deep dives

A Deep Dive Into 'Coach Trip', the Greatest Show on British Television

Or: protect Brendan Sheerin at all costs

by Joel Golby
20 July 2018, 9:24am

(Photos via Channel 4)

LONDON

I would die for Brendan from Coach Trip. I would take a bullet for Brendan from Coach Trip. Why someone would be firing a weapon at Brendan from Coach Trip, I don’t know. Perhaps a sniper is aiming for Kirsty Allsopp and gets nudged at the last second (in this scenario, every Channel 4-aligned TV host is lined up, not in a firing line exactly but that sort of formation, and they are all there – Gok, Dr Christian, Big Pizzy Hollywood, Brendan – and an evil sniper from a rival faction – Channel 5, perhaps, or Russia – is trying to take them down, and is nudged at the last second into deflecting the shot by our hero, the returning June Sarpong).

Here is what I would do in that situation: scream NO–O–O–O! in high-definition slo-mo and leap, bodily, in front of Brendan, taking the entire 12.7mm cartridge in my chest, shattering it (my chest) entirely, ribs and stuff just splintering everywhere, pinks bits of lung, ribbons of blood, a hole through me like a Polo, heart exposed and meaty and dying, thuh–bum thuh–bum, and Brendan cradles me, dying, in his soft loving arms, peers down at me through jet black React-A-Lite lenses, and whispers: "Ooh, luv. You've made a right mess of this." And as I die, I must admit he is correct.

ANTWERP

A computer generated coach skids motionlessly into shot: welcome to Coach Trip, the show about a coach trip. Here’s your basic format: seven couples embark on a 30-day trip around Europe, headed up by Brendan, who I would die for, and who always wears a visible name tag on his front, a big Union Flag sticker that simply reads "BRENDAN". Everybody knows who Brendan is and what his name is. There have been 13 series of Coach Trip and at least four spin-off Coach Trip variants, and all of them have been headed up by Brendan, in a big sticker. It is unclear who the sticker is for anymore. Who is getting on this coach and does not know the name of Brendan? We are getting off topic. The twist of the show is how many internal shots are fish-eyed from the inside of a coach. The show is not about the sticker.

REIMS

Coach Trip is not, on its own, an interesting show. It simply cannot be: seven couples – a mix of the young, the old, the uptight, the loud, three people who find museums fascinating and everyone else – quietly puttering around Europe while looking at the roofs of churches? It is not a fun show. Coach Trip, before the advertising break, feels like wearing a fleece because all the clothes you packed were wrong for the weather this holiday; it sadly exhales like a cheese sandwich peeled out of a warm packed lunch; it is the exact feeling of walking down a jittering coach-length corridor to get to a chemical toilet someone has already spoiled. Coach Trip, fundamentally, captures the very essence of a lacklustre trip to Europe – grey drizzle, off-peak lunches in outdoor cafés, making dry conversation with newly-retired pensioners who have to chew things 900 times before they can swallow: the feeling of swaying on a ferry, of looking at a mountain while wearing damp jeans, of having €5 leftover before you get your plane home and spending it on a single sleeve of mad continental biscuits. Watching Coach Trip before it gets evil feels like idling in a Polish airport, inhaling the exhaust fumes of the coach that spent nine hours bringing you here, praying for death.

LUXEMBOURG

The twist, then, is this: at the end of each day of quiet European exploration, each couple has to nominate another couple to vote out, with the couple who accrue the most votes on the day getting a yellow card (two yellows lead to a red, where the couples have to stand by the side of the road, holding their carry-on trundle luggage, watching the coach that brought them here roar away) (for some reason, Brendan always hands the yellow card to the losing couple for them to hold, something he has done since 2005 and is not about to stop now). This bit is amazing. This is where Coach Trip comes alive.

STRASBOURG & RUST

You remember being a student, don’t you (if you weren’t ever a student: remember that long lazy summer when you were 19? Legs stretched out on your mum’s sofa? All you ever seemed to eat was Pop Tarts, the first of which you had at 3PM in the afternoon? It's much the same as that). Coach Trip is built for this moment in your life. Coach Trip is there when you wake up at noon, or just got home from signing on. Coach Trip is there for when you’re padding around on immaculate hoovered carpets and your mum rings you from work to whisper about whether you’ve been looking for a job. Coach Trip watches you eat an entire four-thing of those soft-bake cookies from Tesco, and Coach Trip smiles softly at you, waves a come-here arm, and says: look at the world, and where you could be instead. It opens a door and says: watch these three 50-year-old women quietly squabble in a war museum. The show is built for those afternoons that feel like a sigh: you, behind a window speckled with drizzle, big bag of crisps on your lap, slowly watching 14 people potter around Europe not having fun. It is like an experiment, in a way: you are not having fun, but you are watching other people also not having fun, but in a way you are still the net loser because, despite the fact that none of them ever seem to smile, you are still having less fun than them. It is anti-entertainment. And yet you quaff it down, don’t you, you pig. You quaff it down like free champagne from the wine museum in Reims.

