1. The Inn At Whitewell
There was a moment in last night’s series opener when I found myself doing something I’ve never done before in any Coogan production: I looked at my watch to see how long was left. The moment came about halfway through his and Brydon’s elongated impressions show, which provided the centrepiece of the half hour’s entertainment provided here.
Both Brydon and Coogan are adept impressionists, of course, and there is much humour to had in that in itself, but it was stretched out here to a point that impacted on the flow of the episode. Shame, as it was a rare low point in a cracking half hour of television.
The very idea of Coogan and Brydon working together again on another improvised production ala the great Tristram Shandy: A Cock And Bull Story, also directed by Michael Winterbottom, suggested this could be one of the Beeb’s big shows this autumn. As a huge Coogan fan, I had particular reason to look forward to last night’s episode and I was delighted to note that both performers were on excellent form.
The general premise is simple enough. Coogan has been asked to write a restaurant review column for The Observer and Brydon finds himself invited along as Steve’s preferred partner, his current girlfriend, Mischa, is ‘unavailable’. Cue shots of them on route to and in said restaurant and lots and lots of talking.
This is a good thing. Both actors have a fine grasp of what makes the mundane very funny, indeed. Both also have a proven track record in understated comedy. Brydon’s Marion And Geoff is a particular favourite of mine, although Saxondale also deserves recognition in this respect.
Perhaps this is why the sight of two grown men idly chatting about Coogan’s choice of road music (Joy Division perfectly setting the Northern mood) is gently amusing to watch. Conversations about which road to take, why maps are better than Sat Navs, and alter boys take on a whole new level in the hands of these master craftsmen at work. It’s a joy to watch.
There are also moments that hark back to previous work, particularly in the case of Coogan. The ghost of Partridge inevitably hangs over everything he does, especially in a lovely scene towards the end of the episode, which sees him walking down a busy road. If he’d sung Goldfinger, we’d be right back at the Linton Travel Tavern. Then there are the odd mannerisms and quirks which blur the line between Partridge and Coogan that pop up from time to time. Splitting a fee 60/40, acting decidedly awkward around Rob’s family, to name a couple.
Indeed, Coogan’s ‘character’ here is the more fully rounded of the two, perhaps because Brydon is portrayed as being completely comfortable in his own skin, happily married with a young baby. Coogan, on the other hand, still hasn’t entirely grown up. He’s still playing the field, still something of a control freak with his troops behind him on hand to deal with issues of a single bed and offers of film work. It’s an interesting portrayal and you wonder how close to his real-life persona this really is.
Clearly uncomfortable in his own skin and apparently permanently worried about how to interact with others, all the time wanting to better his career, it’s perhaps most apparent in a lovely little scene when Brydon is left to chat with the hotel receptionist, Magda, and gets on instantly.
Coogan, meanwhile, stumbles when telling her his name (“Steve, none of this Mr Coogan nonsense”) and gives plenty of nervous ticks and little shrugs and nods here and there. Then there are the attempts to flirt with the waitress and Magda. It’s wonderful to watch and makes for a interesting juxtaposition between the two friends.
Halfway into proceedings, we get the impressions show. In fairness, it did contain many of the episode’s laugh out loud moments, Brydon’s “most obtuse segue into Ronnie Corbett” and the simply brilliant ageing Michael Caine conversation. Unfortunately, this just went on for a bit too long for me, upsetting the general free flowing nature of the show.
There was also a nice change of pace for the final few minutes. As Winterbottom made great use of framing England’s countryside, a scene of Brydon and Coogan outside gave Coogan a moment to make a pained phone call to Mischa, played by another Winterbottom alumni, 9 Songs’ Margo Stilley. All of Coogan’s insecurities are laid bare in one moment of magic, him barely hearing her on the top of a hill, she comfortable and warm in her American apartment, but clearly aggravated by his insecurities.
Presumably, the long distance relationship will be a focus of the series and it could lead to some interesting future plot points.
All in all, this was a great start that rewards repeat viewing. Lines like “You just need one film and that will propel you”, “I’ve done 10”, “You need the right film” deserve more laughs than they perhaps get first time round.
It’s an understated work of real quality from a team that really understand the medium. If you didn’t like it first time round, watch it on iPlayer and give it another chance. There is much to be admired here.
Next week, though, fewer impressions, please.
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