Robert Hampton

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27th January 2008

Thank God for that
Posted by at 5.06pm | No responses | Television

I’ve been reacquainting myself with Whose Line is it Anyway? Not the hacked-to-ribbons versions that are being shown on Dave, mind, but the unexpurgated versions available free (albeit DRM-crippled) from 4oD.

I’m currently making my way through series 3. This is something of a re-evaluation for me. When Paramount Comedy repeated the complete run of the show a few years back, my impression was that these early episodes were “not very good”. Despite the presence of great improvisers such as Mike McShane, Sandi Toksvig, Paul Merton and Tony Slattery on the panel, yours truly had started watching the show in the mid-90s, during the dominance of the Colin Mochrie/Ryan Stiles/Greg Proops triumverate, and couldn’t imagine a show without them.

Now, ten years later (has it really been that long?) I’m able to appreciate these early episodes more. While perhaps not as consistently funny, they have a genuine unpredictability and edginess which is somewhat lacking in the later episodes, and missing almost entirely in the American version.

After immersing myself in so much inspired ad-libbery, it’s difficult to know what to make of ITV’s latest effort, Thank God You’re Here. This is billed as “improvised comedy”, and indeed has off-the-cuff master Paul Merton at the helm. On paper, it looks good: a celebrity is dressed up and pushed through a door into a scene he knows absolutely nothing about. He must then bluff his way through, responding realistically to the other actors.

However, there’s something deeply unsatisfying in the execution. Despite the show’s supposedly-unscripted nature, there is clearly at least some sort of “plan” which the actors are working to, and any attempt by the celebrity guest to deviate from this is immediately shut down. This means that scenes usually end up something like this:

ACTOR: What’s your name?
CELEB: My name? Oh, er, it’s Gordon.
ACTOR: No it’s not, it’s Simon. And you’re here for the…?
CELEB: I’m here for the… fancy dress party!
ACTOR: Fancy dress party? No, you’re an army colonel!
CELEB: Of course I am!
ACTOR: Can you tell us about the enemy we face?
CELEB: Yes, it’s the most evil thing in the world: the Welsh!
ACTOR: No, it’s the Germans!

It’s also a victim of plastic television syndrome, whereby slightly awkward truths are swept under the carpet. Hamish Blake, who appeared in the first two episodes of the show, is a regular on the Australian version. But ITV seem unwilling to acknowledge that someone else had the idea first, so he was introduced as an “Australian DJ”. On episode 2, Merton even asked him if he was feeling more confident “having done it once before”. Meanwhile, Clive Anderson’s background as WLiiA? host was pointedly ignored, possibly because any comparison between the two would have found the young upstart significantly wanting.

The guests so far have been a mixture of stand-up comedians and ITV personalities. The latter have been very variable, with Fern Britton having the time of her life and Fizz off Coronation Street floundering.

The viewing figures and critical reception have been unspectacular, but this show should probably still be welcomed as ITV’s most adventurous foray into light entertainment for quite some time (not saying much, I know). And with this and the apparent growth of improv across the UK, will Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson soon be called upon to devise and compile another few rounds of Whose Line?

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