If you’re prepared to fall down an internet rabbit-hole for a little while, type Whose Line is it Anyway? in to YouTube. You’ll find Stephen Fry and Peter Cook rapping about having a baby, Tony Slattery and Paul Merton aping a children’s nativity and Robin Williams with a pom-pom on his head, among other things.
The anarchic improvised gameshow started out on the radio – the pilot episode featured Fry, John Sessions, Lenny Henry and Dawn French, though the latter two never agreed to play again – and moved to Channel 4 in 1988. It was axed in 1999 and has since lived on, in various guises, in America. Now, as part of a wave of Nineties nostalgia that has seen rebirths for TFI Friday and The Crystal Maze, Whose Line is it Anyway? is back, this time as a live stage show.
In fact, this is its second live coming. A show, featuring many of the original cast and host Clive Anderson, premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe last year, under the name What Does the Title Matter Anyway? thanks to wrangles with the creators of the show. Having seen the ticket sales and good reviews that run garnered, everyone is now on board - and the original title is back.
The official version plays London’s West End for two weeks from 20 June. Colin Mochrie, Josie Lawrence, Greg Proops, Brad Sherwood will be the players and Anderson the host. Just like old times. The teams will be put through their paces, improvising scenes in various film styles and making up songs. There will also be some less familiar games from the American series in which audience members will be invited on stage to act as props in “Living Scenery”, or as mouthpieces for “Dubbing.”
They will also, of course, have to shout out suggestions for the players. Paul Merton once told me that if asked for a household object, an improv audience will inevitably come up with “toilet brush”. Are WLIIA? audiences similarly base?
“Oh yes, they always shout out ‘proctologist’ or ‘prostitute’ when you ask for a profession”, says Dan Patterson, co-creator of the show, with Mark Leveson. “Taxidermist comes up a lot too. The difference from 25 years ago is that the women are as lavatorial as the men, now.
“The audience thinks it’s funny to pimp the players, make it really hard but it’s funnier if you give them something to work with.”
My issue with improv is that it can sometimes seem not quite as funny for those watching as it is for those performing it. The key is the host, says Patterson, who went on to co-create Mock the Week. “It makes you sympathise with the performers when there’s a host putting them under pressure. It’s less smug than them simply saying, ‘Go on then, give us an idea.’”
Might the live outing presage a return to British screens, too? After the short-lived Fast & Loose (another Patterson creation) which ran for only one series in 2011, there’s a gap in the market. “There’s an idea that there is improv on television because there are people saying funny things off the cuff. That’s not improv, that’s spontaneity. It’s just a bizarre way of saying they won’t commission another Whose Line is it Anyway? I’m sure there’s room for another improv show”, says Patterson. “When improv is good, it’s great. When it’s not, it’s awful. It’s comedy without a safety net.”
Whose Line is it Anyway?... Live, The Adelphi Theatre, London, 20 June to 5 July (020 3725 7060