John Walker's Electronic House

Thank God You’re Here – UK

by on Jan.14, 2008, under Television

Four hundred and sixteen years ago, I wrote about the NBC micro-series Thank God You’re Here. The model is: guests are dressed in a costume and sent into a room they know nothing about, and have to improvise their way through a scene with the regular cast. It ran for only a few weeks, and hasn’t been picked up since. Dave Benson-Phillips was a hopeless host, with the wonderful Dave Foley wasted as the so-called judge. Where it did succeed was the regular cast’s ability to cope with the guest changing things, quick to adapt the scene appropriately.

Already an import from Australia, it’s now reached the UK, with little changed but for only one host, Paul Merton. And rather bizarrely, it’s on ITV1. Presumably part of Grade’s attempts to rejuvinate the channel, it’s a good purchase, but peculiarly delivered.

The first show’s guests were a mixed bunch. John Thompson and Ben Miller were the comedian contingent. Then there was Australian radio presenter (and let’s assume veteran of the format) Hamish Blake, and the mystifying selection of Fern Britton.

So it was an odd surprise that Britton was, by leagues, the funniest. And that’s not a slight on the others – Blake was very funny in his scene, and Thompson got in a few good gags. Fern Britton, out of nowhere, was superbly quick and remarkably amusing. Ben Miller, however, was not. One of the most irritating aspects of NBC’s version is the constant insistence that the guests make a big fuss about how terrified they are. The same was attempted here, but only Miller seemed genuinely frightened. So much so that he blanked his way through the most piss-easy scene of being a Star Trek-style captain – ten thousand easy jokes available to anyone, and he found none of them.

Sadly, the show’s other big failing was Merton. Always awful on Room 101, his presenter skills have never relaxed, always looking as though he’s about to have a panic attack. Here he is transfixed on the autocue, which is rather unfortunately not angled correctly, meaning he’s staring uncomfortably away from the camera. Then, in a vanity move that trumps Benson-Phillips’ weekly appearance in one of the guest’s sketches (often made funny by his excited declaration that it was him all along, removing a moustache or similar at the end), Merton gets to do his own sketch because of his natural, improvisational talents. Perhaps fifteen years ago, but that skill left him long ago, and the results were utterly awful. Given a pisspoor James Bond scene, he flapped terrible, stumbling, pausing for ludicrous lengths, and offering none of the hilarious moments his semi-improvised Paul Merton The Series would have given us in the early 90s.

But what stood out most was the in-house cast’s inability to cope with the guests’ improvisations. Working to the same formula, they ask obvious lead-in questions like, “And your name is?” But rather than take on the answer, or indeed anything else equally simple, they panic and resort to their pre-decided scripted version. So when Britton tells them her name is “Madame Gordon” they immediately annouce that she is also called “Madame Olga” and then call her that throughout. It’s fairly pathetic. The look of sheer panic when Merton finally steered his scene off script was only matched by their sighs of relief when the buzzer went off to end the sketch.

Still, an interesting move for ITV1. An unfamiliar format in the primetime 9pm slot, which astonishingly contained swearing. The channel that has long rendered Robocop angry with the “mother lovers” allowed Fern Britton to wonderfully channel a dead spirit for a man saying, “You’re fucking useless, you always were.”

In conclusion: mixed.

4 Comments for this entry

  • H

    Saw it and loved it, looking forward to the others. I’ve always liked Paul Merton but, I’m not sure why, he seemed to lend the show a sort-of Hancockian brand of humour. I did enjoy it, but yes I did definitely think the backup cast were rubbish and slow on the uptake.

  • Schadenfreude

    Personally I thought Ben Miller was funnier than the Aussie guy, who in his defence had a much trickier set-up in that the extras’ script was so leading there wasn’t anywhere he could go with it.

    I was surprised at Merton’s performance though as he still does regular improv with the Comedy Store Players and I was led to believe he was still quite good at it. Well done Fern Briton all the same.

  • The League of Copyeditors

    I won’t be watching this, but, “…improvise there way through a scene.”

  • Behn

    The thing is, typically, comedy improv scenes don’t always work, or hold the attention of the viewer. “Whose Line..” worked because the pace was fast and if it didn’t work, Clive Anderson would end the scene and give the guests something different to do. This, on the other hand is car crash TV, if the guest is used to live TV they can normallly worry their way through and look natural, but from the few episodes I have seen the majority of the guests just tend to ‘give away’ the fact that they have no idea what they are doing and are hoping for the buzzer to go.