Daniel R. Smith
The premise of The Trip, currently in its second series on BBC Two, is ostensibly tenuous. While Coogan and Brydon are being employed to write a food column in The Observer on English or Italian cuisine while following in the footsteps of the romantic poets – Wordsworth, Coleridge, Bryon, Shelley and Keats, – the real ‘content’ consists of mimicry of well-known actors, self-parodying their own personas and dealing with being middle-aged and ‘famous but not-famous enough’. And yet this seemingly tenuous link with the romantics is, in fact, the central driving force for the artistic ideology and drama of The Trip.
In his essay ‘The Romantic Artist’, Raymond Williams (1961:46ff) offers an explanation and account of what the idea of the ‘poet’, ‘artists’ or creator of works of art, become in the eighteenth century. The poet was a creator of disinterested works of purely aesthetic merit, not a social or political commentator and not a dependent of a morally grounded world-view (art is not life). The romantic artist’s theory of art is based upon a ‘pure’ art conception, one not muddied by the realities of the social-political world: imagination over reality.
In The Trip this romantic ethic is evident but not in explicitly 18th century terms. While Brydon and Coogan quote Wordsworth, Coleridge and Byron, they do so in a tourist sense of fancy. But throughout the episodes the impressions are relentless and while they are funny (and, honestly, a little over done in my opinion), they are a continuation of a romantic ethic more than mere flippant amusement. ‘Imitation’, as Williams (1961:56) points out, became a central point in the Romantic’s theory of art: originally used in a derogatory manner to indicate a derivative piece of work which purloins previous techniques, the Romantic’s use of imitation became a point of precision and ultimate value. Williams (1961:56) points out
“Imitation, at its best, was not understood as adherence to somebody else’s rules; it was rather ‘imitation of the universal reality’. An artist’s precepts were not so much previous works of art as the ‘universals’ (in Aristotle’s terms) or permanent realities. […] The artist perceives and represents Essential Reality, and he does so by virtue of his master faculty Imagination. In fact, the doctrines of ‘the genius’ (the autonomous creative artist) and of the ‘superior reality of art’ (penetration to a sphere of universal truth) were in Romantic thinking two sides of the same claim.”
In The Trip, the two sides of imitation – autonomous creative genius / superior reality of art – can be found in Brydon and Coogan’s ‘impressions’. Their back-and-forth one-upmanship through mimicry of well-known ‘stars’ of popular culture – Michael Caine, Al Pacino, James Stewart, etc. – may seem trivial but at the heart of their craft and the existential backdrop of the show there exists a splice of romanticism. Allen & McCabe (2012) have pointed to the value of imitation and the existential backdrop of male-ageing in The Trip, arguing that imitation and the power of the ‘voice’ outlives the performer. Immortality, fame and reputation, all become encapsulated in the celebrity voice. And what Coogan and Brydon give value to is the power of imitation as a source of this ‘essential reality’ by doing their impressions as well as the subsequent deciphering of them. Speaking of Brydon and Coogan’s back and forth about ‘who does the best Michael Caine’, Allen & McCabe (2012:159) argue that
“the two performers authenticate value through this kind of disclosure, to reveal exactly what is involved in creating the most ‘authentic’ or ‘truthful’ replication of Caine’s unique vocal patterns. …it is in there communication about the mechanics of the impersonation that we learn just how good the impression really is; and in so doing it cements our appreciation and ‘feelings’ of admiration for what they do.”
More than this, the value of imitation – opposed to flippant mimicry – revealed for the Romantics the value of imagination and symbolism to provide access to an otherwise beyond experience reality, the reality of truth and essential categories beyond the muddied world of the everyday. As Charles Taylor points out, the value of the ‘symbol’ for the Romantics was such that it provided the source of access to the realm beyond experience as it manifested itself in our world through its evocation. “This concept of the symbol”, writes Taylor (1989:379, brackets added),
“is what underlines the ideal of a complete interpenetration of matter and form in the work of art. …In a perfect work of art, the “matter” – the language of a poem or the material of a sculpture [or the voice in an impression – DS] – should be entirely taken up in the manifestation; and reciprocally what is manifested ought to be available only in the symbol, and not merely pointed to as an independent object whose nature could be defined in some other medium.”
The value of the symbol – a celebrity voice, say, in Coogan or Brydon’s impressions – is that source of ultimate value for a perfect work of art; it provides the essential reality for the value of human experience and the feelings associated with it. More than this, it provides the source of expression for the ‘voice’ of the person speaking. Coogan and Brydon, as Allen & McCabe point out, are impersonating themselves: doing an impression of one’s self, their past triumphs and performative dimension to their own celebrity confessions through The Trip, is how they cement their own celebrity as a ‘symbol’ manifest in a work of art, i.e. their career’s works.
Allen, Michael & McCabe, Janet (2012), ‘Imitations of lives: ageing men, vocal mimicry and performing celebrity in The Trip’, Celebrity Studies, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp.150-163.
Taylor, Charles (1989) Sources of the Self, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Williams, Raymond, (1961), ‘The Romantic Artist’ in Culture and Society 1780-1950, (London: Pelican)