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Howard Davis: Tilting at Turbines - The Trip to Spain

Tilting at Turbines - The Trip to Spain

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon have now both broken the Big Fifty barrier, which seems to have brought a whole new level of angst to their midlife adventures - existential crises, mordant neuroses, and career insecurities, plus the usual spate of sardonic jokes, professional ribbing, and impressive impressions. They play thinly fictionalised versions of themselves, Brydon exaggerating his affable family-man persona, while Coogan pumps up the celebrity petulance. The latter has fairly accurately described the series as the “Last of the Summer Wine for Guardian readers," and there is certainly an element of food-porn mixed in with the gossamer, but very clever, comedy. The featherweight tone is immediately set by Coogan when Brydon accepts his invite: “Great. So, I’ll have my people contact … well, you.”

For the third installment of their peripatetic escapades, the two amigos' fictionally-heightened alter egos recapitulate the original premise, this time touring the impossibly picturesque Iberian peninsula. Coogan and Brydon compete at outdoing each other's impressions while eating at deeply special (and exceedingly expensive) restaurants. The familiar recipe shouldn’t work at all, but does, thanks both to Michael Winterbottom’s transparent direction, and the pair’s extraordinary gift for mocking their own male middle age with just the right proportion of pathos, bathos, and the other musketeer. How can we resist salivating over a couple of middle-aged blokes getting paid to explore gorgeous scenery in a state-of-the-art Range Rover and bicker away in desultory fashion as the best of frenemies? The most amusing moments of this spicy sangria come when Coogan can no longer maintain his feigned disdain and corpses at Brydon's brilliance.

An integral part of the overall degustation, Winterbottom found Spanish restaurants the perfect fit for his semi-scripted format. Apparently, a number of regions of exceptional culinary kudos were recommended by those in the know (people who run Spanish restaurants in London, that is, "places like Moro and Barrafina"). The Bafta award-nominated show’s first stop is an ocean-side restaurant, a trifle risky given the lack of any indoor area, and "halfway through, the tables were literally being washed away by a storm." But Winterbottom’s final verdict is that Spain delivered the goods in cubo del cargador - "Lots of great food, great landscapes, great towns." Coogan remained most impressed by the delights of Andalusia - "You have to remind yourself that you were in Europe. It seemed far more exotic, like parts of Africa.” A revealing comment, given recent tragic events in Barcelona and the film's final sequence, which I won't give away here.

After digesting the high-end locations and mouth-watering chow as mere amuse-guele, the entree is served by the toothsome twosome meandering apparently effortlessly from one conversational course to the next - just like a real conversation in fact, only with more (and better) impressions. And it's Roger Moore who makes the initial appearance in Brydon’s cabin on the Santander ferry, only to be resurrected in a semi-miraculous scene of friendly one-upmanship later on. After a mercifully brief Dad-flirting moment, Steve prematurely upchucks in his cushier Commodore Class cabin. Next, Michael Caine appears at a restaurant in Getaria, again channeled via Brydon. Except he's actually Mick Jagger pretending to be Michael Caine. “Don’t throw those bloody spears at me,” Rob mouths with lots of lippy Jagger - but Steve’s version has more swagger. Full disclosure: this gag (and quite a few of the others that follow) were so good I couldn't resist filching them from The Guardian - thus confirming Coogan's initial prognosis.

Why did Mick show up? Because they were talking about having kids late in life, like Brydon (and Ron Wood's twins too, for that matter). Coogan then metamorphoses into John Hurt as Joseph Merrick and Quentin Crisp. Why Hurt? Maybe because, like The Elephant Man, Coogan’s Oscar-nominated movie Philomena lost - which seems to bother him a lot, along with the age thing. They’re at the “sweet spot" in life, he repeats a little too often to be entirely convincing. After inspecting some dinosaur footprints (geddit?), they indulge in the requisite round of carpool karaoke, with The Windmills of Your Mind as sung by Noel Harrison, son of Rex. The rain in Spain again, like a circle in a spiral. Avid trivia buffs will recall that The King's Singers' version of the same song showed up in the final episode of I'm Alan Partridge, accompanying a scene in which the remaindered copies of his autobiography are pulped. Later on, Rob goes jogging (or, more accurately, plodding), while Steve chats up a barmaid in broken Spanish, telling her about the Oscars, but failing to mention his failure to win. Nothing much continues to happen, but quite deliciously. As a costumed mock-publicity photo-shoot suggests, these modern men of La Mancha remain vaguely delusional, desperately clinging onto something long gone. Or maybe, as Coogan comments with such literate alliteration, they're just "tilting at turbines."

Which segues us equally seamlessly to the ever-so-slightly intellectual aspect of the series. After the Lake Poets in the Lake District, then Byron and Shelley in Italy, there are new palate-refreshing and culturally apposite references, served up as a sort of caramelized crema catalana. Older, wiser, and “a little more battered” in Brydon’s words, this time around they wrangle their way down to Malaga in the company of Laurie Lee, George Orwell, and Cervantes. Steve quite naturally inhabits the mantle of Don Quixote, idealist and dreamer, while Rob relishes his role as a diminutive Sancho Panza, the loyal, reliable foil. “The whole Don Quixote and Sancho Panza story, the most famous story of Spain, sort of fitted Steve and Rob well,” commented Winterbottom. Just another pair of latter-day hildagos, really, out on the prowl for some fresh adventures to spice up the longueurs of their 1,000-mile journey. A more apt comparison might perhaps be Bob Hope and Bing Crosby's road movies. It's surprising how fresh the formula still feels - but when such a winning combo works so well (rather like a fresh seafood paella, in fact), why bother to mess with it?

Two of the a la carte specialites du jour include hilarious impersonations of David Bowie and a Pythonesque version of the Inquisition sketch, with Brydon reprising one of his best bits as a mumbling Marlin Brando. Mercifully, Donald Trump fails to put in even a cameo appearance in the roundtable company of such noble and illustrious British knights as Sir Roger, Sir Anthony, Sir Michael, Sir John, and Sir Mick. Although the foul-mouthed satsuma is an “impressionist’s dream,” according to Brydon, “I loathe the man, so I can’t bring myself to do him.” So here's a final, and possibly apocryphal, tale to square this spiraling circle of celebrity aristocracy and finally finish off the moveable feast, maybe forever. A terrified megastar trio of Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, and Marlon Brando were said to have fled New York together in a car after 9/11, stopping only to gorge themselves occasionally at Mickey D's. Now there's a gastronomic road trip it really would have been worth witnessing …

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