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12/05/2014 06:44 BST | Updated 12/07/2014 06:59 BST

The Trip to Italy: A Popular Postmodernism

"Did you ever hear of a good sequel?" asks Rob Brydon, in the postmodern improvisational joy that is The Trip to Italy. "The Godfather II," answers Steve Coogan without hesitation. "That's what they all say," Brydon counters. "The Godfather II, the exception that proves the rule."

It's a deft and complex reference - which has become a trademark of the programme - to the fact that this improvised BBC series is itself a continental sequel to The Trip, while also encapsulating the brilliantly self-deprecating British humour found throughout. Only now, they are traversing il bel paese, rather than a rain-swept Lake District, while doing their restaurant reviews for the Observer.

But The Trip to Italy really is a good sequel, arguably better than its predecessor, and not just because of the razor-sharp, dry wit on offer. It is at times startlingly multidimensional, and often when the beautiful Italian scenery and its smorgasbord of culinary delights are taking a back seat. There's certainly space in their rented Mini Cooper. Ah yes, another reference; this time to the Italian Job.

Take the first episode, for example, where a meal at the Trattoria della Posta in Piedmont descends into a surreal appraisal of the meat quality ("It's the equivalent of eating Mo Farah, if you were in a plane crash with him in the Andes") and subsequently, Coogan's Terry Wogan angrily interrogating Brydon on why he ate the athlete's legs. Or episode two, where Coogan's Saddam Hussein does a spot-on impersonation of Frank Spencer while being quizzed by a Bond-Blair hybrid played by Brydon, playing Roger Moore. ("I wear the beret for one reason, and one reason alone - I like to impersonate Frank Spencer"). Or a hilarious deleted scene where Brydon's Michael Caine exclaims, "I will not vajazzle for you Shakira, I will not vajazzle for anyone" to Coogan's Shakira, herself doing an impression of Caine.

All the while, the pair switch between their roles and impersonations, blurring the lines of an already fictionalised world, despite some liberal doses of real world truth. When Coogan proclaims, "It cost me 450,000 quid in legal fees when I tried to sue News International. And it doesn't make you very popular with certain people, but you know it's the right thing to do", he is obviously addressing his critics. Though, after a digression about playground ear-flicking, Brydon satirises the real life situation as a campaign called "Flicked Off", for victims of ear-flicking, instead of the News of the World's infamous phone hacking scandal.

What's special about The Trip to Italy is its ability to make the intertextual, Mikhail Bakhtin's early 20th Century concept of referencing other "texts" in a "text", so natural and accessible. The series evinced a peerless and popular postmodernism. It is a masterclass in channeling cultural references: from Hamlet, to Roger Moore, to Tony Blair, but it doesn't even matter if you don't understand their oblique jokes, their excited chemistry is often captivating enough. The competitive edge to their free association games means that the sound of ringing bells causes conversation jump from the Bee Gees' For Whom the Bell Tolls, to Alistair Maclean's When Eight Bells Toll, to Hemingway's The Bell Tolls For He.

There is surely no other programme on television today that could mock A-lister Tom Hardy's diction, discuss eating Stephen Hawking's brains, or get Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill back into the charts. That's thanks, in no small part, to the laid back approach from director Michael Winterbottom, who lets these veterans off the leash: Woody Allen, Neil Kinnock, Dustin Hoffman, Sean Connery, Hugh Grant, Rolf Harris are just a sample of the uncanny impressions, and it being Italy, the chance to mimic Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola is an offer they can't refuse.

Yet the way that The Trip to Italy represents today's cultural schizophrenia - with 58million tweets per day - is its most interesting facet. The end of one episode sees Brydon confront his self-doubt, jumping from Hoffman, to Pacino, to Brando; they all question his talent, while Sean Connery concludes, "I think it's very unlikely that you'll get it". It is funny, yet melancholic; real, but not-real; puerile, but poignant, and the duality runs right through the show. Coogan and Brydon are paralleled by Shelley and Byron, the ageing Michael Caine and Roger Moore, Alan Partridge and the man in a box, like a husband and wife.

"We're not going to be doing any impersonations are we, cos we talked about that," said Coogan to Brydon in the very first episode. Critics may have labelled it self-indulgent, and perhaps there is a little too much Michael Caine, but these two have earnt it. From Piedmont, in the north of Italy, to Capri in the south, it has been a virtuoso performance, and they know it. "I want to be remembered for having six Baftas," reveals Coogan. "You've only got five," Brydon retorts. "I'm getting the sixth for this," comes the reply. He's right.