Don’t you think everything’s melancholic once you get to a certain age?
– Rob Brydon (1)

[T]he only pleasure the melancholic permits himself, and it is a powerful one, is allegory.
– Walter Benjamin

The Trip (2010- ) is a television series directed by Michael Winterbottom, which also currently exists as two films, starring comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. It is structured around six meals at six restaurants, in six days, over the course of six episodes. They are the basis for a series of restaurant reviews that Coogan has been commissioned to write for Observer Magazine (supplement of the United Kingdom Sunday paper and sister of The Guardian). The first trip takes place in the Lake District in the North of England, in 2010, and the second, The Trip to Italy,in 2014, across Italy from Liguria to Capri. Brydon functions from the outset as a replacement for Coogan’s originally intended fellow traveller – his girlfriend (Mischa, played by Margo Stilley), with whom his relationship has drifted.

Its afterlife currently manifests itself on Youtube through uploaded excerpts which together comprise some of the funniest impersonations of famous people that they perform throughout their many conversations (mostly during meal time). The grist to the mill of barbs which pepper these ‘friendly’ exchanges is a thematic tension established in the first trip between individual desire and career ambition on the one hand (Coogan), and fidelity and familial responsibility on the other (Brydon).

In Italy, this thematic positionality is subject to inversion. It is foreshadowed as the first trip concludes; as Coogan says he will (but won’t) spend more time with his son (from an ex-wife) by not doing (he will) a part in a US television show he gets offered, and as Brydon makes a (failed) advance upon Coogan’s assistant (Emma, played by Claire Keelan), before returning home to his wife and child. During the second trip, Coogan shows genuine interest in spending more time with his son, whilst Brydon has a fling with a woman manning the yacht they travel on, and lands a role in a Michael Mann film (2).

Brydon himself offers reflection upon the structure of The Trip in the first episode (‘Il Cenobio dei Dogi, Camogli’) of the second season, by suggesting that the first was ‘more a journey’ (3). Pulling upon the thematic threads which establish an overall dramatic structure, this further cuts against the otherwise purposely prosaic grain emblematized in title of the show; the anti-narrativity of its punctual seriality. ‘It was the culture’, Brydon continues, ‘it was … It was Wordsworth and Coleridge. Now it’s going to be Byron and Shelley’ (4).

Coogan had left Brydon to write the reviews from the first trip, for which he then functioned as a ghost writer. Shifting the format or genre of the commission from ‘restaurant review’ to ‘travelogue’, Brydon included such details as the women Coogan slept with along the way, including Yolanda (Marta Barrio), who arrives later to photograph him (5). From the standpoint of the second series, the first is not just subject to iteration (it isn’t merely an object of repetition); rather, it is appropriatively, retrospectively recast as its prehistory.

On the surface, the first trip appeared to only be incidentally oriented towards the Lake Poets. In affirmation of the heritage industry, on the third day (‘Holbeck Ghyll’), they visit Greta Hall (once home to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge between 1800 and 1803), and Dove Cottage (once home to William Wordsworth), before doubling back to stay the night at Greta Hall. That evening, Coogan smokes marijuana as a modern day equivalent to the opium Coleridge became addicted to.


The day before the visit to Greta Hall, Coogan happens to briefly quote from Wordsworth:‘What joy it was to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!’

He explains to Brydon that the poet is ‘going on about the French Revolution. That was when he was younger, before he started going on about daffodils’. Coogan is correct about the first part, for he quotes from Wordsworth’s French Revolution (composed 1805, published 1809); a construction and expression of one of Schlegel’s ‘three greatest tendencies of the age’. The mention of daffodils alludes to the commonly known name for what is generally considered Wordsworth’s most famous work, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (composed 1804, published, 1807).

Coogan is glossing over (for comic effect) the nature of the Lake Poets’ concern with nature in their writings; poetic acts emblematic of the point of indifference between nature and culture; of the idea of natural history: ‘to comprehend an object as natural where it appears most historical and as historical where it appears most natural’ (6).

Coogan’s incorrectness regarding the order of the time of composition of the poems is symptomatic of an ambivalence towards poetry in general. For this desire to distance one work from the other is reflective of the perceived unmanliness of ‘daffodils’ – the flowers and the poem; a work emblematic – despite its popularity – of a popular perception of poetry as an expression of effeminacy (7).

As the inaugural moment of Brydon’s parallel with the English Romantic poets, it is one made from the beginning on the issue of ageing – a frequent topic of conversation (e.g. receding hair, receding gums, thinning hair, greying hair, sagging skin and plastic surgery – the reduction of the human head to death’s head). Coogan was after all really concerned with Wordsworth’s reflection, within the poem, upon his own youth.

Coogan and Coleridge in The Trip

Coogan and Coleridge in The Trip

The day after the Wordsworth quotation (at Greta Hall), as if continuing the reflection, Brydon quotes Hazlitt on Coleridge to Coogan directly from a copy of The Spirit of the Age, rearranging and running together a series of sentences cherry-picked for subtextual (thematic) effect:

All that he had done of moment, he had done twenty years ago. Since then, he maybe is said to live on the sound of his own voice. He is a general lover of art and science, and wedded to no one in particular. He pursues knowledge as a mistress. It was not to be supposed that Mr Coleridge could keep on at the rate he set off. He could not realise all he knew, and lest could not fix his desultory ambition. Other stimulants supplied the place and kept up the intoxicating dream, the fever and the madness of his early impressions.

After this Brydon recites (as Richard Burton) the first five lines of Coleridge’s Xanadu (‘In Xanadu, did Khubla Khan …). The next day (‘Hipping Hall’ – the morning after their stay over at Greta Hall), we see Coogan wake from a bad dream, and Brydon reports having had bad dreams, referring to Coleridge’s poem The Pains of Sleep – a side effects of the ‘other stimulants’.

