MY favourite novels are those where nothing actually happens. Yes, a thriller can be a good way to kill a few hours but once you’ve read the book you know the plot and so you’ve exhausted its power.
Thrillers rely on story, so they can’t be enjoyed again. I read Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal about 20 years ago and I was sweaty and panicked and absolutely overwhelmed by it. My God, it’s a great read! But I’ve never opened it since – there’s just no point. Thrillers are fireworks: once you’ve lit them and enjoyed the spectacle they’re dead.
But a book without a plot has to rely on character and atmosphere, and those precious things can be relished repeatedly. Think of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, or JD Salinger’s The Catcher In The Rye.
Loading article content
If someone asked you “what happens?” with the former, all you could say is: “Well, it’s about a father and son making their way south through a ruined America.”
There’s no particular story line; the interest lies in the father’s furious need to protect his son, and in the descriptions of a destroyed world where “nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind”.
As for the latter: boy abandons school and heads into Manhattan where he has some revelations which gradually lead to a mental breakdown.
There are no twists and turns in these great novels because, if you’re good enough, you don’t need a cracking story. Plots are for graveyards, so they say.
So it is with The Trip To Spain (Sky Atlantic, Thursday). I can’t tell you what happens because nothing does – and it’s brilliant.
But first, the bad news.
The previous two series were broadcast on the BBC, but now that the show has been poached by Sky, it becomes less accessible.
This is a shame for the viewers who can’t afford, or don’t want, Sky subscriptions but it’s also a shame for the BBC who can add The Trip to the list of high-profile names and shows they’ve lost recently.
It may not have pulled in as many viewers as Clarkson’s Top Gear or The Great British Bake Off, but it brought value, big-name talent and credibility to the BBC. No-one wins in this scenario except Sky Atlantic, who are hosting some brilliant shows these days, such as Silicon Valley (the latest series will be starting soon), Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, and now The Trip.
Let’s turn then to the good news: if you have a subscription to Sky Atlantic then you have a whole series of this wonderful show awaiting.
It follows the same format as the two earlier series, which shows the great confidence the creators have in it. Nothing has been tampered with: we still have Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon playing exaggerated versions of themselves, and they’re off around Spain to visit various fancy restaurants and send some nice, witty reviews back to the publicists in London. There ends the plot. With that flimsy framework, we see Coogan and Brydon set off together for a working holiday and they bicker and chip at one another. On the surface they’re friends and colleagues, but underneath the veneer they’re showbiz rivals and competitors.
Coogan is always fretting over his age and why his film, Philomena, isn’t more widely celebrated. Is he getting the critical acclaim he deserves?
Should he even be out here in Spain or should he be barging his way into Hollywood, getting proper attention?
Is he wasting his time sampling chorizo with Brydon, who sometimes irritates him and who, at other times, has him reluctantly laughing?
Brydon is the more relaxed of the pair, soothing Steve’s ego and worries with impressions of Alan Bennet and Terry Wogan which Steve, always competitive, joins in with.
Soon the two are trying to outwit and outdo one another, clattering down their cutlery to go louder and better with an impression of Mick Jagger doing an impression of Michael Caine … A lot of these scenes at the table are improvised, and the viewer might feel privileged to watch these two comedians at work as they goad one another, dig up the other’s insecurities, and then top it all off with a faultless impression of Henry Kelly.
ELSEWHERE, Roof Racks and Hatchbacks: The Family Car (BBC4, Monday) was a thoughtful little programme, and a welcome change of pace from the usual TV diet of thrillers, cop shows and weight-loss documentaries.
It covered the changing style of family cars and linked their evolution to the social history of the family. In the 1950s, Britain was still in post-war austerity and family cars reflected this, being cramped, basic and rather dull. But when disposable income began to rise, and advertising shoved aspiration at everyone, the family car become more desirable. Not only was it a way to take your brood to the seaside, it also became the chief method of displaying your wealth to your nosy neighbours.
A proud father might step out on to the driveway on a Sunday to wash his Ford Cortina, looking over the hedge at his neighbour who might also have a Cortina, but a lesser model than this.
Ford knew very well what it was doing when it released various different types of Cortina, allowing ambitious customers to slot themselves into a pecking order, and then leapfrog their neighbours by getting the latest, fanciest model.
I enjoyed learning about these dingy, clattery old cars.
Top Gear, and its Amazon rival, The Grand Tour, seem concerned only with spectacle and supercars, so who’s going to show us ordinary ones?
It seems the field is left open to YouTube car reviewers and BBC4, but don’t dismiss this as “a car show”. It was a lovely mix of nostalgia and social history.