MOUNT TITLIS

To truly explain the importance of the voting system in Coach Trip and how it is integral to the show, I have to invoke another Channel 4 afternoon slot quiet-exploration-followed-by-massive-beef mainstay: Four In A Bed. Four In A Bed, as we have discussed before, is a terrible show livened up by an electric bolt of aggression in the form of the marking system, where rival B&B owners run glove-covered fingers along high dusty shelves and peer on the floor for singular pubes, and rate the house they are staying in accordingly (at the end of the week, they all get in a room to read their feedback out to one another, and one person always cries and one person always goes mental, and sometimes it is the same person, both at once).

Essentially: there is no need for it to go this way. Without this system, it’s just groups of people quietly looking at things together (B&Bs, small European cities) and mildly enjoying them. But throw in a system of judging one another, and hell immediately breaks loose. Couples decide they hate each other (the system demands they find a reason to hate each other) on the most arbitrary things: one couple voted for another because they waved at too many lorries one morning out of the window of the coach; a burp at dinner; slight tardiness at breakfast; refusal to walk up some high cathedral stairs. The revenge vote: "Three days ago you voted for us, and now we’re voting for you, so that’s our reason." Nothing is forgotten in the confines of the coach. No conversation that is allowed to go dry can be excused. You must be entertaining, constantly. You must give equal attention to all seven couples on the trip. You must at least pretend to be interested in the stalactites in an Andalusian cave. Do all that for 30 days across successive European cities and you will win the ultimate prize of the show, which is: another holiday in a European city. Welcome to purgatory, which is a coach, shuttling from Salzburg to Antwerp, forever.

LUCERNE

There are two variations on Coach Trip: there’s Coach Trip, the original drizzle-and-one-person-walking-a-lot-slower-than-the-rest-of-the-group format, where couples who range from gangly students to we're-still-fun retirees tour Europe together; and then there is the hornier spin-off, Road to Zante or something, where younger and hipper reality TV types, all 25 or below, do a party-centric retreat and not-so-secretly fuck each other during stop-offs in northern Spain, and Brendan, without even knowing he’s doing it, reflexively wakes up tutting. Both shows are almost exactly the same, it’s just the Road to Zante one sees more montages of people getting into swimwear – and at the voting stage, because they're all young and still slaves to their hormonal emotions, everyone is slightly more likely to kick off and yell at each other. But other than that it is the same. It is exactly the same. It is 14 people, on a large bus, with their backs getting all clammy and uncomfortable while pressed up against a leather chair.

LIECHTENSTEIN

Healthy mental practise dictates that I should let go of a lot of my anger, bad energies, rifts and grudges, that I should forgive all of those who wronged me, that I should move on with my own life in a healthful and focused way, that my success and happiness is not dependent or in violation of the wrongness of the past. This is a theory I broadly subscribe to. However: when I was on a coach as an eight-year-old, on my way home from a school day-trip to a nearby city for a lecture in an auditorium-like town hall, Elizabeth Carolyn vomited on my cord bomber jacket, which was both brand new and very snazzy, and was folded up on my lap. She was sitting next to me, but she did not need to vomit on me – she could have vomited anywhere else – and the jacket was ruined, and I still think about it to this day, how the teachers ran to help her and not me, how they ushered her to the toilet and left me sitting there, vibrating at high frequency on a juddering idled coach, in a layby, lap full of vomit, warm but slowly cooling, Elizabeth Carolyn having had an egg sandwich for lunch.

So yes, maybe I am biased against coaches. However: I cannot for any reason imagine why anyone would ever want to willingly go on a coach trip. I do not understand that at all.

MUNICH

So the couples you get are this, there are only these couples, no arguments, no disambiguation:

– Retired couple who met as childhood sweethearts and like museums and that, but are very keen to stress that they are Still Fun, like literally at one point the woman will refer to herself as a Glamorous Granny and do an awkward thumbs up;

– Two student boys who don’t know how to stand up properly. You literally do not realise that most men only learn to stand with any degree of authority at the age of, like, 23. One of them will be wearing a leather thong necklace, both of them will be wearing atrociously fitted T-shirts;

– Two girls who are ostensibly young and pretty and, despite going along with group activities and getting stuck in and talking and listening and not giggling too much, and also very crucially not flirting with the boys at all, despite all that, for some reason their mere existence as young women will wind the older ladies on the trip up something spectacular. Them being alive will drive them mad;

– Two sturdy old friends from Yorkshire who are both called "Jackie" and wear zipped-up fleeces over gigantic vests and say, "We do like a giggle, don’t we?" to each other a lot, and when they sit on the bus they clasp their hands in front of their enormous giggle-liking bodies as if they are locked in an infinite prayer;