The day after (‘The Yorke Arms’) in the Yorkshire Dales, Brydon quotes (as Richard Burton again) from Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, a poem structured around reflection upon the Abbey as appearing most historical at the time when it appears most natural; as a ruin. The day after that (‘The Angel at Hetton’), they visit the ruins of Bolton Priory, and Brydon recites (in the voice of Ian McKellen) lines from the Wordsworth poem named after it.

Coogan and Byron in The Trip to Italy

Coogan and Byron in The Trip to Italy

On the first day of their trip to Italy, they visit Byron’s former house in Genoa. The following day (‘Da Giovanni, San Fruttuoso’) while sailing on a yacht, Brydon recites (first as Burton, then as Alan Bennett) the famous opening six lines from Shelley’s To a Singer (‘My soul is an enchanted boat … ‘). Later that same day, Coogan quotes well-known lines from Byron’s Beppo: A Venetian Story, concerning ‘that soft bastard Latin, Which melts like kisses from a female mouth, and sounds as if it should be writ on satin … ‘. That evening, in bed, Coogan reads aloud from Act 1, Scene 1 of Byron’s Manfred:’Sorrow is knowledge: They who know the most must mourn the deepest o’er the fatal truth, the tree of knowledge is not that of life.’

Bad Romantic Individualism?

On the third day (‘La Suvera, Pievescola’), they visit the beach near Viareggio where Shelley’s body was cremated; where it washed ashore after he drowned following a storm that sank his sailing boat – named ‘Don Juan’, after Byron’s satiric poem, which the latter had began composing in Rome in 1818 (8). Brydon holds a copy of a well-known painting, The Funeral of Shelley, by Louis Edouard Fournier (it depicts the funeral pyre, with Shelley’s three close friends standing to the left of it; Robert Trelawny, Leigh Hunt, and Byron). They visit Byron’s former residence, the Palazzo Lanfranchi, a sixteenth century palace in Pisa, which Shelley found for him.

During lunch, Coogan finds in the poets a cultural veneer of self-justification, which leads Brydon to a close chronological paralleling of their ages:

Coogan: They sleep with me because of my semi-justified reputation for being something of a lothario. But it was the same with Byron and Shelley, Casanova.

Brydon: Byron said he felt like he was sixty ’cause he’d had so many affairs. Thirty-six when he died.

Coogan: Yeah, well, he’s still –

Brydon: Ten years younger than us. So we are more than sixteen years older than him now, when he was complaining about how old he felt. We’re ten years ahead of that.

Coogan: His girlfriend was still half his age.

Brydon: Well, he was in pieces, Shelley fell in love with a seventeen year old.

The use of the term ‘lothario’ reinforces the veneer, due to its literary associations, as a name which first came to connote an unscrupulous seducer of women in Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Brydon asks Coogan if he misses Mischa. Coogan says he could have grown old together with her, remarking, ‘I’ve looked at a photo album the other day. As I get older in the pictures, my girlfriend stays the same age. They’re like Doctor Whos’, they just keep changing’.

Later, the coda from the previous episode is repeated. Coogan continues to read Byron, this time whilst listening to the music of Leonard Cohen. He falls asleep with the book in his lap, as the music continues. The song we hear is ‘Go No More A-Roving’, which appears on Dear Heather (2004). It is modelled on Byron’s So, we’ll go no more a roving (1871). It is thought to have been written as a reaction of self-disgust regarding his achievement in Italy of a ‘total’ promiscuity.

The following day (‘Hotel Locarno, Rome’), instead of going to Naples where Shelley had stayed, they plan to stay over at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome, after meeting up with Emma and Yolanda, who reprise their roles again. ‘You can imagine you’re living just where Keats was living’, says Brydon. ‘He didn’t really live here did he?’ replies Coogan, ‘I mean, its just, you know, he came here and then died’ (9).

Brydon reads out aloud from a wall text that explains how Keats and Shelley, whilst being ‘hardly known’ during their lifetimes, came to achieve a posthumous success that overshadowed Byron. ‘There you go’ Coogan says, ‘there is hope. People will laugh at your jokes when you’re dead.’ (When, in the Lake District, Brydon sub-textually quoted Hazlitt on Coleridge to Coogan, he responded by saying ‘I’d rather have these moments of genius than a lifetime of mediocrity’, quoting Neil Young: ‘Better to burn out that fade away’) (10).

Shelley's grave tempest epigraph

Shelley’s grave tempest epigraph

After lunch that same day, during which they mention Shelley’s’ loss of four out of six children, and the suicide of Shelley’s first wife (Harriet) after he left her (when she was pregnant) for his second wife, they visit the Foreigners Cemetery, containing Keats and Shelley’s graves. Brydon recites (as Anthony Hopkins) lines from Shelley’s Adonaïs: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats (1821) (‘Go thou to Rome, at once the paradise, the grave, the city, and the wilderness … ‘) (11). Coogan remarks upon its sea-themed epigraph from Shakespeare’s The Tempest.

Detemporalising Temporality?

The parallel with the poets moves from a concern in the first trip with ageing per se, to a more specific concern with ageing as a desiring being. This is the ageing of the body inhabited by a subject whose relation to desire is nonetheless that of the continued fulfilment of all desires within one’s lifetime. ‘Desire’ as the existential expression or outcome of a process of subjection to a relation to desire that is constitutive of it as a series of individual (primarily self-fulfilling) desires. Or to put it another way; the experience of desire under the condition of societies of increasing individualism (of which neoliberalism is the latest economic expression).

