The career of Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor/producer/writer Steve Coogan hit one of several high points a couple years ago with his interpretation of Stan Laurel, the great silent film comic, in his final years. Stan & Ollie is one of the few of Coogan’s most memorable projects on which he seemingly did not have creative control. Among Coogan’s outstanding works—where he clearly had control as actor/producer/writer-- is Philomena from 2013, a drama about an elderly woman, played by Judi Dench, who seeks knowledge of the child she once bore and who was taken away while she was being held in a nightmarish convent.
More recently, Coogan and his real-life friend, Rob Brydon, made another in a string of their travel entertainments. Over the last decade, under the direction of Michael Winterbottom, with Coogan holding the reins in many ways, they have made The Trip (traveling around Britain), The Trip to Italy, The Trip to Spain, and in 2020, The Trip to Greece which recently became available for home viewing. Coogan even has a TV series called The Trip.
In each of the Trip films, there is a formula. Coogan and Brydon tour a particular part of the world, entertain each other with witicisms and amusing impressions of famous people, and react to whatever situations arise during their journeys. Their real-life characters are interwoven with their fictional characters, and that aspect of Coogan’s creativity occasionally is confusing. But Coogan has melded with imaginary characters for most or all of his career. His best-known persona is a quirky media host/celebrity named Alan Partridge, and a number of these performances are available on various home viewing formats.
In A Trip to Greece, Coogan and Brydon continue to demonstrate the fine art of conversation. Here, the viewer tours Greece with them, from Troy to Ithaca retracing Odysseus’ steps, then Lesbos and Mikonos. They visit Aristotle’s birthplace to see where his ashes are buried. Their reaction to this monument: “No wonder they don’t charge to see this. There isn’t much to see.”
As in their previous trips, the two travelers stop at first-class inns and hotels and dine on splendid-looking specialties of the region. These two travelers are so clever and have such winning personalities, give or take the moments when their egos take over, that it’s a pleasure to join their tours, if only as observers.
Recently, I became aware of another Steve Coogan vehicle – definitely a lesser one, this one set much closer to our own part of the world. It’s a television series called Happyish. Showtime aired the ten-episode single season in 2015. Then the series was discontinued due to mixed reviews and poor viewer numbers.
Happyish is shot partly in Woodstock, NY. The first images are of Tinker Street. Later on, characters sit inside a car in the parking lot of Cucina on Mill Hill Road. Their home is a house in Byrdcliffe Art Colony. We see the Woodstock Day School, as well. The show was devised and written by Shalom Auslander who grew up further south in Monsey NY. The plot centers around a middle-aged Manhattan adman and his unpleasant interactions at work, especially with a new creative director who is twenty years his junior. His happyish moments come from being with his immediate family in Woodstock – but life is complicated everywhere. Happyish has a distasteful view of life. Coogan and the rest of the cast are fine, but the scripts have nonstop themes of frustration and woe. Characters rant and rave, swear like proverbial sailors, bang their fists against steering wheels. If it weren’t for Coogan’s performance, I would have stopped watching early on in the series.
If Steve Coogan can work on projects where he leads with his own imagination, being master of his own characters, not trusting to the creativity of those who may not have his vision, then his success will continue. As Alan Partridge, in The Trip series, and in feature films where he rules, his imagination thrives, and we, the audience, are the winners.