“I’m going to hate this aren’t I?” bristled David Mitchell as new host Rob Brydon prepared to recite from the Cockney Bible. But raising the hackles of the amusing Mitchell is one of the conceits that Would I Lie To You? relies on to thrive and survive in the same fashion that X-Factor exploits the delusions of the masses or EastEnders projects a cast of characters with the same emotional profundity as a pack of alcoholic wolves.
Deliberately inducing the ire of Mitchell isn’t so much the problem; the trick is to neatly segue it into an illusion of spontaneous wit so that the show doesn’t sag under the ponderous burden of an overcooked script. Everyone is aware that elements of panel shows are rehearsed, that’s not a problem; but what mustn’t protrude like a broken limb through saintly skin is that the rehearsed elements become predominant and overt. If a show is funny enough, or sewn together in such a way that the rehearsed elements don’t show through, then it’s possible for viewers to self-dissimulatingly assume it’s all made up on the spot.
Have I Got News For You has acerbically navigated this treacherous obstacle for almost 20 years, partly because of Merton’s brilliant improvised wit and the way Hislop loads his weekly bugbears into his gob in the same way nuclear devices are herded onto bombers, before dropping them all over the show with his crushing wrath.
Never Mind the Buzzcocks doesn’t succeed quite as well, largely because there are more limp comedy corpses to lug across the half-hour battlefield. The departed Simon Amstell’s reedy insults and Bill Bailey’s bewildered observations can only partially mask the mirthless impotence of the pop star du jour who delivers fed lines with all the comedic inflection of a deflating septic toenail.
While nothing quite so grotesque was on show here, Fern Britton and Ken Livingstone were passengers, and their quips so leaden that, even if they were off the cuff, they could shield the nation from nuclear attack. Stephen Mangan fared better, simply because he was able to use his thespian skills to appear inscrutable, and relished deceiving his opponents. He wrapped his truthful anecdote about how he won a prize for guessing the correct number of sweets in a car in wreaths of ineptitude, verbal fumbling and cunning misdirection to convince them he was lying.
But while that was admirable, Would I Lie To You? is essentially a comedy show, and the humour was best left to the three comedians present on the teams. Reginald D Hunter was his usual laconic self, gently mocking the presumed white middle-class ignorance of the ‘black community’ in his vain effort to pretend that the ‘D’ in his name stood for Delicious.
While Lee Mack and David Mitchell exchanged banter on Mack’s insistence of using the medium of mime to illustrate the heat of a cup of tea, as opposed to the more methodical, literal Mitchell. “If the tea is a ‘seven’, as you say, in centigrade then it’s cold; if it’s Fahrenheit then it’s solid!” And Mitchell switched on his hilarious outrage over Mack’s proposed truth about throwing a sausage roll off the Blackpool Tower, because it could hit the face of “a morbidly obese child”. But while the amusing show of anger may have been real, there is a sense of waiting for Mitchell to get annoyed, just like you knew in the Incredible Hulk that there would be one incident each episode that would turn Dr David Banner’s skin green and make his muscles expand as though they’d just collided with the inexorable Indian subcontinent.
And accordingly it was host Rob Brydon who jarred the most. Brydon is one of the masters of the comedy panel game, and perhaps it’s just that his role in Annually Retentive as a miserable, spiteful host behind the scenes who is polished and perky in front of the cameras, emitting an effusive flow of wisecracks that have been scripted earlier is just too close to his caricature here as pompous host. There was nothing wrong with the autocued script itself, it just felt as though it, and the rest of Brydon’s quips, had been arranged by a committee last Wednesday in the manner of Annually Retentive, and that infected the rest of the show like lithium leaking into an Oxfordshire stream from a rusting chemical plant dispelling the illusion of spontaneity that such shows rely upon.