Although Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s conception of desire is still fashionable today (mainly through the generalised use of their appropriation of the term ‘affect’, which has functioned transformatively – in a transdisciplinary fashion – across disciplinary borders in the humanities), a less fashionable understanding (Socrates, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud) can be thought in opposition to such a social-libertarian conception. One that relates to freedom as freedom from desired objects; the unfreedom of being bound by, or subject to, the will of an endless series of instinctual impulses (12).

The temporality of The Trip is that of the everyday. Yet everydayness in The Trip is appetitive. Travel, food, sex, sleep. Each episode follows a familiar rhythm; the rhythm of the satisfaction of bodily needs. It’s a detemporalising temporal rhythm; a curtailment of the futural dimension of what it means to be human. That is to say, if you understand being in relation to time; to temporality, as having ‘the unity of a future which makes present in the process of having been’ (13).

In the Yorkshire Dales, Coogan explained the prehistory of the surrounding area; an incessant geological discourse which, irritating Brydon, invited the viewer to enter the conceptual space of cosmological time, via the reduction of time to a system of chronological measurement: the geologic time scale (GTS) – hundreds of thousands of years. At one point they are depicted in long-shot, dwarfed by the landscape; a visual fortification of their reduction to nature as objects of cosmological time, rendering their mortal human life meaningless (their death, imminent).

Also, whilst driving to Kirkby Lonsdale (‘Hipping Hall’), Coogan mentioned his desire ‘to do a costume drama in these hills, just leaping, vaulting over dry stone walls with a scabbard. With this like dead look in my eyes, ’cause I’ve seen so many horrors that I’m immune to it.’ In the extras to the DVD (‘Costume Drama Rushes’), there is around half an hour of extended takes of this scene, concluding with reflection upon its Pythonesque nature, since Coogan’s remark lead to an exchange with Brydon in which they comically transpose a distant past of ancient warriors preparing for battle the next day (‘we leave at daybreak’) onto the prosaic, homogenous, empty clock-time that regulates travel in the present-day workaday world (‘we leave at nine-thirty’).

What this scene figures – as it continually focuses (close-up, from outside the windscreen of the modern day equivalent ‘armoury’ of the Ranger Rover) upon the frozen, ‘deadened’ eyes of Coogan’s face behind the wheel, as he drives fast alongside dry stone walls – is a Pythonesque dialectical image (14) (albeit a commodified one; in a meta-televisual moment, Coogan suggests during ‘Costume Drama Rushes’ that what he is suggesting could be a commercial for Range Rover – which of course this scene – and the first series in general – does function as).

Neo-Baroque Allegory?

During their lunch with Emma and Yolander in Rome, Coogan had remarked that ‘There’s been a lot of death on this trip. I don’t just mean when Rob’s trying to do his routine’. When they visited Bolton Priory, they also spent time in the graveyard, imagining a funeral ceremony for Brydon after he dies (‘I think I better die now!’ Brydon says, as Tom Jones.) (15). Coogan’s speech praised him as an entertainer, but, qualifying this as symptomatic of his being ‘unable to confront the reality of life’, it finished ambivalently by saying that he thereby ‘helped us avoid confronting the harsh realities’; ‘the brutal reality of what life is’ (16).

In Italy, besides their poet-trail, they also visit Pompeii and Herculaneum (‘Hotel Locarno, Rome’), and the Fontanelle catacombs (‘Il Riccio, Capri’). Coogan’s claim that Pompeii is ‘a photograph of the past’ stumbles when Brydon contends instead that it’s a ‘sculpture of the past’ (because ‘a sculpture is 3D, a photography is 2D’). It undercuts Coogan’s contention that ‘a sculpture is an impression, a photograph, that’s reality’. Brydon’s confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the indexicality of photography, which is what Coogan’s remark was really concerned with.

We are shown a montage of a series of what look like human remains similarly preserved in formaldehyde. Looking at one of these in a vitrine, Coogan says ‘This is a real man who died’. They are not the actual remains; they disintegrated, leaving cavities in the hardened ash, into which plaster of Pariswas filled by excavators. They are nonetheless indexically linked to ‘the real’ as the positive casts of negative imprints (17).

The Trip to Italy uses two pieces of music repeatedly to emphatically punctuate scenes. (This is in marked contrast to the underscoring of the first trip, which used the music of Michael Nyman to convey a wistful mournfulness as each episode wound down for moments of pause and reflection.)(18). First, there is the third part of Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. A song cycle of five ‘Lieder’ or ‘songs’ (usually the setting of romantic poetry to music – in this case the work of Friedrich Rückert –1788-1866), ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’ (I am lost to the world) concerns the experience of feeling dead to the world. Second, there is the use of the last of Four Last Songs composed by Richard Strauss in 1948 – a year before he died. ‘ImAbendrot’ (At Sunset), first heard when Coogan and Brydon travel on a yacht (when Brydon recites Shelley’s To a Singer), is based on the eponymous poem by the poetry of Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff, concerning the imminent approach of death (19). In another meta-televisual moment, as the latter piece plays again for the last time in the final episode (‘Il Riccio, Capri’), Emma points out the house used in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le mépris (Contempt, 1963) – the story of the progressive estrangement between a husband and wife, remarking that ‘there’s that incredible piece of music, they keep playing it all the way though … again and again and again’ (20).

The visit to the Fontanelle Catacombs prompts Coogan to reflect upon what Brydon had said about the Fournier painting at the beach near Viareggio: ’Now, Trelauny is worried because he’s concerned that Byron is going to take Shelley’s skull because he already had a skull, which he used to drink from.’ (Byron used a skull his gardener had found at Newstead Abbey as a drinking vessel.) ‘I would use your skull’ Brydon had continued, ‘not as a novelty mug. I would saw off the top … and I would mount it on the dashboard of my car … and use it as a cup holder … pop the latte into your head. And if I was entertaining someone … I’d say ’He’s not just funny, he’s holding my coffee’.

