden in Gavin & Stacey. But no. In the same way that coriander just isn't food, so Bryden just isn't funny.

  • sleepyfingers sleepyfingers

    27 October 2010 9:39AM

    Hmm....

    Not often we get a thread on Cif where everyone loves the writing whatever they think of the subject. I got about three sentences in before thinking "Why have I missed so much Laura Barton?"

    Personally, I can't stand Brydon. I don't like the way he feels the need to explain his jokes. Coogan can be hilarious. The Alan Partridge stuff could make me laugh and cringe (unlike 'The Office' which made me just cringe).

    Just for once I might make a mental note to read the schedules for Monday night's TV. A good puff for the show - I grew up in Manchester so I guess it's right up my romantic streak.

    Pete

  • gaybasil gaybasil

    27 October 2010 9:39AM

    Great article Laura. Up here on a northern local newspaper (well, Leamington Spa is sort of northern) we should all aspire to write this well.

  • paddyhaha paddyhaha

    27 October 2010 9:42AM

    Is it me or does the thought of a professional northener and a professional welshman and two professional friends leave you cold? And again is it me or do you feel patronised that we are not to be trusted with an homage to the north and its culture without it being filtered through the "wit" of two "comedians" and their teams? And as for comedians and their integrity just remember BEN ELTON.....anybody who will doing anything to provoke just one emotion is not to be trusted.

  • domusapomus domusapomus

    27 October 2010 9:44AM

    coogans career at a certain point in the uk turned more to the producing and developing side of things ....

    there was a time when bbc 3 was actually good and this was when it mostly consisted of baby cow (coogans and normals production company) productions

    i think most people get to a point in their career and think mmmmmm maybe ill start developing and help breaking new talent now instead of doing my 80th series of alan partridge to keep the punters happy

    coogan and normal have been responsible for some of the best comedy broadcasting ever IMHO

  • Otisfirefly Otisfirefly

    27 October 2010 9:45AM

    This idea seems to be in danger of becoming a very inferior adaption of Sideways. I hope I am proved wrong as I truly respect both performers.

  • RicheyRevol RicheyRevol

    27 October 2010 9:50AM

    Laura could you smell gas during the interview?

    Did Coogan eat from a slightly larger plate than everyone else.

    Did he ask for any Tungsten Tipped screws for his Halloween costume?

    (I'll stop there).

  • DrR0b3rts DrR0b3rts

    27 October 2010 9:53AM

    That's beautifully written. I hope the programme captures the langueur and tetchiness you describe, and isn't just a mug-off.

  • herenorthere herenorthere

    27 October 2010 9:54AM

    Last year I had a sports massage in a posh hotel in Glasgow. The bloke who was doing the massage said that he had had that Steve Coogan in for a massage the other week. On realising that the masseuse was a man, Coogan got up and refused the massage. I don't think that Rob Brydon would have done that.

    He also said that he had given Cliff Richard a massage. Now imagine that.

  • Carefree Carefree

    27 October 2010 10:01AM

    "But Cock and Bull story was THE worst film i have ever seen. Utterly devoid of direction, structure or shape and disasterously over indulgent to it's start".

    Erm...have you read Laurence Sterne?
    Wikipedia on Tristram Shandy
    "But it is one of the central jokes of the novel that he cannot explain anything simply, that he must make explanatory diversions to add context and colour to his tale, to the extent that we do not even reach Tristram's own birth until Volume III".

    Disclaimer: I have NOT read Tristram Shandy. For the very reason DiMatteo doesn't like the film, I shudder at the thought of reading a book which is all detours and digressions, and no plot. I hated A Sentimental Journey when I had to study it at university and never wanted to attempt Shandy, as a result. Am I in the wrong??

  • stegstegsson stegstegsson

    27 October 2010 10:03AM

    I think this was really well written, especially the start.

    But more importantly, I didn't think I'd ever hear Leamington Spa described as 'northern'. Especially not since the M40 bought such prosperity, all those vinegar and oil shops...

  • wellywearer2 wellywearer2

    27 October 2010 10:08AM

    Ah, the number of times "still, good news about the chocolate oranges" sums up my life.

    But, then again, so does "DAN! DAN!" for some unknown reason.

    Not getting UK TV, I'll have to wait for the DVD.

    Nice article Laura.

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