In the UK: Mondays, 10pm, BBC2. Available on the iPlayer
One of the funniest parts of the the Tristam Shandy adaptation, A Cock and Bull Story, that Michael Winterbottom directed in 2006 was the strange partnership between the stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Or should I say ‘Steve Coogan’ and ‘Rob Brydon’, because in the movie the two actors played rivalrous versions of themselves, complete with fake partners, backgrounds, etc, that are close but don’t really match up to the real things:
Strangely, four years on, BBC2 has decided to get Winterbottom, Coogan and Brydon together again for a six-part comedy series that sees ‘Brydon’ and ‘Coogan’ visiting restaurants around the country to review them for The Observer food magazine, while recreating the same chemistry they had during A Cock and Bull Story. It’s a near-the-knuckle, moderately funny, occasionally hilarious piece that’s as much drama as comedy.
Comedy series starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Steve agrees to review six restaurants in the north of England and takes Rob with him. 1/6. Steve and Rob visit the Inn at Whitewell in the beautiful Trough of Bowland.
Is it any good?
It’s a very strange show. Very. You have ‘Coogan’ ringing up ‘pal’ ‘Rob Brydon’ and asking him to come with him to a restaurant in the North for a job. ‘Coogan’ has split up from his partner and has no one to go with.
None of this, of course, is true of Steve Coogan.
‘Brydon’ agrees, and leaves his wife, Chloe, and their child behind so he can go on the trip.
Brydon’s wife is called Claire.
When they get to the restaurant, though, suddenly everything becomes very much more real, with ‘Brydon’ and ‘Coogan’ exchanging barbs about each other’s careers, the impressionist ‘Coogan’ dissecting ‘Rob Brydon’s Michael Caine impression, which the real Brydon does indeed do during his live act in exactly the way ‘Brydon’ says.
And so it goes on, with reality and drama merging and blurring. Neither ‘Brydon’ nor ‘Coogan’ are appealing people, and their mutual attacks are quite uncomfortable to sit through, partly because of their accuracy with respect to the real Brydon and Coogan that we know about.
Things take an even weirder turn as ‘Coogan’s story develops – and this is largely about Coogan rather than Brydon – his crumbling relationship with his girlfriend causing him to hit on the Polish manageress at the hotel/restaurant they’re staying at.
Winterbottom does an excellent job of directing all this, giving the story a surprisingly filmic quality, with long pauses with nothing happening to the plot and beautifully composed shots of Brydon simply jogging along a road in the middle of nowhere, while Coogan is out walking hills.
But it’s a hard watch since it’s not that funny, more painful to watch. It feels quite improvisational with Coogan and Brydon going on some very weird conversational diversions. There are some wonderfully funny moments, especially the Caine impressions, that show how talented they both are. But largely this is a drama about two quite mean comedians who aren’t even friends, with virtually every scene a chance for one to launch a jibe at the other.
So rather than watch this for laughs or because it seems like you’re going to get to know the real Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, watch it as a strange experiment in film dramedy transposed to the small screen. You’ll laugh a bit, but mostly you’ll find your mind messed up by the whole experience and wondering what’s going on.