This fanciful idea of Brydon’s turns out to be a modern riff on Byron’s Lines Inscribed upon a Cup Formed from a Skull, which comically gives it a subject-like character, as the act of reading the lines makes it appear as though the skull itself is speaking:

In me behold the only skull,
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull …
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine? (21)

Responding to Coogan bringing up the matter of the skull cup again, Brydon says: ‘Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well.’ Coogan rebuffs him for repeating ‘the most famous misquote in the English language’, before correcting him (‘Alas poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio!’). Indeed, so heavily foreshadowed has the (mis)quotation of the line from the gravedigger scene from Hamlet (in Act 5, Scene 1) been, that any adept viewer could predict hearing it (22). Or perhaps it is simply a matter of just how entwined the sight of a deaths head has come to be, with that line. The death’s head is the ur-symbol of baroque allegory for Benjamin, whose Trauspiel book is premised (despite its confusingly translated title The Origin of German Tragic DramaUrsprung des deutschen Trauerspiels translates more accurately as The Origin of German Mourning Plays), upon distinguishing baroque mourning-plays from the Aristotelian schema of ‘tragedy’ which has nonetheless continued inexorably (historically) to imprison them (23).

Allegory arises from an apprehension of the world as no longer permanent, as passing out of being: a sense of its transitoriness, an intimation of mortality … Allegory would then be the expression of this sudden intuition … the world ceases to be purely physical and becomes an aggregation of signs. (24)

The concept of allegory becomes coterminous with experience itself in modernity. It is the allegorical function of the non-organic work of art to serve as a construction and expression of ‘the modern’, the temporality (of negation) that Baudelaire characterised as ‘the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent’. It was Baudelaire’s (now-classical) dialectical images of Paris which Benjamin had in mind (‘the place where one encounters them is language’) (25), as the capital of the nineteenth century (the capital of an era of ‘high’ capitalism), where baroque allegory is replaced by novelty – in particular the commodity, which has ‘taken the place of the allegorical mode of apprehension’ (the ever-new as ever-same), as the ‘canon’ of such images (26).


Map to The Trip

Map to The Trip

Map to The Trip to Italy

Map to The Trip to Italy

The Trip and The Trip to Italy were condensed into films and released in cinemas in 2010 and 2014 respectively. The first was 107 minutes long. The second, 108 minutes. That’s over 70 minutes shorter than the 180 minutes each season amounts to (each episode running approximately 30 minutes in length). The film presentations bring them closer to the European cinema they cite – frequent reference is made during The Trip to Italy to the phrase and title of Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960), a film which unfolds episodically over the course of seven days. (Due to the affirmative character of its usage – Italian for ‘the sweet life’ or ‘the good life’, the popular reception and meaning of the title of Fellini’s film has lost the irony that it is subject to during the course of the film.) (27)

The most striking neorealist characteristics of The Trip are its focus upon non-professional acting, naturalistic dialogue, and the fact that it is filmed entirely on location. By all accounts, Brydon and Coogan’s dialogue is semi-staged; they have an idea of what they are going to talk about before each take, but there is no rehearsal proper, which helps seal the ‘realism’ of spontaneous, unscripted improvisation. (Although they play themselves, each is nonetheless presenting a ‘construction’. Woody Allen is an example of another comedian who has presented himself before the camera as a blurring of the difference between his on-screen and off-screen persona.)

The title of the second trip, The Trip to Italy, is an allusion to Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy, 1953). The film, starring Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, revolves around a troubled relationship, and it includes periods of ‘dead time’ as an expression of existential crisis. ‘Dead time’ is another way of expressing something film theorist André Bazin prized in neo-realism (of which Rossellini was an early practitioner): Henri Bergson’s durée (duration); all the moments not directly related to plot development (28).

The other places Coogan and Brydon visit in departure from their poet-trail (Pompeii, Herculaneum, the Fontanelle catacombs) form a ‘shadow’ tour of the sight-seeing tour Ingrid Bergman’s character makes in Journey to Italy. Her visit to the volcanic craters of the Phlegraen Fields (situated to the west of Naples) also shares an affinity with the ‘Yorkshire Dales’ scene of the first trip, with its focus upon the geological past. Towards the end of the film, her character sums up her experiences by concluding that ‘life is so short’.

Reflecting upon Benjamin’s reconstruction of the concept of allegory in baroque mourning-plays (in their emphasis upon transitoriness, death, suffering – their melancholic contemplativeness), there is something distinctly neo-baroque about neo-realism (as the belated introduction of realism into film). François Truffaut proclaimed Journey to Italy to be the first work of modern cinema. Isn’t ‘the modern’, although critically understood as a temporal logic of negation (the production of ‘the new’), more generally a cultural logic of secularisation; of finitude; of decay; death? Godard, himself an inaugurator of ’the new’ (wave) in film, said he learnt from Rossellini’s film that “all you need to make a movie is a man, a woman, and a car” (29). When Emma mentions Le mépris, she explains that it ends with Brigitte Bardot dying in a car crash.

The Trip aggregates signs in a way that manifests an indifference between history and fiction; between historical and fictional narrative. The increasing popularity of film location sight-seeing tours are a peculiar manifestation of it. They function to re-historicize sites via their past inscription (reproducibility) within films. One reviewer apprehended a film location reference of their own: when Brydon and Coogan (& Co.) ‘ride a motorboat along the rocky Italian coast, as in Antonioni’s L’avventura’ (30).

