It turns out we really like things that go wrong, particularly when the chaos is brought about by the Mischief Theatre Company. The group – founded by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer – was created when the trio left drama school and has since spawned West End and Broadway smash hit The Play That Goes Wrong.
The production was swiftly followed by Peter Pan Goes Wrong (which was filmed for the BBC last Christmas with special guest David Suchet) and The Comedy About a Bank Robbery, which is currently booking until November 2018. But this December they’re back on the Beeb with something a little different.
A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong is a new production – and unlike its predecessors is written specifically for television. “As it stands, this is purely a TV show,” Sayer tells RadioTimes.com. “We’ve never done it on stage before. It’s very different from the other work – with Peter Pan you could see the edges of the set even on screen and you pan to the audience whereas this looks as much like a traditional BBC drama as possible. We’ve got this amazing set and it looks more like a sitcom in that you don’t see the audience, you just hear the laughter. It means there’s something even more perfect and beautiful you can take apart and destroy which has been a real joy.”
A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong reintroduces us to the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society – a fictional amateur dramatics group with a special gift for ruining various productions. In this case, the Dickens classic is due to star acting royalty Derek Jacobi and Diana Rigg but in true ‘goes wrong’ fashion, chaos soon ensues.
“After we did Peter Pan last year, we were looking for something that was another traditional Christmas tale and it’s probably one of the biggest ones and is so ready to be parodied,” explains Shields. “It’s such a brilliant story and so recognisable – everyone knows it, everyone recognises all the beats in it which is very helpful for us because it means we can easily dissemble it and people will be able to tell what it was before we ruined it. We’ve tried to mirror the story of Christmas Carol in the actual story of Cornley Polytechnic. But any more about that and I’ll be giving away the plot…”
Henry Shields, Derek Jacobi and Henry Lewis in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong, BBC Pictures, SL
This will be the first time the group have written solely for television, instead of the stage. “We were thinking about this in a different way. It was actually quite nice to come to it fresh and just be thinking about it in terms of shots,” says Lewis.
It’s something the trio would like to do more of. A regular spot in the BBC’s festive schedules is “just one of the pinnacles”, according to Sayer, but “we would dearly like to do a series of things that go wrong. It gets easier – if you’ve got to write six or seven of them, you can call back jokes and laughs week-on-week.”
He adds: “We’re desperate to have people know the characters more… Once you get into that world where the audience know the characters and they know what they’re doing then you can start having a huge amount more fun. Because at the moment we’ve got a Christmas show every 12 months – you’ve got such a small window of opportunity to really tell people who the characters are and make sure they shine through. But if you were doing that every week then you could come up with some really fantastic scenarios. So hopefully we’ll get to do that.”
The weekly disasters wouldn’t necessarily be based around plays – “just something that feels very televisual but happens to go wrong. I think there’s a huge appetite for that”.
But the group remains coy when it comes to details of discussions with the BBC or other broadcasters. “It’s all early days,” says Sayer, “but hopefully people will really enjoy this show and we’ve had a blast working with the BBC and BBC Studios and I think they’ve had a lot of fun working with us. So we’ve just got to wait and see and continue to do what we do and have fun.”
The Play That Goes Wrong opening night on Broadway, Getty, SL
With powerful allies like JJ Abrams in their corner, we can’t imagine it will be long before the minds behind Cornley Polytechnic Society get their wish. The Hollywood director came across the play by chance when he was filming Star Wars at Pinewood Studios. “He had an unexpected evening off and he just went for a walk around London and passed our theatre and thought ‘Oh, that looks fun’ and just bought a ticket, watched it himself,” recalls Sayer.
When he came backstage afterwards, Abrams suggested they take the show to America and introduced them to Kevin McCollum who ended up being their major American partner. But Abrams was there at the technical rehearsals and marketing meetings – “he was a big part of the production in America so we were really lucky.”
He even once appeared in the show itself, according to Sayer. “There’s a little moment in act two where lots of different crew members get revealed – it’s a tiny blink and you’ll miss it moment – and he said ‘can I be in the background here?’ So there was one show but I don’t think anyone noticed that JJ Abrams appeared on Broadway. It never got picked up.”
The filmmaker isn’t the Goes Wrong gang’s only famous fan. Harrison Ford went on Abrams’ recommendation and Jacobi’s role in Christmas Carol was born out of a visit to see The Play That Goes Wrong.
Nearly a decade on from the formation of Mischief Theatre Company it really is all going right for Lewis, Shields and Sayer. And with a new improv show – Mischief Movie Night – on the West End and plans for 2018 and 2019 on the horizon, it looks like there will be plenty more disasters to profit from in the future.
A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong airs on Saturday 30th December at 7:10pm on BBC1