I was a huge fan of Channel 4's Whose Line Is It Anyway? throughout the '90s and, indeed, into the '00s with the inferior but fun US remake, that wisely retained the fantastic Colin Mochrie and Ryan Stiles. It was a collection of simple improvisational games (many of which you could attempt at home), involving songs, bizarre props, one-liners, and audience involvement. Since its demise, nothing has ever truly replaced it on television, although Whose Line's creators bolted a few improv elements into panel show Mock The Week, and in so doing created its most popular round ("Scenes We'd Like To See", where the comedians take it in turns to enact various comic scenarios presented to them.)
So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I sat down to watch BBC2's Fast & Loose on Friday night, which is essentially Whose Line for a new generation, with Mock's team captain Hugh Dennis taking over the Clive Anderson role as ringmaster. Fast & Loose has more of a team sensibility than Whose Line ever did, with six performers huddled together off-stage on benches, ready to improvise whatever's thrown their way. Unfortunately, while I'm sure a few of the games were genuinely improvised, Fast & Loose carried a distinct aroma of falseness. And if an improv show doesn't feel improvised, that kills a great deal of the comedy for me. It's a remarkable skill to be able to think on your feet to a professional standard, particularly with the proviso everything you say is funny, but the trick is drained of life if you suspect the performers are aware of what's coming, or have rehearsed lines up their sleeves.
Unfortunately, Fast & Loose was crammed with too many moments where you didn't believe the performers were totally off-script. Remember Whose Line, when people would regularly fluff their words, find themselves upstaged by someone more skilled, burst into laughter themselves, or squirm under the pressure of having to come up with a gag or song at the drop of a hat? There was none of that here, and consequently no real sense of out-on-a-limb danger. One round, called "Interpretive Dance", even revolved around a guest called David Armand dancing to "Careless Whisper" (in the manner of playing Charades-to-the-lyrics), while two people had to guess what song he was performing, being unable to hear the track. It could have been a masterful display of improvisation, but Armand was actually demonstrating the stand-up routine he's been performing for years already. Here he is doing much the same thing for Natalie Imbruglia's "Torn". It casts doubt on his "Careless Whisper" performance being real improv, doesn't it?
I'm sure a few of the games were genuinely improvised, of course. I'm guessing the ones that were particularly unfunny. But, too often, the responses the performers gave sounded rehearsed, or too polished to be impromptu gags. One round required them to dance and, when the music stopped, deliver a cheesy chat-up line straight into camera. Each performer had a bizarre ability to know it was their turn to deliver their zinger down the lens, don't you think? Almost as if there was a set order of play. And if that's true, then it stands to reason they knew that game was on the agenda, and could therefore have prepared some jokes. You can Google "bad chat-up lines" and find many variations on what they came up with.
One surefire way to make things look genuinely improvised, and a key feature of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, is to involve the studio audience. Get members of the public to suggest topics or ideas that will fuel most of the games. That way we can be relatively sure the performers are being truly spontaneous. But audience interaction was something Fast & Loose noticeably excluded, which again lends credence to my belief the performers knew what Hugh Dennis would be asking them to do throughout the show.
The only bright spark of comedy came in the final game, "Sideways Scene" (see photo above), which saw three performers act out a scene while lying on a giant red canvas that, when viewed from above, looked like a regular horizontal room with a door frame and wooden chair as furnishings. The three performers would therefore have to crawl around on the ground, aware that their actions in our bird's-eye-view would look like they're awkwardly levitating half the time. The downside is that the visual fun of the game outweighed the comedy being performed, but it was nevertheless an imaginative, original idea that made me laugh.
Sadly, that was the only moment where Fast & Loose came into its own. While I don't think the producers rigged every game, I can't shake the feeling the majority of this show wasn't improvised. The performances were too slick, the jokes too robust, and moments that were supposedly off-piste (like Greg Davies approaching a camera to poke fun at Dennis) just looked rehearsed. Everyone seemed to have too much awareness of where their cameras were, which again made everything feel very staged. They should have treated the show like theatre and performed for the audience.
It's a pity, because there's no shame in having a show that feels loose because the performers aren't so on-the-ball with the improv, so long as it all feels like real ad-libbing. That's what we've come to see. If the producers come out to ensure us that Fast & Loose is 100% made up on the spot, then fine -- but the show is doing a poor job translating that fact to the TV screen. The way to relieve skepticism is very simple because Whose Line perfected this genre 20 years ago: get the audience involved in the creative process. If someone shouts out "spaghetti western" and the performers immediately transform a romantic dinner scene into a cowboy shootout, that proves quickly and easily that everyone's thinking on their feet
And really, what's the excuse not to involve the audience?
- The show really needed to include on-screen legends, reminding us who or what the performers are pretending to be in a few of the games. If your attention slipped, or you left the room for a few seconds, you'd come back and be at a complete loss trying to understand what was going on for many of the games -- particularly the "Weak Links" quiz and "Come Dining" round. Again, a lesson that should have been learned from Whose Line. Oh, and the show's music cues were cheap and ghastly.
TRANSMISSION: 14 January 2011, BBC2, 10PM