L’avventura (1960) – also regarded for its existentialism, also concerns a troubled relationship. It is structured around the unexplained disappearance of a woman, who – functioning as a MacGuffin, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the pregnant absence of Mischa in The Trip – leaves a void in the film, and thereby serves as a point of departure for the ensuing loneliness, emptiness, ennui and emotional detachment experienced by the surrounding characters. L’avventura is a vanishing mediator between Journey to Italy and Le mépris.


However, The Trip is more than just an emphatic, self-consciously neo-realist, neo-baroque allegory. After all, its primary genre is comedy. In the second episode of the first series (‘L’Enclume’), Coogan implicitly offers a parallel standpoint to the one explicitly offered later by Brydon at the beginning of the second. He names Jack Lemmon as a big influence, because he ‘manages to walk that line between comedy and tragedy, pathos and truth, and make people laugh and cry in the same instant. That’s what I strive for. That’s the benchmark for me.’

The suggestion of the genre of the ‘tragicomic’ is promoted by the facial expressions of Coogan and Brydon on the DVD covers for each trip, which enact (and exchange) the ‘Comedy and Tragedy Masks’ or ‘theatre masks’; the muses of comedy (Thalia) and tragedy (Melpomene) that derive from Ancient Greek theatre, and the ritual purposes (i.e. the worship of Dionysus) which gave rise to it. (Whilst in Pompeii, they happen to visit the oldest surviving Roman amphitheatre, sitting down in it as modern day spectators of a spectacle from the distant past.)

On Benjamin’s account, Romanticism has a progressive and constant, elective affinity with the Baroque (Romanticism is post-Baroque; the modern, non-organic work of art is post-Romantic; contemporary art is a post-aesthetic poetic, etc.), by virtue of correcting ‘classicism’. Within the terms of the trajectory of this essay, an affinity can be felt with the former, whilst ‘tragedy’ can similarly undergo ‘correction’ as a symptom of the latter. To interpolate Coogan’s self-understanding, The Trip manages to walk a line, not between comedy and tragedy, but between comedy and mourning.

After Coogan corrects Brydon in the catacombs, he continues from memory directly to him (‘You’re Yorick’): ‘a man of infinite jest, of [most] excellent fancy, he hath borne me on his back a thousand times … Where be your jibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flights [sic] of merriment … wont to set the table on a roar?’. (He then makes a ‘poof’ gesticulation and leaves Brydon standing alone). (31)


The recitation of Hamlet’s direct address to the skull – The Trip’s sine qua non baroque moment – is significant for its levity (32). For comedy is inscribed as internal to (this ur-symbol of) allegory; the quick and the dead – the wit(z) prized by Romanticism (33).

Throughout The Trip there has been a linking of comedy and death, sprouting from Brydon and Coogan’s rivalry as fellow comedians (34). Jokes die on stage when laughter there is none, and a fortiori (career-wise), the comedian dies on stage along with them. Coogan’s hypothetical funeral speech for Brydon prefigures his aggressive address of Hamlet’s ‘Yorick’ speech to him (a speech that is itself a belated funeral speech); a speech for someone following their death that is also a pronouncement upon the death of their comedy – the death of the life (quickness) of the mind.

Coogan and Brydon’s ‘impressions’, the mimesis of death (of cinema and television), the well-spring of The Trip’s humour, have themselves been of the aged (Alan Bennett, Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Ian McKellan, Roget Moore, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino), the dead (Richard Burton, Frankie Howard, Saddam Hussein, Peter Sellers), or even of death-like masks (Christian Bale as ‘Batman’ and Tom Hardy as ‘Bane’ – both in their indecipherability, as a result of the self-distortion and technological mediation of the sound of their voices, respectively). Michael Caine’s voice is performed as-it-has-aged over time.

The indexical link of the impression to the personage evinced is made via attunement to the corresponding pitch, resonance and timbre of the voice, and by the presentation of a collection of their habits of speech and gesticulation. They require an evacuation of the self who performs it, in order to become a temporary container or vessel for the person summoned. This self-evacuation in the act of im-personation is made explicit in Brydon’s ‘small-man-trapped-in-a-box’ impression (35). It is the one impression that, despite Coogan’s prowess as the more established comedian, Brydon holds over him – using it as a trump card (at one point, Coogan lamely attempts it late one night by himself).

The ‘small-man-trapped-in-a-box’ derives from the skill involved in throwing your voice; in ventriloquism. However instead of the voice being ‘thrown’ externally to animate a dummy or puppet, the voice produced (while maintaining a degree of facial inanimateness) is presented as the voice of a small man trapped inside. Before Coogan gave his hypothetical funeral speech at Bolton Priory, Brydon said ‘I’ll literally be a man in the box’, and Coogan says it would be the perfect moment to perform it. When they are inspecting what looks like the ‘remains’ of someone at Herculaneum, Brydon (enabled by the camera’s close-up) projects the words of his ‘small-man-trapped-in-a-box’ into the mouth of the plaster of Paris figure incased within the vitrine.

As a form of ‘reproducing’ an other that relies upon exaggeration (reification), their impressions are crude reductions that perform the ‘action of the structure’ of individual celebrity-functions (36). Coogan and Brydon are extracting fragments from their technologically mediated cultural experience. They each have constructed collections of collections of habits (37).

The enjoyment we take in their impressions is part of a fascination with the ‘life’ of what is dead (mimesis of what is dead), and with the death (deadness) of the person who brings them to life. In reviving an allegorical mode of apprehension, The Trip films don’t just mournfully hold up and reflect upon skulls. Comically turning inwards (mechanically turning outwards), Coogan and and Brydon are the skulls.