– Big Personality Semi-Rich Man with his Significantly Younger Fiancé, voted off forever after a massive, massive barney;

– Husband and wife team who both have faces like a slapped arse;

– Older woman and her strange, strange adult soon;

– Fun-but-single woman in her early forties and her extremely malnourished-looking closeted best mate;

In the horny version, we also have these variants:

– Two lads who "just like gym, really";

– Two girls who are best friends, but one of them has a boyfriend and so she ends up crying a single tear about it at about Day #8;

– Two boys in backwards baseball caps!;

– Girl With Extremely Big Personality and her male best mate who backs up every bad decision she ever makes by saying, "We're just us";

– Gay couple where nobody can figure out if they are really catty or really nice, it is just simply impossible to tell;

– Brother–sister team who are too close! Too close by far!

– Extremely "we've got a deposit down on a Barratt home a 40-minute drive from Nottingham and we have missionary intercourse once-a-month without fail" straight couple whose path to two kids and monthly payments on an Audi then death is already carved deeply in stone (he will have a sleeve tattoo, she will have very long hair);

And then the one constant, the one perfect note always sung at a maintained pitch through the wind and rain and drizzle, it does not matter what storms come down on us, The Glue Shall Bind Us Together, and that glue, thy name is: Brendan Sheerin.

SALZBURG

Brendan’s spirit animal is your fussy and slightly impatient aunt. You know the one: you know the one who gives you a playful slap when you say something cheeky at a family BBQ. The one that says a sharp "dON’T!" when she sees you gearing up to do something naughty. This is Brendan: perfect shaved face and head, gold chain, gold ring, React-A-Lites just a couple of minutes behind the actual weather he is experiencing, name badge in the middle of his chest like a sniper’s target, clipboard, broad smile. Brendan does this thing when the coach crosses the boundary of a new country where he hands everyone an A4 sheet of paper and makes them tunelessly sing the national anthem. Brendan does this thing where he hands out paper flags and makes people guess the city destination based on very obvious trivia. Brendan is: right. This is who Brendan Sheerin is. You know when you go to a theme park with a group of people? And someone always ends up holding everything? That is Brendan. That person is Brendan, every time. I very literally love him.

Brendan is important because he knows how to say "we need 14 wees and two poos, can we use your pissoir?" in 20 European languages, and crucially he enforces the structure. At its base, the whole point of Coach Trip is to demonstrate that people of all ages, genders, creeds and backgrounds can get along, if only you cram them all onto a coach and make them go horseriding in Makarska. But more often, the truth of it is this: the weird alchemic reactions that happen in the tiny little cliques of couples, deciding between them which of the six other pairs around them they hate the most, a hatred that turns from the benign ("We had to vote for you two, sorry: we didn’t get a chance to speak with you at lunch") into war. Coach Trip is proof that we don’t get on, and that people are horrible. These fools corrupt a free holiday with squabbling, tantrums and gamesmanship. They spend the morning learning pottery together, spend the afternoon cooking their own lunch, then the evening stabbing each other directly between the shoulder blades with a knife made of pettiness. Brendan is the only pure thing on there. Protect him at all costs.

INNSBRUCK

How deep down the Coach Trip rabbit hole are you? Heh: you are just a little baby. I know the registration numbers and names of the coach driver on every trip. I am subscribed to the vaping YouTube channel of one of the contestants who got thrown off the bus after two episodes of a series. I am watching this video of Brendan dumping ten people from the bus tour, again and again, on a loop.

LAKE GARDA

Someone tries to stab Brendan with a butcher’s knife but I am there, I take the stab fully through my wrist, I bleed out slowly in his soft, slightly hairy arms. Brendan stands in the middle of a quiet road in Budva consulting his clipboard as a driverless coach with the handbrake off careens towards him, and I jump and push him and take the hit, the front of the machine crumpling around me, perfect indentation in the grill, with me embedded, dead, inside it. Brendan, about to eat a poisoned snail in northern France, brings the fork slowly up to his face, but I intercept, leaping like a salmon, snatching it into my mouth and gobbling it down and dying – green, in agony – at his feet. Brendan wearing a floppy cagoule and staring primly at a rollercoaster. Brendan rapping his knuckles – half-loving, half-exasperated – on the 8AM door of two oversleeping guests. Brendan, blindfolded, tasting paella. He is incapable of swearing and incapable of feeling full rage. He has a particularly strong line in sliding gracefully out of shot after calling two students "PHILISTINES!" He is handing out Belgian flags and giving everyone a shiny euro to go to the train station toilets. He is holding all your coats and not complaining. Coach Trip is a very distilled version of every smell-your-own-breath-in-front-of-you stale driving holiday you had as a kid, the sheer spirit of the underwhelmed Brit abroad – but, of course, for Brendan, a true angel of the light. I would march into hell for him. I would take a 15-hour bus to Reims.

@joelgolby