This series of six half hour vignettes follows Steve and Rob as they tour the north of England visiting top-end restaurants under the auspices that Coogan is writing a review on each establishment for a broad-sheet national paper. I think it's well known that Coogan and Brydon are long-time friends and Steve's Production Company Little Cow Productions (a reference to his popular comic creations Paul and Pauline Calf) has produced a number of Brydon's TV shows. Personally I am a big fan of both men but ultimately that meant that I went into this with high expectations. I was not let down.
The key words which keep coming to mind throughout this series are 'subtlety' and 'reality'. The main comedic platforms of the series are the mostly improvised conversations the two men share whilst eating their extended lunches. These interplays tend to descend into ego-fuelled, petty verbal sparring and competitive point scoring. Both men are well known for their spectrum of impressions of famous, mostly British celebrities (Coogan started his career voicing many of the puppets on Spitting Image, the satirical comedy show of the 1980's) We are told at the start that Coogan has invited Brydon because Coogan's companion of choice, his ex-girlfriend is in L.A and others who he has asked have said no. This theme that Brydon is a late stand-in is repeated and referenced throughout the series and is the fundamental dynamic running through most of their time together.
What's particularly wonderful about these interactions are the hints at underlying historical frustrations the two men feel towards one another as they try to win a series of mini verbal victories, very often whilst in the character of the celebrity they are impersonating. It makes for some really amusing and genuinely funny viewing.
Throughout the piece there are references to well known rumours about the two men. In particular the image of Coogan as an insecure rather clumsy sex-addicted womaniser who struggles with his own professional achievements set against his much publicised history of indulging in excessive drink and drugs. He also references the frustrations he encounters as he tries to gain mainstream acceptance as a bonafide leading actor in Hollywood. Sending themselves up and playing out the characters that the media portrays them as having is a very clever (and I suspect cathartic) way of making light of those very same stereotypes.
Brydon portrays himself as a less complicated family man who more often than not defers to Coogan in the heat of witty combat (perhaps because Coogan is paying the bill for each meal and paying Brydon to join him on the trip). He appears to play the reluctant apprentice to Coogan's Master and in doing so he comes across as the more grounded and likable of the two main characters. Coogan, playing the slightly bitter and unfulfilled alpha male regularly reminds Brydon that on paper he is the more successful performer. Brydon's need to constantly communicate in the guise of one his characterisations, disguising his often clever and sometimes cutting observations clearly annoys Coogan. We get the impression that Coogan looks down on Brydon because he so readily jumps into character to impress or amuse, almost as a social defence mechanism. Coogan on the other hand is too cool to need to do this and it's very evident in way he reacts to Brydon's mimicry. The dynamic of the contempt/respect relationship that the two play out is both brilliant and sharp. Playing oneself on screen must be very difficult and in this series the line between reality and fiction is deliberately and wonderfully blurred. One genuinely gets the feeling that this is not far away from how these two friends might interact in real-life although one hopes with a little less ego-driven competitiveness.
Apart from the restaurant settings, we see Rob and Steve visit local historical places of interest such as Samuel Coleridge's home and the verbal point scoring is not restricted just to the dinner table. It is whilst the two men tour the countryside in Steve's Range Rover that we get to see some breath-taking scenery and if I was feeling a little more pretentious I would say something about this part being a visual love-letter from the Lancastrians Coogan and Winterbottom to their beloved North of England.
This is hugely rewarding television and I can not recommend it highly enough.