1. In The Trip to Italy (2014) Brydon asks Steve Coogan this during their second day in Italy in the episode titled ‘Da Giovanni, San Fruttuoso’.The episodes for The Trip (2010) are named after the restaurants they visit; the episodes for The Trip to Italy additionally include the names of parts of Italy where they are located on each day. On the inside cover of the DVD of each season, they are listed in order as part of a map, with numbers marking each one in relation to the corresponding parts of terrain.

2. Getting a part in a Michael Mann film is an in-joke tied to Brydon’s recurrent, over-the-top impression of Al Pacino (an actor he nonetheless says he draws inspiration from, in particular for his video-recorded audition for the role), which we first witness in the opening episode of the first trip (‘The Inn at Whitehall’), where his impression turns into a scenario where Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), instead of being about a group of professional bank robbers (headed by De Niro) who begin to feel the ‘heat’ from police (Pacino), is ‘a movie where De Niro [and] Pacino are running a celebrity magazine’.

Brydon refers to Heat magazine, a British ‘gossip’ or ‘tabloid magazine’ devoted to scandalous stories about the personal lives of celebrities and other well-known individuals; a genre imported from North America, where it first flourished in the 1950s and 60s under titles with names such as Whisper and Hush-Hush – the latter becoming incorporated into Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential (1997) – which itself refers to such a magazine: Confidential. Heat magazine, launched four years after the film, most likely took its name from Mann’s film.

3. This is to heed the insight that ‘Schlegel’s concept of [art] criticism achieve[d] … for artworks a criterion … of an immanent structure specific to the work itself … a theory of art as a medium of reflection and of the work as a centre of reflection.’; ‘criticism is, as it were, an experiment on the artwork, one through which the latter’s own reflection is awakened … the experiment consists not in any reflecting on an entity, but the unfolding of reflection – that is, for the Romantics, the unfolding of spirit – in an entity.’ See Walter Benjamin, ‘The Concept of [Art] Criticism in [Early] German Romanticism’ (1919), in Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913 – 1926, Marcus Bullock & Michael W. Jennings (eds.), Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1996, p.155.

4. The parallel with the poets coils around the established thematic structure. Consequently, Coogan’s identification is stronger (he is photographed by Brydon in profile against profile portraits of Coleridge and Byron), whilst Brydon’s identification functions more at the level of mimicry (memorizing and reciting lines of poetry).

Lord Byron’s move to Italy was an act of self-imposed exile, in response to the controversy and scandal surrounding the excesses of his lifestyle. The Shelleys’ initially travelled to Italy in order to convince Byron to give his estranged lover Claire Clairmont – stepsister of Mary Shelley and the mother of Byron’s daughter Allegra – access to their child.

5. Brydon says he changed their names, which helps maintain the documentary style of the series, perhaps pointing – in a meta-televisual way – toward the trysts that Coogan may have had during the course of the filming of it.

Brydon’s destined role as the ghost writer of the reviews is foreshadowed in the first trip when Emma suggests that the reviews could be modelled upon Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1785). (Yolanda suggests Don Quixote and Panza as a parallel.)

6. Robert Hullot-Kentor, ‘Introduction to Adorno’s ‘Idea of Natural History’’, Telos, June 1984, no. 60, p.101.

‘Romanticism … baptizes every experience with oblivion and dedicates it to the eternity of remembrance … only mourning for the lost moment has preserved what the living moment continues, even today, to miss.’ See Theodore W. Adorno, ‘In Memory of Eichendorff’ (1958), Notes to Literature, Volume 1, Rolf Tiedemann (trans.), Shierry W. Nicholsen (ed.), New York: Columbia University Press, 1991,p. 73.

In I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, the transitoriness of the daffodils are made permanent in the poem; imparted by the work is the possibility – via identification with the ‘mind’ of the narrator – of momentarily experiencing the transitory experience of them; yet as a permanent possibility, of indefinite repeatability, for its future anonymous addressees.

7. Reference is later made to it when Yolanda arrives and suggests photographing him ‘up in the hills’, which Coogan interprets as ‘looking as a lone walker’, and to which Brydon teasingly interjects: ‘Wandered lonely as a cloud’.

8. The poem satirizes the legend of Don Juan by making him the object of seduction (‘the seduced’ as opposed to the ‘the seducer’). On the fifth day in Italy (‘Villa Cimbrone, Ravello’), Coogan recites an oft-quoted line from a letter by Byron in 1819: ’I will not give way to all the Cant of Christendom – I have been cloyed with applause and sickened with abuse’; quoted in Fiona MacCarthy, ‘Poet of all the passions’, The Guardian, 9th of November, 2002: <http://www.theguardian.com/books/2002/nov/09/classics.poetry> (retrieved 27/10/2014). Coogan characterises the remark as one made in self-imposed exile. It was written in the context of the initial response to the controversial first cantos of Don Juan.

9. Keats, dying of tuberculosis, came to Rome in the hope that the warmer climate might improve his health.

10. This line originates from ‘Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)’, by Neil Young, which featured on his 1979 album Rust Never Sleeps. It sets up a choice: ‘to rust’/’fade away’, or to ‘burn out’. On the 5th of April, 1994, Kurt Cobain quoted it in his suicide note. Back in 1980, John Lennon disagreed with the sentiment: ‘It’s better to fade away like an old soldier than to burn out’; interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono by David Sheff, Playboy, September, 1980.

It is purported that Young responded to Lennon’s comment two years later, reaffirming that ‘it’s better to burn out really bright than to sort of decay off into infinity’.

11. Coogan explains in the episode ‘Da Giovanni, San Fruttuoso’ that ’Rob can’t do poems in his own voice because he lacks conviction’. Throughout, Brydon recites lines via an impression, punctuating their brevity with levity; a parrot-fashion delivery, the mechanicalness (or lack of conviction) of which undercuts the possibility of conveying meaning. They become tendentially culturally untransmissable: dead fragments.

