The legend of Gilbert and Sullivan is a tale of one man who was comfortable with his role in Britain’s community of artists and one who wasn’t. William Gilbert was a comedian at heart who understood that his strength lay in writing witty poems and low burlesques for English theatre houses. He knew he wasn’t Ibsen, and he had no desire to be. Arthur Sullivan was (supposedly) England’s finest composer. His Queen wanted him to be what Elgar and Britten and others after him would one day become, and what Purcell had been centuries before him: a composer of operas and oratorios and requiems, lofty works on significant themes that would rank with the finest pieces of Mozart and Bach. To fritter away his talent on comedies about magic lozenges and babies switched at birth was unacceptable, to him and to Queen Victoria.
Although it would be a stretch to suggest that the brilliant British comics Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are a latter-day Gilbert and Sullivan, there is a parallel between their personas and those of the 19th century showmen, at least if we are to believe the portraits of them in The Trip, the hilarious 2011 film edited from the BBC series of the same name. Two characters named Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, who may or may not resemble their real-life counterparts, go on a tour of the north of England for an Observer piece on fine restaurants. Along the way, and for much of the film, the two comedians play a game of dueling impersonations. They debate who does the better Michael Caine and try to out-Scaramanga the other with quotes from The Man with the Golden Gun. You can judge for yourself who is the better mimic:
But The Trip has a serious side, too. The Steve Coogan character wants to be more than the cut-up who turned Alan Partridge, one of the great television creations of the 1990’s, into a household name in the UK. He wonders why Michael Sheen gets all the good roles. And he teases Brydon’s character for being nothing more than the fixture on Radio 4 panel shows with the astonishing ability to reduce his voice to the tinny sound of a small man in a box.
What vexes Coogan almost as much as not being a more successful or respected actor is that Brydon is perfectly content with his role as a panel-show fixture. He is happy—not just with his career but with his marriage and child—in ways that Coogan is not. Coogan may not aspire to Sullivan-like heights of significance and immortality, but he’s also not sure he would refuse a genie’s offer to give his son a curable disease in exchange for a Best Actor Oscar.
The parallel with Gilbert and Sullivan goes only so far, of course. Sullivan’s more serious fare, The Lost Chord and Ivanhoe and Macbeth…well, they’re kind of dull. The tragedy of Sullivan’s life is that he wasn’t the great composer he dearly wanted to be. Steve Coogan is far more versatile than Arthur Sullivan; his many television and film roles prove this. But part of the fun of The Trip comes from not knowing how much of this frustration is real and how much is artifice. We suspect when we watch The Trip that we are witnessing portraits that no more reflect the feelings of the real Coogan and Brydon than their uncanny imitations are the real Michael Caine. In the end, of course, it doesn’t really matter whether the film is true to life or not. What matters is that Coogan and Brydon are brilliant at what they do, and that their film is one of the great entertainments of 2011. Great entertainment is a rare achievement that no one should undervalue. Sadly, that’s a lesson that Arthur Sullivan appears never to have learned.