David Tennant Hosts Comedy World Cup - A Review

David Tennant and half a dozen stars of comedy recorded a pilot episode of the new prime time quiz show Comedy World Cup at the RADA Studios in London on Sunday afternoon. The Channel 4 show, produced by Open Mike Productions, and hosted by David, is set to be the centrepiece of the channel's Saturday night autumn schedule.

Sunday’s episode, billed as a pilot, was a filmed, but very low tech run through for the show’s producers to check the format and timings in front of a live studio audience. Never intended to be shown on TV, the set was minimal, with the performers sitting at cloth-covered tables with their names written on folded pieces of paper. Reception desk-style bells stood in for buzzers while the scoreboard was a flipchart manned by the ever patient Sean.

The event was hosted by the very efficient SRO Audiences, whose calm and light-hearted front-of-house staff managed to keep a large and excited audience happy and informed in such a small, rapidly overheating space. The numbered wristband system meant that seating was efficiently managed and it wasn’t long before the warm-up introduced David, referring to him as one of the nicest guys you could ever hope to meet.

David bounced onto the set wearing tan trousers and shoes, a white shirt and blue jacket. His hair colour is now restored to his familiar brown; he was also sporting the heavy stubble seemingly favoured by his character in the ITV drama Broadchurch which he has been filming for the past few weeks. He was briefly apologetic about the sparseness of the set before introducing the teams. The star names represented comedy across the years and formats: quiz show stalwart Andy Parsons captained rising stand-up and star of Twenty Twelve Sara Pascoe along with mainstream 80s entertainer and impressionist Bobby Davro. Opposite him was the deadpan Jack Dee (with whom David once co-starred in The Deputy) who led 8 Out Of 10 Cats captain Jon Richardson, and comedy legend Nicholas Parsons. David greeted Nicholas with some awe. “You should be sitting here” he said, indicating the host’s seat. Nicholas reassured him that he would be brilliant.

The banter was in evidence straight away, with early themes, perhaps somewhat predictably, centring upon Nicolas Parsons’ age, Andy Parsons’ hairlessness and the staleness of Bobby Davro’s material. Jack Dee was inevitably dour and cynical, and Jon Richardson brilliantly surreal. Sara Pascoe perhaps took a little longer to find her stride but soon introduced her own style of intelligent and sharp responses. David Tennant too, although mainly reading scripted gags from the autocue, made enough of his own spontaneously witty comments to show that he was extremely comfortable with the host role.

The show ran through several rounds: Guess The Year, from a montage of clips, stills and music (and yes, plenty of us did know that Dexy’s Midnight Runners sang the Brush Strokes theme!), Guess The Comedian from extracts of their autobiographies, identifying comedians via children performing their routines (a format already used successfully in Big Fat Quiz Of The Year), quick-fire questions, a spotlight specialist subject round (in which Jon Richardson discovered that he had apparently watched a different version of Friends to the rest of us) and guessing a failed sitcom from a list of three pitches (the denouement of one such show revealing a young Nicholas Parsons as a suave showbiz manager). One round, in which the teams had to Guess The Routine from stand-up footage with the sound removed, provided plenty of early laughs as Bobby Davro, who was never more than a little egging on away from an impression, and Jack Dee took it upon themselves to revoice a clip of Michael McIntyre.

As expected with such a trial run there were going to be parts that worked and parts that fell flat. Not all the gags succeeded and there was certainly some material that would never have made transmission even if it had been a properly recorded version of the show. After over two hours of recording in a fairly small and sweltering studio, the acts and the audience were clearly starting to flag and some of the gags started to become laboured. However, at a sign from the floor manager, David deftly picked up the pace to bring the quiz to its conclusion, with Andy’s team winning by a mere point.

If anyone had any doubts about David Tennant’s ability to take on the role of panel show host then they need to think again. He is a natural at the job, able to embellish the script with enough of his own comments to add extra sparkle to the proceedings, but never in a way that it overshadowed the guests. He let each of them shine in their own way, but was quick to take command again if things got out of hand. Of course, he fluffed his lines occasionally, or the scripted jokes didn’t quite come off, but he took such occurrences in his stride and made light of them with typically quicksilver wit. The fact that he has a genuine love for the subject matter was clearly evident. Amusing, intelligent, attentive and overall thoroughly professional, he is, without a doubt, exactly the right choice to front the show. It is certainly another string to the bow of an already versatile performer.

The structure and content still needs a little work, and there still needs to be more of a unique angle to lift it out of the realms of becoming just another two-team quiz show. In its current format it is only a test of comedians’ knowledge of their own field and not, as the synopsis perhaps led us to believe, a showcase for their performing skills. So while none of the rounds fell entirely flat there is definitely scope for some sharpening up over the next week. However, it is hard even during recording for transmission to ascertain what the final version of a show will look like, so to make too much of a judgement at this early test stage would not be entirely fair. It certainly looks as though Channel 4 have come up with a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous talent show format that has a monopoly over weekend television. With such high calibre guests and an accomplished host already in the mix, in a sleeker version with the full set and the right edits, Comedy World Cup is sure to live up to its potential and secure a foothold in the difficult terrain of Saturday night TV.