The Show Must Go Wrong! The Televised Exploits of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society

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The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society is a fictional amateur dramatics acting club consisting of people who met while attending various classes at the Cornley Polytechnic Institute and shared an interest in the theatre. Though variously incompetent and incompatible, their personality clashes, inexperience, bad luck and determination to press on no matter what, despite their constant desire to be too ambitious and achieve more than they are in any way capable of, means that every show they perform ends up an unmitigated disaster. Anything that can possibly go wrong increasingly does.

In reality it consists of a group of fictional characters created by Mischief Theatre, particular writer/actors Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer. Masters of comedy and improvisation, following the incredible success of their play The Play that Goes Wrong which met with rave reviews and numerous 'Best New Comedy', 'Best New Play' awards, an extract of which was broadcast in the 2015 Royal Variety Show. In 2017 the BBC first brought their show properly to television.

Two Christmas specials and a six episode television series have been broadcast to date, although a second television series was quickly commissioned by the BBC in February 2020. The first series, but sadly not the two Christmas specials, have been released on DVD.

The Cast

The fictional cast members, and the actors who play them on television1, are listed below.

Chris Bean (Henry Shields)

Chris is the director - never merely a directer - of the drama society. He takes every show he is in very seriously and is angered when the audience think that a show he is performing in, such as Peter Pan, is a pantomime and not a serious production. The founder member, he also considers himself the best actor in the troop – frequently casting himself in the lead role - and longs to be above such amateur productions.

Robert Grove (Henry Lewis)

Robert frequently clashes with Chris over who should get the main part. He even wrote a book, Anything You Can Act, I Can Act Louder, in an attempt to convince the rest of the cast that he is the best actor in the company. As well as the loudest he is also the largest member of the cast, frequently getting stuck.

Sandra Wilkinson (Charlie Russell)

Possibly the vainest member of the cast and certainly the most flirtatious, her fictitious character is Dame Diana Rigg's niece2. She is used to being the female lead in every play and will frequently pose during scenes to get attention. In early productions she was in a relationship with Jonathan, unaware that Max was in love with her.

Max Bennett (Dave Hearn)

Of all the cast Max appears to enjoy being on stage the most and will frequently stop what he is doing to smile and wave at the audience – even if he is playing a corpse. However as he comes from a wealthy family that supports the drama society financially and has an aunt who purportedly 'runs the BBC' which led to the society's production of Peter Pan being televised, Chris is willing to put up with these lapses while still usually casting him in minor roles. As well as enjoying being on stage the other reason he is in the drama society is because he is madly in love with Sandra.

Annie Twilloil (Nancy Zamit)

In many ways Annie is the drama society's backbone. Quiet and unassuming, though fond of elaborate hand gestures, she is willing to take on any role as and when required. Not only in the cast but also back stage, for example being the company's often-needed first aider. She is highly supportive of the others, particularly taking Dennis under her wing. She is the least likely to cause chaos and confusion, but is often the victim of the others' incompetence.

Dennis Tyde (Jonathan Sayer)

Unlike the other cast members, Dennis never wanted to be an actor but joined the cast because no other club at Cornley Polytechnic would accept him. Nervous, he is completely unable to remember his lines but always remembers other people's, so if in a scene he dries and does not know what to say next, if prompted with his line he will respond with the line of the person he is conversing with, which often results in several lines being spoken by the wrong character. He also takes things very literally which can cause problems. For example as the Christmas episode begins broadcast he asks Chris, 'what noise does a reindeer make?' and being told 'now is not the time, Dennis'; later on in that episode when playing Rudolph, as Father Christmas climbs into the sleigh he indeed says 'now is not the time, Dennis'. He is the most likely to be cast as an animal.

Jonathan Harris (Greg Tannahill)

Another actor who was often cast as the young lead and is egotistical, particularly looking down on both Max and Dennis. He was in a passionate relationship with Sandra until she caught him kissing Annie on stage in the middle of a production, since when he has had more of a minor role. He frequently struggles with props on stage, especially finding it difficult to open doors.

Trevor Watson (Chris Leask)

Trevor is the stage manager who joined the drama society because he was studying electronics and needed credit on lighting and sound. When problems arise with the set Trevor appears on set and rush bull-headed into a way of fixing the immediate problem, even if it causes more subsequent problems as a result. As performances by the production often result in actors becoming incapacitated he has been known to stand in for the actual cast, flatly reading lines from a script.

Vanessa (Bryony Corrigan)

Vanessa appears to be the newest member of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, appearing in episodes of the Goes Wrong show. Like Sandra she is often cast in the lead female roles, particularly ones that involve singing, though she had been one of the stage crew during Peter Pan. Bryoney Corrigan had also played a BBC receptionist during A Christmas Carol, though this appears to have been a different character3.

Lucy Grove (Ellie Morris)

Robert's timid niece who he bullies into taking part in Peter Pan and A Christmas Carol despite her stage fright. She only briefly appears with a silent role in one episode of The Goes Wrong Show.

Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2016)

David Suchet Himself

Hercule Poirot
Jonathan HarrisPeter Pan
Sandra Wilkinson Wendy Darling
Chris BeanCaptain Hook
Mr Darling
Max BennettMichael Darling
Peter Pan
Dennis TydeJohn Darling
Mr Smee
Annie TwilloilMrs Darling
Liza, housemaid
Tiger Lily
Robert GroveNana
Peter Pan's Shadow
Lucy GroveTootles, lost boy
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)
Peter Pan

Real actor David Suchet hosts this live performance as the narrator, playing himself. As part of the BBC's commitment to support Community Theatre, and aided by the fact that Max's aunt works high up in the BBC, the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society's production of Peter Pan is being broadcast live. Unfortunately the cast are incompetent, particularly Dennis whose inability to remember his lines has resulted in his wearing a giant headset, the actors playing Peter and Wendy are having an affair and the increasingly dangerous prop malfunctions result in numerous members of the cast being incapacitated and in need of medical attention. While director Chris Bean insists that the play is a serious seasonal vignette, the audience insist on thinking of it as a pantomime and ruining it. Who believes in fairies?

A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong (2017)

Sir Derek JacobiHimself
Ebenezer Scrooge
Dame Diana RiggHerself
Chris Bean Ebenezer Scrooge
Robert Grove Ebenezer Scrooge
Spirit of Christmas Yet To Come
Tiny Tim
Sandra Wilkinson Belle
Mrs Cratchit
Max Bennett Ebenezer Scrooge
Ghost of Christmas Present
Annie TwilloilFrances, Scrooge's niece
Ghost of Christmas Past
Dennis Tyde Bob Cratchit
Jonathan Harris Jacob Marley
Lucy Grove Tiny Tim
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)

Following the disaster of the previous year's Peter Pan which led to a flood of letters of complaint that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society ruined Christmas, they have understandably been blacklisted by the BBC. They don't let this set-back stop them and instead plan to take over the BBC's live production of A Christmas Carol, which had been starring Sir Derek Jacobi. Will they be able to finish the whole play before the BBC's security remove them from the television studio?

Once again the cast's personalities sabotage the show from the start, with props failing and causing grievous injury. Robert, angry that Chris is playing Scrooge and 'would have to be totally incapacitated to pull out now', spends much of his time trying to knock Chris out, but none of his schemes injure the intended victim. Dennis again cannot remember his lines, which this time have been hastily written on props around the set, while Max believes that his girlfriend Sandra is about to break up with him.

The Goes Wrong Show (2019-20)

For The Goes Wrong Show, each week the Cornley Drama Society perform a 30-minute play live in front of cameras that broadcast it to the nation, only for various mishaps to occur, ensuring that the play goes wrong. Nevertheless the cast continue to perform as best they can. As these episodes are half-hour in length there is less time available for the cast's characters to interplay as in the Christmas specials.

'The Spirit of Christmas'

Robert Grove Father Christmas
Vanessa Belle, young upset girl
Chris Bean Snowman
Sandra Wilkinson Nistle, an elf & narrator
Jonathan Harris Nostle, elf stuck in the chimney
Max Bennett Lawrence, Belle's father
Annie TwilloilMaude, Belle's mother
Dennis Tyde Rudolph
Trevor Watson(Stage Manager)

On Christmas Eve a little girl called Belle builds a snowman but her parents are arguing while preparing the Christmas meal and trying to decorate the Christmas tree. This ends in her father storming out and Belle, worried, writes a letter to Father Christmas asking for his help, while sleeping in the lounge to wait for her father. Father Christmas is supposed to appear along with his two inseparable elves, Nistle and Nostle, however Nostle gets stuck in the chimney and never makes it onto the stage. Father Christmas brings a snowman to life, gives Belle a doll and uses the Magical Toy Machine to try and cheer her up before finally concluding that the only thing she really wanted was her family. Unfortunately an accident with the sherry dispenser results in Robert getting extremely drunk, Chris' snowman costume is destroyed by the Magical Toy Machine, there are only half the number of elves on stage as should be and the crackers really do explode!

This is the only musical play in the first series, with songs 'Dear Santa, Can You Help Me?' containing more key changes than is comprehensible, 'We're Nistle and Nostle' being a two-person song and dance routine only able to be performed by Nistle, 'Ho Ho Ho, Hee Hee Hee (A New Friend's On His Way' with Tommy Blaize playing the singer and 'I'm A Snowy Old Snowman' sung as the snowman is caught up inside the mechanism of the Magical Toy Machine. It was the last to be made but first broadcast due to being shown just before Christmas.

'The Pilot' (Not the Pilot)

Chris Bean Lieutenant Rufus James Heal, former pilot and Head of Caraway House
Sandra Wilkinson Corporal Valerie Sky, codebreaker
Vanessa Camille LeClaire, French codebreaker
Max Bennett Moncrieffe, spycatcher
Annie TwilloilWing Commander Wycombe
Robert Grove Adolf Hitler
Jonathan Harris Winston Churchill
Dennis Tyde Telegram Fax Machine
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)

This is the first play recorded though the second to be broadcast in the UK. It is emphasised that this is not the pilot episode of the series, but in fact an episode about a pilot. This particular play was chosen despite its reputation for historical inaccuracies. The setting? February 1961, during the Second World Vietnam War when Britain is alone at war with Nazi Germany and being attacked by German aircraft. The only way for Britain to win the war is for the codebreakers at Caraway House to crack the German code. Yet is there a German spy at Caraway House? Will Winston Churchill be caught with his trousers down? Where exactly is the heart of France?