12. Which is not to say that desire, in its constitutive self-excessiveness, couldn’t be otherwise engaged (speculatively, collectively) toward a desire for freedom, contra desire’s libertarian appropriation.

13. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (1927), John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson (trans.), Oxford: Blackwell, 1962, p.374.

14. ‘It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on the past; rather, an image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words: image is dialectics at a standstill. For while the relation of the present to the past is purely temporal, the relation of what-has-been to the now is dialectical: not temporal in nature but figural [bidlich]. Only dialectical images are genuinely historical … ‘. See Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (trans.), Cambridge, MA. and London: Belknap Press, 1999, [N3, 1 – On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress] p. 463.

Famously, at the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), just as King Arthur (British leader of the 5th and 6th centuries) and his marshal Sir Bedevere are leading their army to battle, the ‘present day’ police – the corresponding (state) monopoly of violence of 1975 – arrive on the scene, arresting them both as figureheads, and dispersing the rest (their intervention puts the film to an abrupt end).

In The Trip to Italy, they switch from a Range Rover to a Mini convertible, in reference to Peter Collinson’s The Italian Job (1969), a line from which they often quote whilst doing impressions of Michael Caine.

15. This is an interpolation of a line from ‘Kiss’, a 1986 single by Prince and The Revolution – ‘I think I better dance now’ – which the English synth-pop group Art of Noise released a cover of two years later to much success. It featured Tom Jones on vocals.

Immediately after Brydon’s impersonation, Coogan does one better, which Brydon acknowledges, and Coogan suggests that Brydon’s impressions will be able to live on: ‘I’ll take over when you’re dead’.

16. From a certain point of view, comedy can be seen not as a diversion from a melancholic view of the world, but as arising internally from out of it. See note 33.

17. Following Charles Sanders Peirce’s trichotomic theory of signs – icon, index and symbol, indexicality (pointing-towards; indicating), is understood as grounded in iconicity (resemblance).

18. Specifically, ‘Diary of Love’, ‘The Departure’, ‘If’, and ‘Franklyn’, originating from the corresponding soundtrack scores composed for the Neil Jordan adaptation of the Graham Greene novel The End of the Affair (1999), the Andre Niccol American science fiction film Gattaca (1997), the 1995 Japanese anime film Anne no Nikki (The Diary of Anne Frank) by Akinori Nagaoka, and the 1999 film Wonderland, directed by Michael Winterbottom (the first of many collaborations between the composer and director). ‘Diary of Love’ appeared most often; ‘The Departure’ just once, at the end (the most melancholic piece), in order to heighten the contrast between Brydon’s return home to a wife and child, and Coogan’s aloneness in his high-rise modern apartment (the upper Southwest facing apartments in the Hartley Jam Factory Apartment Complex located by Tower Bridge Road). All the pieces are solo piano versions that appeared on Nyman’s album The Piano Sings (1993).

19. The music by Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs, no. 4, ‘Im Abendrot’, was conducted by Kurt Masur, performed by the Leipzip Gewandhaus Orchestra, and dramatic soprano Jessye Norman, and released in 1983 by Universal. The performance of Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’), is from a recording (available on DVD) of a live concert in 2010 at the Concert Hall of the Culture and Convention Centre, Lucerne, and was conducted by the late Claudio Abbado and performed by the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and mezzo-soprano Magdalena Kožená.

20. The reference is to ‘Theme De Camille’, from the soundtrack music composed by Georges Delerue, which Godard similarly used in a similarly emphatic manner.

21. Lord Byron, ‘Lines Inscribed upon a Cup Formed from a Skull’ (1808), Selected Poetry of Lord Byron, Leslie A. Marchand (ed.), New York: Random House, 2001, p.185.

22. In fact, as far back as the first meal of the first trip (‘The Inn at Whitehall’), when Brydon does his first impression of Richard Burton, he does so reciting lines from Hamlet’s monologue from Act 2, Scene 2 (‘What a piece of work is a man!’).

Burton first established himself as a Shakespearean actor in the 1950s. He performed the role in a Broadway production in 1964 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in Manhattan which was subsequently released as Richard Burton’s Hamlet on VHS and DVD. It was filmed live and then released theatrically across America for only a few performances, after which the prints were to be destroyed – so that it disappeared just like a theatre performance. However a single print was discovered in Burton’s garage, following his death in 1984, which his widow Sally Hay allowed to be distributed.

23. Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster recently came down in favour of tragedy in their book Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine, Vintage Books, 2014 (also published as The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing, Verso, 2013), in answer to the question that forms a section of the first part: ‘Is Hamlet a Tragedy or a Trauerspiel?’ This work came out of On the Tragic and its Limits, a course Critchley co-held with Judith Butler in 2011 at the New School for Social Research in New York, which was concerned with the contemporary relevance of the (Ancient Greek) tragedy, and focussed on the Greek tragedies, but also included a class on Hamlet.

Following the framework of the course, the book entertains a transhistoricalisation of ‘tragedy’ (in a manner that ‘middle’ Nietzsche would have deemed ‘ahistorical’, since the condition of possibility of this conceptual move is the rejection of the very idea of ‘modernity’; p.20, p.62), as supplied by ‘early’ Nietzsche’s ‘life philosophy’ in The Birth of Tragedy, with its famous division of the Dionysian and the Apollonian. Webster and Critchley follow Nietzsche’s ‘doctrine’ of Hamlet (i.e. he’s an exemplar of ‘the Dionysian man’), making their point of departure what they perceive to be the central problem of the play: Hamlet’s inability to act (his melancholic contemplativeness). However, it’s only a problem if you transhistorically subsume the work under the category of ‘tragedy’. That is to say, if you refuse to understand tragedy in historical terms – the above-mentioned consequence of refusing to think about historical time; of modernity as a form of historical time; one qualitatively different from that which structured life in Ancient Greece – a cyclical, eternal rhythm tied to the fate of the seasons, to good or bad harvests; to nature, to which gods were anthropomorphically ascribed.

