It is springtime in Italy. A blur of soft rain, wild fennel, wisteria and artichokes. In Camogli, a fishing village on the Italian Riviera, the late-afternoon sun has drawn the people outside: tourists peruse the gelaterias, a small dog chases seagulls along the beach and, on a hotel terrace, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon stand looking out over the blue waters of the Golfo Paradiso.
Both wear a British approximation of a Riviera look – chinos, light blazers, inoffensive shirts and soft shoes – and are in deep discussion about how best to seduce young Italian women. "Come back to my house and have a stand-up bath," Coogan says, in an exaggerated Italian accent. "Then we will have sex."
Brydon stares out across the water. "I'd just ask what type of breakfast cereal they like," he says.
The pair are here in Italy to film the second instalment of The Trip, the BBC series directed by Michael Winterbottom that, despite its unusual format – a kind of unstructured, unscripted circumnavigation of a comedy show – proved to be hugely successful with audiences and critics.
Last year, the writer and director Richard Curtis named it one of the greatest television programmes of all time.
The premise of season one was that Coogan had been commissioned by The Observer to set out on a gastronomic tour of the north of England, from the Inn at Whitewell in the Trough of Bowland, to the Yorke Arms in the Yorkshire Dales.
For complicated reasons, involving the breakdown of his relationship, he ends up inviting Brydon to join him.
It was about the food, of course – the preparation and presentation of each dish was lovingly shot. But it was also about many other things besides.
Brydon and Coogan played fictionalised versions of themselves and, along the way, there were hand-dived scallops, one-night stands, sticky toffee puddings, Michael Caine impersonations, much bickering, pork belly and the quoting of Romantic poets.
In among it all were touching ruminations on fame, success, and what it means to be male and in midlife.
‘If Steve were a man who could express his feelings, he’d say he feels closer to me’ — Rob Brydon, right, with Steve Coogan in Camogli, Italy
Season two, The Trip to Italy, presents a similar, if sunnier, scenario: a food tour from Liguria to Capri, via Rome and Pompeii and Ravello, again on behalf of The Observer. This time, though, there has been a shift in the pair's relationship: where the first series chose Coogan as its focus, this time it is Brydon who's reviewing the restaurants and finds his life in flux – his career in ascendancy, his marriage at sea.
Some while later, I spot them together in the hotel bar. The cameras are no longer rolling, yet the conversation could easily have been plucked from any episode of The Trip.
Brydon is eating a Lion Bar, Coogan is inspecting the interior decor. "Look at this," he tells Brydon. "It's curved glass. Very expensive. And you know the thing is, there's no need for it." Brydon looks up and frowns. He has been busy scrolling through his iPhone, hunting for a Rod Stewart song – a rare recording of Hot Legs. "Are you ready?" he asks. "Listen to this!"
The decision to return for another series took some deliberation. "Certainly, after the first one, I didn't want to do another," says Brydon. "I thought, 'That's it now; there's nothing else we can do.' But then time passes." Coogan agrees. "And Michael said he was going to do it in Italy," he says. "And I thought it sounded nice."
Without even the aid of stand-up baths or breakfast cereals, Italy has, somehow, quickly seduced them. "I arrived here just knackered and thinking, 'I don't really want to do this,'" admits Coogan.
"And then we sat down and started eating, and drinking nice wine, and I thought, 'This is quite nice.' I slowly slid into it."
Already, there have been some at least semi-memorable meals: "That pasta, in that bowl," Coogan says enthusiastically. "A ravioli," he adds. "What the Italians do very well are simple foods, with simple ingredients, but they have the best ingredients – they send us all the shit stuff. They hang on to the best tomatoes."
Brydon nods. "I quite enjoy going to Carluccio's if I'm in Kingston town centre," he says. "I've nothing against Carluccio, but it puts it in perspective when you're out here."
Coogan smirks. "He's a friend of yours, isn't he?" he asks, and Brydon adopts his best Ronnie Corbett tone: "He's a friend, a very dear friend, we play celebrity golf together."
"Italian was all I ate as a younger man," he continues. "Not so much nowadays. I seek out fish more now – it feels like you're putting decent things inside your body. I used to have a massive appetite for sweets, and chocolate, and rubbish, but it's really dropped off."