'A Trial to Watch'

Dennis Tyde Carl McKennon, defence lawyer
Chris Bean Jack Inwood, defendant
Vanessa Becky Sandhurst, prosecution lawyer & Carl's ex wife
Robert Grove Justice Shawcroft, judge
Max Bennett Nigel Terence Inwood, victim
Annie TwilloilAngela Inwood, Nigel's wife
Sandra Wilkinson Professor Imogen Winterbottom, pathologist
Jonathan Harris Henry Brown, reporter
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)
Lucy Grove Juror (silent)

Lawyer Carl McKennon is defending Jack Inwood, on trial for the murder of his brother, while his ex-wife is the prosecution. The play involves four sets – the Inwood's home, a gymn and the autopsy lab, and the main trial set. Unfortunately due to a mix up in which the main set's measurements in inches was constructed in centimetres, the set is technically too small for the cast to fit in. This was inspired by real events when the cast performed on Broadway, when a prop was asked for and because it was to be used in the US the measurements were given in inches when the US prop makers assumed that, because the cast was British, they meant centimetres. As the play progresses problems with the sets get increasingly worse while having Dennis in a major role is a recipe for disaster…

'The Lodge'

Vanessa Emma, Alice's mother looking for a new home
Chris Bean David, Emma's husband and Alice's father
Robert Grove Albert Fortenoy, owner selling the Lodge
Max Bennett Tony, estate agent trying to sell the Lodge
Annie TwilloilAlice, Emma and David's 7-year-old daughter
Sandra Wilkinson Vera Fortenoy, Albert's deceased wife
Dennis Tyde Stag Head
Jonathan Harris Policeman
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)

A horror story set in a remote house in 1961. Unfortunately due to the play underrunning the script is lengthened by subtly inserting adjectives into the dialogue, for example in the sentence, How odd, strange, bizarre and weird. She must have found it in the spacious, impressive, verdant, green garden surrounding the unusual, creepy, old, big, large blue house.. The prop doors fail to work, with the cast unable to access the kitchen, using the prop stair lift has its ups and downs and Dennis has one line in the whole play, but no idea when to say it.

'Harper's Locket'

Sandra Wilkinson Celeste Fennick, woman engaged to Edwin
Chris Bean Baron Edwin Graves
Robert Grove Bernard Fennick, Celeste & Emily's father
Annie TwilloilEmily Fennick, Celeste's sister
Max Bennett Harper, stable boy
Dennis Tyde Treacle, a horse
Jonathan Harris Smythe, butler
Vanessa Mrs Smythe, housemaid
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)

In the 18th Century the Fennick family are celebrating Celeste's engagement to Edwin, however she loves Harper, the stable boy. Edwin is only interested in Celeste for her dowry and plans to frame Harper for the theft of a pound note. Once again the play turns into an unmitigated disaster, particularly the dining scene and the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society realise quite why they should never work with each other or animals while discovering there's no place like home.

'90 Degrees'

Max Bennett Larry Burgess, Herb's faithful son
Sandra Wilkinson Barbara Burgess, Larry's greedy sister
Dennis Tyde Buddy Burgess, Larry's vulnerable brother
Chris Bean Herb Burgess, their dying father
Vanessa Renee Burgess, Buddy's gold-digging wife
Robert Grove Ronald Pines, family lawyer
Annie TwilloilMelinda, family maid
Jonathan Harris Neighbour Joe
Trevor Watson (Stage Manager)

Set in Tennessee, with the title referring to the ceaseless, all-pervading heat, Herb Burgess, the owner of Burgess Fine Tea, is dying. His three children gather hoping to see who will inherit the business. Only Larry seems to care about his father but is he the naïve target for his more manipulative relatives? How do Americans pronounce the word 'beer'? Unfortunately the set designers mis-interpreted the words '90 Degrees' seen on the set designs and built the sets at 90° to each other, so that while the living room set is normal, another room is perpendicular so all the horizontals such as the floor were built vertically and the bedroom set was constructed upside-down.

Goes Wrong is So Right

The productions of the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society are all to date the very highest standard of televised comedy in the play-within-a-play genre. Whether your sense of humour tends towards character drama, slapstick or witty wordplay then there is something for you to enjoy and genuine surprises around every corner. For while it is apparent that any production they perform will go horrendously wrong, it is impossible to predict just how.

1Please note that in their live productions, particularly touring especially in America, these characters are often played by other actors.2Diana Rigg appeared in A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong.3Although if it was the character of Vanessa working for the BBC while secretly a member of Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society and letting them have copies of the BBC script and sneaking them in, it would explain how the Cornely Polytechnic Drama Society managed to so successfully infiltrate the show.

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