I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the repeats of the early series of the original British television version of Whose Line Is It Anyway? being shown on Dave, formerly known as UKG2. (Renamed, I suppose, to be blokier as the channel has Top Gear on loop. Maybe all channels could change to names of men you’d come across in a pub, and we’d be saying, ‘Did you see that Attenborough special last night on Terry?’ and ‘I was watching Corrie on Kev but turned over to Tony’ and ‘Rory Bremner left Barry and is on Pete now.’)
It’s been a joy to rediscover the refreshing humour of WLIIA?, particularly after stumbling across the later American version hosted by Drew Carey, which left me feeling depressed to the extent that I refuse to give it another try. Compared to the quick takes of the British version, the improvised skits seemed to drag on endlessly even when failing, which was unexpected in the presence of Ryan Styles and Greg Proops, fairly regular treasures on the British version. The British show, which started on radio in 1988 (both hosted by the wonderfully spontaneous Clive Anderson), sees four comedians assigned situations to improvise with the aim of being funny. These are really acting exercises that students do in beginning drama classes, but with the challenge of rapidly being amusing. The games include reading a passage from an imaginary book in the style of a chosen author (eg Barbara Cartland, Agatha Christie, Dr Seuss, Hello magazine), having a party host guess what the guests are meant to be (eg a Chippendale, a showjumper, someone who thinks he’s a moth), thinking up punchlines using props, providing silly dialogue for old film footage, and playing a scene where they build up to revealing a line that is unknown to them until they unfold a paper and read it out (eg “Always remember our company's motto: ‘Dead ducks don’t fly backwards’”).
Josie Lawrence was talented at singing and thinking up lyrics quickly but was rarely funny. The song sequences were a weakness but provided the presence of Richard Vranch on piano, usually playing the same ‘hoedown’ tune as the contestants each came up with a verse. The ‘winners’ would read the credits in a style of Anderson’s choosing; for instance, as in a football interview while the other two portrayed irritating passers-by who keep getting into shot.
The multi-talented John Sessions originally shared top billing with Anderson, and Paul Merton and Tony Slattery were also early regulars. I preferred the earlier line-ups though I despaired of Slattery, who invariably resorted to being crude owing to a desperate inability to come up with something funny. Later, North Americans Ryan Stiles, Greg Proops and Colin Mochrie gave the show polish with their enormously impressive abilities, the former a particularly skilled improviser. They never missed a possible joke and Ryan's hilarious facial expressions and sense of daring always won over the crowd, such as when he played the chef with arms provided by someone crouched behind him and he was forced to scoff a whole brie. Most memorable was his portrayal in the Party Tricks game of an antelope frightened that he heard a lion approaching, and I enjoyed his quick wit when being interviewed in a mock news report about how unusual it was when a girl kissed a frog that turned into a man. He quipped, "It is unusual; normally when you kiss a frog, it turns into a prince. This girl kissed a frog and it turned into the Artist Formerly Known as Prince.”
I love seeing the players from the improv nights at the Comedy Store (CS) in Piccadilly where they present the same format live, such as Jim Sweeney (curly haired in the programme but clean headed live), Steve Steen, and Steve Frost. The aforementioned Richard Vranch, a mere accompanist on the television version, comes to life at the CS as a full participant and practically MC, showing not just his musical talent but that he is an adept comedian himself. Along with his comic/acting/writing/voiceover ventures, he presented a Channel 4 science series called Beat that Einstein. Richard, you see, has a PhD in radiation physics from Cambridge University and was briefly a Research Fellow at St John's College, Oxford.
I have an embarrassing confession about Richard Vranch. I am drawn to intelligence--and to pianists. Somehow he seemed a nice guy through his wordless appearance on the show, and the blend of humour, confidence and charisma that he oozed on stage at the CS led to me fancying him sufficiently that, when a group of us were sharing a drink with Fred MacAulay after he MC'd a show (he’d been to school with a friend), my friends quizzed him about Vranch’s single/taken status. When I learned more, I realised he wasn’t the man for me, so he was safe. Still, my friends embarrassed me by dragging him out with clever Niall Ashdown for a photo on my 31st birthday. I’ve blurred the faces of myself and friend as I’m keen on anonymity, though that made it look creepy. (Niall A's on the left, Richard Vranch is on the right.)
I also confess to having moments of fancying other CS Players, perhaps because I’d just got divorced when I started dragging friends there for inexpensive cheering up. I liked Neil Mullarkey for a moment (Cambridge Footlights alum Neil fares better on stage, particularly at Edinburgh, and had early double acts with Nick Hancock and then Mike Myers, which led to bit parts in Austin Powers films, and guested regularly on Paul Merton's surreal sketch series); Lee Simpson, who co-starred with Julian Clary in an odd sitcom and whose Improbable Theatre produced the mindstompingly impressive Shockheaded Peter on stage with puppets and slightly bizarre group the Tiger Lilies; and Tony Hawks, who caught my attention after he gave me a massive, prolonged smile one evening (I was easily impressed then).
Hawks’ amusing first book, Round Ireland with a Fridge, an account of his adventure lugging a refrigerator around Ireland whilst hitchhiking to win a bar bet, was an entertaining vaguely Bill Bryson-style read but completely put me off the man himself as he spent all his time pursuing women and alcohol and not only slept with a strange woman in a doghouse one night, but then told the world about it. He’s had the odd quiet telly series such as One Hit Wonderland, based on another bet that led him to have a hit song in Albania with Norman Wisdom and Tim Rice, and he reached the Top 5 in the UK charts in 1988 as leader of Morris Minor and the Majors with their Beastie Boys parody, Stutter Rap (No Sleep ‘Til Bedtime). He’s now the annoying unshaven chap in the telly adverts whinging about ‘Wollop!’ being hit by high car insurance premiums and getting a thousand unwanted free tax discs holders. He is often mistakenly sent e-mails destined for American skateboarder Tony Hawk and posts on his website his rascally responses to them.
One great thing about the CS was you could have a drink or quiet word with the Players as they’re forced to order drinks at the same bar as you, climb through the crowd to reach their dressing room, and even share the loos. So if you are a truly committed stalker, rather than an overly shy person with unconvinced designs on the occasional comedian as I was, you could probably make progress by introducing yourself. I highly recommend seeing the Comedy Store Players on Wednesdays or Sundays. Vranch, Sweeney, Mullarkey are inevitably there, with Lawrence and sometimes Paul Merton still attending on Sundays. It’s now a pricier £15, but worth it and now fortunately smokeless, given that it's a small basement area. Book ahead to avoid queues, arrive early for a good seat (you’re not game for attack as in stand-up and a cute comedian might smile and lead you astray) and take your thinking cap; I was always amazed by the brilliant creativity of some of the audience members who shouted out hysterical suggestions for the comedians to implement. If you can't get there, enjoy Series 1 and 2 of the British WLIIA?, which will be released on DVD in February 2008.