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Pranks: Where to draw the line?

It's different when the prankster is the butt of the joke

Six months ago, one ill fated phone-call from Australia to a hospital in London brought the British public’s long standing fondness for prank TV and radio shows to an abrupt halt.

What of course was learnt and what many people were already aware of is the huge responsibility that comes with making entertainment in this vein.

And so last December, “prank” became an exceptionally dirty word. And this was quite a concern – I was half way through the filming production of a new prank show, Trojan Donkey,  which had been commissioned for Channel 4.

I knew that the planning and preparation we’d put in to our show, coupled with the fact that we always knew that we wanted our approach to not actually be at the public’s expense, meant that I felt that we were on relatively safe ground.

However it did make us, the actors and the entire production team stop and think – what makes a prank show dangerous? What preparation needs to be put in place to make sure that no one gets hurt? Ultimately the answer comes down to whose expense the prank is at – and despite the original “Game for a Laugh”  format still being alive and well in some cases – it’s actually surprisingly easy to move away from that model so the joke is on the performer and not the public.

With Trojan Donkey  the joke is very much on the actors – they are bumbling fools, and the general public may be filmed being incredulous but they are far from being the butt of the joke – and this is where our format, and indeed other new UK formats (the excellent Impractical Jokers on BBC Three being a prime example) have begun to break away from the form of the traditional prank show and move into a new genre of what is now being seen as the prank-sketch hybrid. Far from being ridiculed as the fools, the public are now the straight man in the sketch; they are the incredulous Blackadder or Basil Fawlty to our performer’s foolish Baldrick or Manuel.

One of the reasons we were able to make this possible is that we were incredibly careful about who would be pranked; we had people volunteer their friends to be pranked – when our star PJ Gallagher walked in to a tattoo parlour and innocently asked for the entirety of the bible to be tattooed onto his back, outside of the artist he approached, the rest of the shop workers were in on the joke – and our idiot was PJ, which is why the piece was so good humoured and the chap being pranked actually had fun. This is how we approached all of our filming.

The other key element in any filming that involves the public is that we never ever broadcast anything without permission. Clearly there are a number of laws in place to make this the general case anyway, but in previous pranks shows over the years, people have complained of being pressured into signing their release forms, of being accused of being a bad sport and ruining the fun – for us, if someone didn’t want to appear on TV, or was in anyway uncomfortable with how things had gone, that footage was immediately earmarked for the cutting room floor.

A couple of years ago I was pranked myself, and set up to have an online meeting with an exceptionally bizarre character, who turned out to be one of the show’s stars, wearing prosthetic make up – the joke was well put together and I was never made to feel like an eejit. It made me laugh, but having been on both sides of the set-up, I am acutely aware of the need to be responsible for your joke – and hopefully this is something that, for any show that involves the general public, will become the norm from now on.

Ronan McCabe of Double Z Enterprises is the executive produce on Trojan Donkey, currently airing on Friday nights on Channel 4.