Winding up the wind-ups | Marc Wootton on his new BBC Three sketch show © BBC

Winding up the wind-ups

Marc Wootton on his new BBC Three sketch show

Marc Wootton has pretty much built his career on tormenting people.

This reached its apex – or nadir, depending on your point of view – with the Channel 4 show My New Best Friend, in which contestants had to convince their friends and relatives that the appalling characters Wootoon portrayed were their best mates. He forced people to hand in their notice at work, pretend to come out as gay, or tell their parents they had a secret child to win £10,000.

But it was only, perhaps, the logical extreme of his wind-up comedy. In The Pilot Show, he duped various wannabes and once-weres with the promise of bizarre TV ventures. As one third of spoof eco-warrior collective Cyderdelic, he took part in various silly anti-capitalist protests – and had a scene censored by BBC governors because it included an excrement-covered crucifix and the phrase ‘Jesus Christ is a bell end’. And when he appeared on the Jonathan Ross show as ‘phoney’ psychic Shirley Ghostman – is there any other kind? – the BBC apologised after 350 people complained.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the grief he’s caused them, the corporation has given Wootton another show. But this time there’s not a hidden camera or unsuspecting chump to be had. Nor even any supporting cast to speak of. Mark Wootton Exposed is just him, delivering character monologues to camera, for half an hour. Talking Heads for the YouTube generation, you might call it.

‘It seemed natural,’ Wootton says of his transition from improvised shit-stirring to scripted sketches. ‘Maybe it’s some sort of personal development.’

Recurring characters in the BBC Three show include 70-year-old widow Doris, posh rapper Rufus, conceptual artist/vapid social commentator Noodle, right and Paul, who believes he is turning into a vampire.

‘What links them all is that they are deluded,’ says Wootton. ‘They don’t drop their masks.’ Quickie sketches in which the characters pose in a photographer’s studio are designed to add to that feeling, he explains: ‘The photography thing – though its not overt – hints at that delusional state. We all smile for the camera, maintaining that delusion that we’re happy.’

With a plethora of sketch shows currently filling digital channels’ schedules, how did Wootton try to make his stand out?

‘It’s less sketches, more monologues, which I think helps define it,’ he says. ‘That and it’s all me – there’s no one else in it – and it was written by just me and Liam Woodman, who was Frogger in Cyderdelic. That should give it a distinctive voice you don’t always get with a big team of writers.’

The show has been 18 months in the planning. He first performed some work-in-progress character nights in London’s Tristan Bates fringe theatre in summer 2006; then follow-up nights in the capital’s Drill Hall at the end of that year led to the BBC commission. ‘It’s much easier to show people what you want to do, rather than pitching an idea on paper,’ he says

The finished shows were also screened for a live audience, which gave him the chance to make late edits to the monologues. ‘I was slightly swayed by the audience reaction,’ he says. ‘But ultimately you have to go with what you think is funny.’

Although his certainty seems to waver when it comes to the decision to add the laughter track that audience provides. He asks whether I found it intrusive. Which it was, a bit, although I soon got used to it.

‘We had lots of conversations about that with Jeremy Dyson, who was the script editor,’ Wootton says. ‘There was a laughter track on League Of Gentlemen – quite in-your-face in the first series – but people forget that. And if it’s good enough for them…’

The one character that was filmed in front of an actual audience is Candy, left, a brash American stand-up comedienne with bags of attitude – but no actual jokes.

‘I was just mucking about in the shower with the character of Candy, and it made my partner giggle,’ he says of her Genesis. ‘She is part Roseanne Barr, as well as all those other female comics who are full of spite. It’s the madness of someone who doesn’t know how a joke’s even supposed to work. It’s observational comedy of the sort Peter Kay does, but she just yells out the subjects, nothing more.’

Wootton’s never been a straight stand-up himself, but he’s been close to it throughout his career, and cites Sean Lock and Simon Bligh as favourites.

He started performing at school in Portsmouth, and an early creation was the Russian Gavroski Brothers (‘Don’t look it up,’ he pleads, fearing embarrassment), which he took to the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘They were three agitprop activist peasants trying to spark a revolution,’ he explains. ‘Like a Soviet Cyderdelic?’ I suggest – and he reacts as if this has never occurred to him before.’

He moved on to directing and ran the Canal Café pub theatre in West London. Despite his connection with Jeremy Dyson, he wasn’t there at the time the League Of Gentlemen were doing their now legendary residency, but did see the likes of Ardal O’Hanlon, Lee Mack and Catherine Tate on its modest stage.

From there, Cyderdelic was born, with stand-up Barry Castagnola completing the trio with Wootton and Woodman, and they became a hit of the 2000 Edinburgh festival. Though not, as Wootton is quick to mention, with Chortle. He can still quote verbatim from the withering one-star review nearly eight years on.

But he’s graciously good-natured about the pasting which, after all, doesn’t seem to have done his career any lasting harm. Not only has he completed his solo series, but he’s also about to star in the forthcoming Britflick Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel – and Hollywood beckons.

He’s already signed up with the Endeavor talent agency in LA –whose clients include Ben Affleck, Chris Rock, Goldie Hawn, Keira Knightley and Jude Law – and he revealed: ‘NBC and Showtime have both offered me a show.’ But he didn’t elaborate, other than to say it would be his own show.

As for Frequently Asked Questions…, he has high hopes: ‘It’s the best script I’ve ever read, and Chris O’Dowd is very funny in it. I play a geeky bloke who likes Forbidden Planet and wants to go back in time.

‘It’s all in the can. We re-shot the ending in September, which leaves the door open for sequels, and there have been test screenings – but we weren’t allowed into them. The trailer looks quite good, and it should be a good sci-fi comedy – but I’m not culpable if it isn’t.’

Which is hardly the case for the BBC Three series with his name in the title and in the writing credits, not to mention his prosthetically-disguised face on screen the entire time. ‘I’ve done the best I can,’ he says, ‘And all I can hope is that people like it.

  • Marc Wootton Exposed is on BBC Three at 9.30pm on Sunday. Click here to watch the first episode now.

Published: 9 Jan 2008

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