Ah, Christmas nostalgia. If you’re harking back to a time pre-Netflix, when the family all huddled round the telly together to watch a festive special in real time, you’ve come to the right place.
The phenomenally successful franchise that began with The Play That Goes Wrong seven years ago in a small north London pub is coming to a living room near you.
The original show within a show, which saw a group of hapless amateur actors attempt to stage a murder mystery, has led to several hit spin-off theatre shows, including Peter Pan Goes Wrong, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, Magic Goes Wrong and its latest offering, Groan Ups (see our mini review below).
Now a TV series entitled The Goes Wrong Show, featuring six stand-alone episodes written and starring the Mischief Theatre crew, is kicking off with a festive special which will air on BBC One on 23 December.
The TV series includes a World War II resistance drama (The Pilot) and a Christmas calamity (The Spirit of Christmas) featuring a missing elf and a shambolic Santa.
The gang’s theatre productions are best known for their physical comedy, spot-on timing and running gags.
But how will the band of merry men and women – Jonathan Sayer, Henry Lewis, Henry Shields, Dave Hearn, Nancy Zamit, Bryony Corrigan and Charlie Russell – translate this live, chaotic atmosphere to the small screen?
Especially with all those potentially dangerous stunts?
Elf and safety
The Goes Wrong gang were keen to do as many of the stunts themselves but had to jump through a few more hoops for TV.
Hearn – whose Twitter handle is “I fall over for money” – jokes: “We just did some stuff, and then asked for forgiveness rather than permission.
“Things like falling off the back of the chair, getting knocked out by a door, being punched in the face. We could do those.”
Shields adds: “We always fight – we all want to do stuff. And we’re all pretty reckless with our bodies. And if we really aren’t allowed, the stunt people come in.”
Luckily, executive producer Saurabh Kakkar was on board: “At no point can we say, ‘Oh, no, you can’t do that. You have to do this unfunny thing because it’s the thing that we can afford or is technically possible’.”
In fact the only stunt double used in the festive episode is when Father Christmas falls out of the chimney.
Filming was not without its challenges, though.
In one episode, one of the sets is entirely built at 90 degrees.
Kakkar explains: “We film it with a camera on its side. So it looked like normal, until you guys were on it… there’s no way of predicting what gravity is going to do.”
Lewis explains: “It was pretty tough for everybody. But we did training for that, where we were hung upside down for increasing increments of time to get used to it – with all the blood rushing to your head – and we had blood pressure tests to make sure that we were healthy enough to do it.
“We only filmed it in 90-second bursts. No-one has tried to do this before so we created a new health and safety law!”
In fact, it was the crew struggling with high blood pressure.
Sayer recalls a fraught production meeting ahead of the episode: “We had this big meeting where we talked about being upside down and this guy from the crew just stood up and shouted, ‘This is madness, people are going to get hurt, there could be aneurysms all over the place!'”
Christmas has gone wrong before…
It’s not the first time the Cornley players – the group of amateur actors the Mischief team portray – have cocked up Christmas.
Three years ago, the team brought chaos with The Christmas That Goes Wrong on Radio 2 on Christmas morning.
And to be honest, it’s surprising the BBC have asked them back.
Lewis reveals: “We spent weeks planning it and recording it and putting it all together. It was three of us hosting a radio show in character and it was [deliberately] terrible. So every time they tried to play a Christmas song, Summer Holiday came on. Over and over again.”
Sayer continues: “While a lot of people got it and enjoyed it, a lot more people didn’t get it and tweeted, saying, ‘Who are these idiots ruining Christmas?!'”
Bringing family together
He adds: “We wanted to do a Christmas episode, it’s really cool being involved in the BBC Christmas line-up. It’s just really nice to think our show might be one of those people are plotting around their Christmas dinner, that’s a really cool thing.”
Shields explains that they wanted to bring the theatre experience into our homes.
“We wanted to break the fourth wall, to make sure you understand you’re not supposed to just be watching a real Christmas story in a house, you’re supposed to be watching a play being put on. We always start with a speech direct to the audience, that’s just to set up the language we’re going to be using.”
Sisters are doing it for themselves
The female cast members are taking on bigger roles in the TV version.
Zamit says: “There’s a great scene (in the World War II episode) where the three girls are solving problems. That was a really nice thing for us because in the other show, there are only two female characters, which is a long throwback to when we started this company and not many girls wanted to do improv shows.
“So to have a third woman come in now, and have three amazing strong female characters, is great. Finally we get to be front and centre and not have the male characters dominating.”
Hearn explains that it’s not accidental.
“It’s something we talked about quite a lot, trying to make sure that the female roles are diverse and varied.
“We even swapped a few punchlines around to make the female characters more active and engaged rather than passive.”
Remind you of anyone?
Sayer reveals his inspiration – and it’s all old school.
“I have really loved silent comedies since I was really young. I used to go to my grandparents’ house and watch loads of Keaton and Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy and Morecambe and Wise.
“I really like big visual gags. I love the idea that they were taken from the stage and then transposed on to film. And it’s been nice to be part of a movement that’s put it back on the stage and to do what old music hall vaudeville would have done.
“I love those big visual effects… you just don’t see a lot of that kind of stuff on TV anymore because it’s really time consuming, it’s very expensive and it takes a lot of chutzpah to do that kind of stuff.
All Groan Up?
Entertainment reporter Steven McIntosh reviews Groan Ups, Mischief Theatre’s West End production which recently concluded its West End run
Groan Ups isn’t like Mischief Theatre’s other shows. It doesn’t have Goes Wrong in the title, for one thing. And it’s far less farcical than the company’s series about on-stage mishaps.
Instead, it’s an original work which follows the lives of five characters from nursery, through to high school, all the way to a reunion in their 30s.
Of course, it still has all the hallmarks of a Mischief Theatre show. Much of the physical comedy is recognisably their style. But it also has a dramatic storyline at its core, complete with themes of relationships, jealousy and hidden sexualities.
The show received mixed reviews from critics and only had a short run in the West End at the Vaudeville Theatre. But, along with Mischief’s forthcoming TV specials – it’s a sign of a company rapidly expanding in both tone and scope.
The first episode of The Goes Wrong Show goes out on Monday 23 December at 19:30 GMT.