24. Bainard Cowan, ‘Walter Benjamin’s Theory of Allegory’, in Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, Volume 2, Peter Osborne (ed.), London: Routledge, 2005, p.57.

25. Benjamin, Arcades Project, [N2a, 3] p.262.

26. See note 14 above

27. Although it was not lost on Paolo Sorrentino in his homage, The Great Beauty (2013).

28. For a video-graphic work that balances poetic and explanatory aspects in demonstrating, as well as questioning, what neorealism is, see ‘What is neorealism?’ by Kogonada, produced for Sight & Sound magazine, May 2013; http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/video-essay-what-neorealism (retrieved 09/10/2014).

29. Dileep Padgaonkar, Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini in India, New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2008, p.19.

‘All you need’ subsequently became shortened to ‘a gun and a girl’.

30. Zachary Zahos, ‘Eating, Laughing and Griping: The Trip to Italy”, The Cornell Daily Sun, September 18, 2014; http://cornellsun.com/blog/2014/09/18/eating-laughing-and-griping-the-trip-to-italy/ (retrieved 09/10/2014)

31. Coogan’s familiarity with the play suggests an attitude of seriousness towards what he has elsewhere treated with ‘levity’ in Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 (2008), where he plays a failed actor-turned-school-drama-teacher who stages a politically incorrect musical sequel.

When Coogan implicitly offers a standpoint from which to reflect upon the structure of The Trip, he adds that he likes ‘brevity’ and ‘levity’, reflecting a proclivity sedimented into being since its inscription into the character Polonius (‘brevity is the soul of wit’).

32. Not unlike Byron’s refunctioning of a skull (as tool and subject/object of poetry), Hamlet finishes his address to the skull by fashioning a new use for it: ‘Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come. Make her laugh at that.’ The death’s head of comedy is assigned to lampoon the Elizabethan cosmetics industry for its denial of death and dying.

33. Lukács, in drawing attention to the sentence by Benjamin that serves as the second epigraph to this article, insisted that we should not ‘be able to ignore the pejorative undertones implicit in his use of the word ‘diversion’. Where the world of objects is no longer taken seriously, the seriousness of the world of the subject must vanish with it.’. See Georg Lukács, ‘On Walter Benjamin’(1963), in Walter Benjamin: Critical Evaluations in Cultural Theory, Volume 3, Peter Osborne (ed.), London: Routledge, 2005, p.6.

Rodney Livingstone, the English translator of the brief piece by Lukács (originally published in New Left Review in 1978; volume 110, pp.83-88), in his citation from the John Osborne 1977 translation of Benjamin’s Trauerspiel book, elected to replace Osborne’s choice of the word ’pleasure’ with ‘diversion’.

34. When Coogan first picks Brydon up in his Land Rover at the beginning of the first trip, Brydon puts his luggage in the boot and reacts to the pick-axe Coogan has brought along – ‘If you haven’t heard anything from me in five days, alert the authorities’, Brydon says to his wife. In the second trip, Brydon has a dream where he re-enacts a famous scene (known as Sicilian Revenge) from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather Part II (1974), in which he plays the younger Don Corleone taking revenge on an elderly Antonio Andolini – in this case, Coogan – for having killed his father decades before.

35. One of the first occasions that Brydon performed it was onset for the filming of Winterbottom’s A Cock and Bull Story (2006), in which he starred alongside Coogan (it is in the ‘extras’ to the DVD). Based on the book by Tristram Shandy, the film mirrored the novel’s meta-fictionality with its own, as a film about the attempt to make a film about the book. The Trip expands upon the interplay first developed in A Cock and Bull between Coogan and Brydon, which was made possible or conditioned by its quasi-mockumentary aspect. The small-man-trapped-in-a-box impression has become closely associated with his name, and has played a not insignificant part in the rise of his popularity. Brydon entitled his 2011 autobiography Small Man in a Book, and subsequently released a ‘small-man-trapped-in-a-box’ app.

36. See Jacques-Alain Miller [1968] ‘Action of the Structure’, in Concept and Form: Volume 1: Key Texts from the Cahiers pour l’analyse, Peter Hallward and Knox Peden (eds.), Christian Kerslake (trans.), London and New York, Verso, 2011, pp.69-83. The translation is currently available through the Kingston University website: http://cahiers.kingston.ac.uk/pdf/cpa9.6.miller.translation.pdf (retrieved 21/02/2015). It was composed in 1964 in response to Lacan’s founding of the Ecole Freudienne de Paris. It is key to a renewal of the philosophical understanding of Structuralism as a philosophy of the subject.

Relatedly, ‘celebrity-function’ is understood structurally on the model of Foucault’s conception of the author-function (from his classic 1969 text “What Is an Author?”); a celebrity being somebody who phantasmatically identifies themself with a process structured around a celebrity-function, of which they are one element: ‘this confusion is “the subjective process”, in its distinction from “subjectivation” – to use the terms of Alain Badiou’s Theory of the Subject’. See Peter Osborne, “Theorem 4: Autonomy: Can It Be True of Art and Politics at the Same Time?” in Open 23 – Autonomy: New Forms of Freedom and Independence in Art and Culture, Jorinde Seijdel, Liesbeth Melis and Sven Lutticken (eds.), NAI Publishers, Skor, 2012, p.120.

37. At certain points, Brydon performs a medley of impressions – moving seamlessly between them.

About The Author

Adam Underwood is an independent writer based in London. His areas of interest are philosophy and art.

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