If you were in a plane crash with Mo Farah and Stephen Hawking and had to become a cannibal to survive, whose legs would you eat first?

I’ve written in the past about the importance of staying open to ideas – including the piece the other day about the remarkable openness of Jonathan Glazer’s technique in filming Under The Skin. This came to mind again as I watched the sublime second series of The TripThe Trip To Italy this time – the improvised pseudo-reality drama directed by Michael Winterbottom, with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing versions of themselves.

The show heavily features Coogan and Brydon’s extraordinary impersonations but rather than being just for laughs, they’re incorporated in a way that gives them narrative context and a compelling sense of melancholy. And, as with Under The Skin, the filming methods are fascinating. Winterbottom writes loose narratives for each episode and a story arc for the series – then each scene is improvised by the actors. Sometimes they’d come up with ideas during filming, sometimes the night before. For example, Brydon has spoken about how they’d be chatting over dinner in the evenings after filming and Winterbottom would suddenly say, “That’s great, let’s do it tomorrow.”

This improvised approach was clearly very risky. As with Under The Skin, they could have been left with nothing useable. Coogan has said, “To do interesting stuff you’ve got to risk failure and it definitely felt like it was risking failure.” But the reality is that Coogan and Brydon are exceptional actors and creative minds. Putting them in a situation where their creativity can run riot was a great way to get unique results.

For example, at one point in the first episode, as they bounce off each other, they somehow end up discussing whose legs they’d eat first if forced to become cannibals in the event of a plane crash – Mo Farah’s or Stephen Hawking’s. Later on in the series the improvisation takes them to the point where Brydon is doing an impersonation of Roger Moore playing Tony Blair while Coogan is doing Saddam Hussein doing Frank Spencer. The impersonation scenes are hilarious but somehow manage to get at deep human truths. It’s pure creative gold.

Coogan and Brydon have spoken about how they initially felt Winterbottom was making a mistake by not crafting the episodes enough, not making them as deliberately funny as they could be; they felt the editing could have been sharper. But Winterbottom – as he does with all his work – pushed for it to be looser, less knowing. For example, at various points we see Coogan cracking up at Brydon’s impressions; Winterbottom’s decision to leave these genuine moments of joy in (rather than relegating them to the DVD extras) gives the whole thing a wonderful freshness.

While the themes of ageing, being unfulfilled and the difficulty of finding happiness make the series dark, brooding and reflective, from a creative point of view it’s a total joy. In each episode we’re literally witnessing an extraordinary creative process happening before our eyes. It reminded me of the creative thinking technique where one person builds on another’s idea by saying “Yes and…” rather than “Yes, but…”. And also that when the right people, environment and brief are brought together with all obstacles, restraints and fears removed, creative magic can happen.

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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