Coogan looks surprised. "Did you?" he asks. "Mine's got more. I like tea and chocolate in the evening, in front of the telly. Sometimes, I'll have Sleepytime tea. But I mix it up: I play fast and loose with my tea."
‘I was wolfing it down on the first L series and I put on eight pounds’ — Rob Brydon, right, with Steve Coogan
Brydon leans over. "That's Steve all over," he says, in a conspiratorial tone. "Try and predict what he's going to be having and you're on a hiding to nothing." Coogan nods. "I try and surprise myself. Loretta [his girlfriend] will say, 'What kind of tea will you have?' And I'll say, 'You know what, I'm going to have mint.''' Brydon shakes his head. "It's Loretta I feel sorry for," he says. "It's a roller coaster."
The success of series one surprised them. Winterbottom had cajoled them into taking part over lunch, and they had turned him down twice.
"I thought it would just be self-indulgent, because a person playing himself is not an original idea," Coogan says. "But then I said to Rob, 'Let's just do it. It's Michael doing it. The worst it can be is a noble failure.''' It was in the Lake District, around the time they shot at L'Enclume [restaurant], that Coogan began to have a feeling that it might be something special – "because I couldn't think of anything it was derivative of."
This is not to suggest that either of them entirely understands it. In lieu of scripts, Winterbottom will give them a story, a scenario, topics for discussion (in this case, anything from the Italian adventures of Byron and Shelley to the merits of Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill), and then the pair allow the conversation to meander off at their leisure.
But the edits and the structure of each episode belong to Winterbottom and, at times, his cuts have proved baffling. "It's like, if anything smacks of craft, he'll kick against it," says Coogan. "He deliberately wants to deconstruct things in a way that I find a bit frustrating. You'll say, 'Why have you left all that? We're just repeating ourselves!' And then Michael says, 'Well, life's repetitive.'''
We head into town for dinner, the assorted cast and crew taking over a long table in a near deserted restaurant overlooking the beach. There is calamari, swordfish, giant prawns, baskets of focaccia, and the restaurant's silence is broken by Brydon's phone spilling out the new Rod Stewart album through its speaker, and by a ceaseless run of impressions: Paul McCartney, Roger Moore singing Simon and Garfunkel, and an assortment of increasingly risque tales – all related in the voice of Alan Bennett. "I watched the young women swimming," runs one such story. "Their legs opening and closing beneath the water. Opening and closing. Opening and closing. Opening and closing. And then opening once again."
I meet them in London some months later. We are lunching at Quo Vadis, the Soho institution recently revived once more by the Hart Brothers, who introduced a seasonal British menu.
Brydon is already at the table when Coogan arrives. Once again, they are wearing near-identical outfits. "We do this so often," he says. "I nearly wore a blue jumper underneath my slightly tweedy jacket. And what have you got on your feet?" They are both wearing brown brogues. "Brown!" laughs Coogan. "I like to have a bit of 'Whoa!' on your feet."
It has been a particularly good year for Coogan, with the success of Alpha Papa and Philomena, and the prize for outstanding achievement at the British Comedy Awards.
The pair adopt their familiar dynamic, in which Coogan is the feted Hollywood mingler and Brydon the aspiring star.
"I was chatting to Warren Beatty the other day," Coogan says, as they inspect the menu. "Ha, ha, ha!" bleats Brydon. "How is he? I haven't seen him in ages! I don't think I've seen him since last Christmas!"
Coogan, aware of quite how ludicrous his life has become, laughs a steady "Chuck, chuck, chuck". "He invited me round to his house," he says, and Brydon frowns: "Why?"
Coogan shrugs. "Because he'd heard that I was someone worth talking to." Brydon shakes his head. "OK," he says, "let's talk about this, I want detail. Tell us everything. Take your time."
The waiter arrives and Brydon orders the shepherd's pie. "Well, then, I should get something different. I wanted to get that, but I might have a nibble of yours. What's a coquelet?" He asks the waiter, and then looks horrified at the explanation. "REALLY?" he says. "Did you hear that? Well, what's an onglet? I'm scared to ask! I'll have the lamb."
