The celebrities are everywhere: go to the ends of the earth and there you will find famous faces wryly immersing themselves in the local culture in the name of yet another TV travelogue (and enjoying a free – no wait, paid – holiday in the process). Stanley Tucci is in Italy, as are Alan Carr and Amanda Holden. Jane McDonald is cruising around the globe. Bradley Walsh, Romesh Ranganathan and Jack Whitehall have made their trips a family affair. Martin Clunes, Conan O’Brien, Fern Britton, Gordon Ramsay, Paul Merton, Zac Efron – I could go on – are all at it, too.
Granted, few are undertaking quite as humdrum a journey as that of Alison Steadman and Larry Lamb in Alison & Larry: Billericay to Barry. The pair are driving from Essex to south Wales, the twin settings of the beloved 00s sitcom Gavin and Stacey, in which they co-starred (not as the culture-clash couple in question, of course, but as Gav’s parents). That is no slight on Britain’s lovely scenery, or the ever-so-friendly people they meet during their increasingly random sightseeing stopoffs: a bird of prey centre, Marlow lock, a puppet-making workshop. Rather, the mundanity of this essentially uneventful trip is magnified by the fact that it has been stretched, wafer-thin, into three hour-long episodes. Worse, squatting at the show’s core is a sad reality: Steadman and Lamb have absolutely nothing to say to each other.
As the voiceover – delivered with aplomb, fair play, by Joanna Page who played Stacey – keeps reminding us, the pair have been pals for 25 years, since meeting on the set of the 1997 BBC comedy drama The Missing Postman. Honestly, that fact bears repeating, because you would be forgiven for forgetting it every five seconds: if these two genuinely count each other as good friends, I seriously worry about the quality of human interaction that they have been exposed to during their lifetimes.
Squint, however, and it does at least seem as if the pair are having a nice time: Steadman deploys her distinctively gurgling laugh very generously. Yet by giggling indiscriminately at everything Lamb says – whether or not it technically functions as a humorous statement – she halts any opportunity for repartee in its tracks. What is left is a series of brief conversational vignettes so mind-bendingly banal that you will wonder if there was even a second’s dialogue left on the cutting room floor – because if you have decided to air the moment when Lamb asks a hotel concierge whether he should leave his bags in reception, it is extremely difficult to imagine what didn’t make the grade. Especially when this scintillating exchange is immediately followed by Lamb and Steadman giving each other video tours of their hotel rooms, which may well qualify as the most pointless interlude in an ocean of pointless interludes.
At times, the tedium becomes almost mesmerising, then comic, like in a Victoria Wood sketch or one of Steadman’s seminal Mike Leigh films. “I haven’t been to a spa for many years,” she observes at one point. Beat. “I tell a lie, I did have a massage about three years ago.” But the effect lasts for only a second, once you remember there are no hidden depths to this road trip, and before you know it the pair are ploughing down yet another country road towards their next dead air-plagued restaurant dinner.
There is, unfortunately, no metric by which this show succeeds. If you are here for the Gavin and Stacey behind-the-scenes trivia, prepare to be disappointed. Once an episode, Steadman and Lamb are joined by an old castmate to reminisce about the show, but the only interesting factis revealed within the first 10 minutes, when Russell Tovey explains exactly why Gavin and family live in Billericay (I won’t spoil it, it’s the only insightful thing anyone says in this entire show). If you are here to witness Steadman reflect on her storied career, also prepare to be disappointed: the pair’s chats about their acting journeys are frustratingly piecemeal. In fact, unless your idea of a good time is seeing two secondary cast members from a sitcom sitting next to each other in a Volvo, disappointment is the only likely destination.
In the end, the one thing left to wonder is: who is to blame for this colossal waste of time? Not Steadman and Lamb for failing to turn down a gratis jolly. Really, this is the fault of whichever TV executive decided to spin nothing-y content from a rhyming title, leeching off the legacy of a brilliant sitcom while putting next to no thought into how to serve Gavin and Stacey fans (or, for that matter, anyone expecting be passably entertained by anything at all). That said, in doing so they may well have managed to create the dullest celebrity travel show of all time. Considering that is a genre responsible for a series in which Countryfile presenter Matt Baker chaperones his parents on a caravan holiday around the north-east of England, that’s got to be an achievement in itself.
• Alison & Larry: Billericay to Barry aired on Gold and is available on Sky Box Sets, Now TV and Virgin TV.