The Trip to Spain ★★★★

When Michael Winterbottom made The Trip in 2010, it seemed like one more sprawling extra limb of a career that was made up of nothing but sprawling extra limbs. Why should Winterbottom, then in the middle of a prolific streak quite unique in British cinema history, not sandwich an improvised BBC sitcom in between his mournful, low-key ghost story and his ultraviolent American period noir? It didn't seem incongruous in the context of a career whose only consistent point seemed to be strong, well-received work.

Seven years later, and the Trips now have a very different place in Winterbottom's body of work. They represent a solid, dependable backbone running through a pretty rough decade for the film-maker. It is to be hoped that he can regain his early form - one of his upcoming films stars Will Ferrell as Russ Meyer, which is the kind of casting decision that makes me want it to succeed wildly. At the moment, though, his last cinema releases were a roman a clef about the Meredith Kercher case starring Cara Delevigne, and a documentary about capitalism fronted by Russell Brand. The synopses should be enough to explain why I gave them a pass.

When The Trip to Spain came out, though, I went out of my way to see it. Greater love hath no man than he who will actually try and watch something on Sky Atlantic before the box set comes out. And - although the Murdoch connection has caused some discomfort for Steve Coogan, whose new political-crusader persona is gently mocked here - I found it delectably familiar despite the change of network. Granted, the landscape shots seem a bit more lavish, but I'm not sure whether that's because there's been a budget increase or because Spain is just that beautiful. Everything else I've loved about these films is present, correct and in some cases a little bit improved.

So Coogan and Rob Brydon are still making their way across a country, filing restaurant reviews and doing competitive impersonations (the Elvis Costello showdown is a particular treat). It would be a mistake to treat any of the shows as documentaries about the two leads, but their circumstances have changed since the first run and the show reflects that. As well as becoming politically active, Coogan has also received an Oscar nomination for co-writing the script to Stephen Frears's Philomena, and Alan Partridge is now a string to his bow, rather than an albatross around his neck. In real life, Coogan must be justifiably proud of all this; for his fictional counterpart, it's just one more set of expectations to cause him anxiety.

Brydon, on the other hand, seems genuinely at ease with his life and his career, and it's here that The Trip to Spain makes its greatest advance on its predecessors. The first two series tempted Brydon with an affair and offered him a Hollywood big break respectively; neither plotline quite convinced, and Brydon appeared quite uncomfortable with the first one. Here, he is simply the Sancho Panza to Coogan's high-flown Quixote, a comparison the show openly invites, and it works beautifully. The only darker implication Winterbottom and Brydon layer in is an eminently plausible one; he's aware that his contentment frustrates Coogan, and he is amused by that fact.

As funny and poignant as the previous two series, The Trip to Spain suggests the concept could continue as long as things keep happening to its leads, although caution would have to be exercised in choosing new locations. A Trip to Japan or even a Trip to America might overwhelm the character comedy with cultural differences. Here, they're just another two middle-aged British men drinking and dining their way around Spain, one trying to interest the other in cultural and historical topics with little success. It sounds like a slight thing to watch for three hours, but it really isn't. There's a reason Winterbottom and his stars keep coming back to this format.

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