Brydon is keen to return to the matter of Warren Beatty. "Have you ever met Warren?" Coogan asks him. "Have I ever met Warren? Has Warren ever met me?" Brydon replies. "I just bumped into Aled Jones and Lorraine Kelly in the street. They told me to tell you how much they enjoyed Philomena. Bravo, bravo, they said." Coogan laughs. "So, on the one hand, you've got Warren," continues Brydon, "and, on the other, you've got Aled and Lorraine."
It is hard to steer them on to the subject of food. Conversation with Coogan and Brydon is a little like Morecambe and Wise making breakfast: more about the perfectly synched performance than the fact that they're making toast.
They will begin discussing the incredible meals they enjoyed in Italy – the seafood linguine, the-remarkable-risotto-in-that-family-restaurant-up-the-steps-that-very-hot-day – and then Brydon will go scurrying off on to the matter of Bobby Davro in a hot tub, or Coogan will suddenly address the peculiar melancholy of business hotels: "One of those places that looks nice from the outside, but it's got fire doors on the inside and those reinforcements they put on stairs – the rubber or brass strips on the steps. You see them and it does take a little bit of your soul."
How important, I ask them, is food to The Trip? "I was far less aware of it this time," Brydon says, part-way through his Arbroath smokie. "I was far more aware of the need to be interesting. I ate a lot less because I was wolfing it down on the first series and I put on eight pounds. I haven't put any weight on this time. But, this time, the actual meals I found to be a slight inconvenience or a distraction."
They remember the conversations more clearly: "Have you seen the Ravello scene?" Brydon asks Coogan. "We are so drunk. Look at my eyes in that scene. That was so funny. We're doing Gore Vidal, and you were trying to remember that quote and swearing 'cause I'm drunk, but determined to get the quote out."
Then there was the day that Brydon had to eat a stuffed onion while nursing a fiendish hangover. "I was ill," he recalls. "I'd been quite excessive the night before. I was feeling deathly and I was having to bloody eat." Coogan laughs: "I said, 'You're going to have to act like you're not ill.' That was my acting advice."
Series two was, they say, akin to a travelling circus, moving from town to town, eating, drinking, sitting on beaches. "It was magical," Brydon says warmly. "It was a proper trip. You see us progress from the north to the south, and that's what we did."
"Actually, our relationship was pretty similar," says Coogan. "We went through our own little odyssey off-screen as well." Brydon agrees. "I think we became closer," he says, and Coogan hesitates, fork midway to his mouth. "I don't like that word," he says, and they laugh.
"Steve struggles with his feelings," explains Brydon, "but I know, if he were a man who could express his feelings, he would say that he feels closer to me as well."
Certainly, there is a warmth to their relationship that seemed less evident when I visited them during the first series. Then, Coogan had seemed to do the bulk of the talking, while Brydon sat quietly and said little. Today, they share pie and figgy pudding, divulge unrepeatable gossip and give one another career advice.
But, despite best intentions, they do not socialise off screen. "It's one of those things where life gets in the way," says Coogan. "Having said that, that probably lends itself very well to us working together. Because we haven't said everything already."
Brydon suddenly takes out his phone. "I've got a video of him diving off a cliff. Do you want to see it?" he says, and digs through his picture archive. "Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Coogan, diving from a cliff."
He shows us the footage: a warm spring day, a steep cliff, blue water, and Coogan arcing into the air. "That cliff," says Brydon, fondly, "was a metaphor, as much as it was a cliff." Coogan watches it over again. "I was quite scared," he says.
"I tell you what was nice this time," Brydon continues, "was that, quite often, when Steve and I would stay in the nice hotel and everyone else would stay in the cheaper hotel down the road, it meant that having acted eating meals each day, we would find ourselves, just the two of us, sharing a meal at the end of the day. And it turned out to be really lovely. We actually opened up to each other a bit. We bonded a bit."
"We did," says Coogan. "Sometimes, it was more interesting than on screen." Brydon looks back at the video of Coogan diving into the Italian sea. "And now," he says, with a tenderness that seems as genuine as it is comic, "well, now, we're very happy together."
- 'The Trip to Italy' will be broadcast on BBC Two later in the year