Monday, June 15, 2020


The most excruciating prank show ever made: meet the survivors of Marc Wootton's My New Best Friend

In 2003, a Channel 4 hidden camera show asked contestants to spend 48 hours with the worst people imaginable. They're still recovering today

By Tom Fordy The Telegraph

Imagine finding yourself in the middle of this scenario. It’s a pre-lockdown Saturday, you’re out and about, and you bump into an old pal. He tags along for the weekend, but this pal is, to put it bluntly, an absolute bloody nightmare.

To the bewilderment of your regular friends, he proceeds to embarrass you in ways you never imagined possible: he starts arguments; pushes the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour; professes his love for you in a roomful of people; or even reveals that you’re secretly gay (which is news to you, never mind anyone else).

After forcing you into a series of misadventures – including but not limited to: resigning from your job, committing a crime in fancy dress, performing a one-person sex show – he meets your family, at which point your nightmare pal drops a few bombshells of taboo-busting codswallop on mum and dad.

You’re eloping to the Falklands. You’re being followed by the FBI. You’re starring in an adult film. You’re getting a taste for cannibalism.

Except, the old pal isn’t an old pal at all. It’s Marc Wootton in one of his many comedy guises. And there’s £10,000 up for grabs. To win it, you have to spend the weekend with Wootton in-character, convince your nearest and dearest that he’s an actual friend, and go along with everything he says and does – no matter how ridiculous.

That was the premise of Wootton’s hidden camera show My New Best Friend, which aired on Channel 4 in 2003. For the contestants, it was an endurance test of extreme awkwardness; for those watching at home, it was outrageously funny. But best watched through your fingers.

“It probably worked because of my innate ability to be quite irritating,” laughs Marc Wootton. “No, I’m not that bad really…”

Wootton – also known as Mr Poppy from the Nativity movies – has long been a master of toying with people while in-character. As psychic Shirley Ghostman, he held spoof séances; in the mockumentary Cyderdelic, he led a trio of new age idiots out into the public to begin a revolution; and in La La Land, Wootton took an entourage of his characters to Los Angeles to meet unsuspecting Americans.

“I like playing with people,” says Wootton. “What My New Best Friend gave me as a format was this way of making a Faustian pact with someone – where they are engaging in a game that they want to play. Not for life changing money, but car changing money. I remember having big discussions with Channel 4 about the money. It was a lot higher at first but I wanted to bring it down.”

Indeed, the £10,000 prize is the sort of cash that's worth playing along for, but not so much that contestants couldn’t walk away if things got too wild.

Co-written by Wootton and regular collaborator Liam Woodman, My New Best Friend was perhaps the perfect show for early Noughties TV zeitgeist: after David Brent and The Office, cringe comedy was at its peak; the 11 O’Clock Show and Trigger Happy TV had been winding-up the public; and reality shows were searching for new concepts to squeeze ordinary people into uncomfortable situations.

Contestants for My New Best Friend were carefully chosen and a top class team of researchers put to work. Even friends and family were closely researched.

There was a moral obligation to ensure everyone was mentally and emotionally capable of being pushed and prodded by Wootton (“I don’t like preying on anyone weak or vulnerable,” he says). Wootton and his team also had to be sure that everyone dragged into the joke was likely to see the funny side afterwards. Otherwise, the entire episode would be scrapped.

“It’s like when you play a practical joke,” says Wootton. “Some folk don’t find it funny. It would be awful to ridicule them and show the world. And what’s so delicate about making a show like that is there’s so much money at stake. You’ve got all the crew in little boxes and cupboards and lots of remote cameras. You’ve paid for that, you’ve done your research, and you’re counting on the whole thing working.”

Former contestant and celebrity psychic Tiffany Wardle recalls spending two weeks with researchers, who harangued her with endless questions about her social life and habits. Another contestant, Matt Walsh, took undercover researchers out for drinks with his friends.

“They were acting as my family from the north,” says Walsh. “The deceit started well before the filming.”

Contestants weren't told their new best friend would be a comedy creation (“They were just told someone was going to be parachuted into their life,” says Wootton). Until the day before filming, all Matt knew was that it was "a show about keeping a secret".

But Tiffany had an inkling of the kind of person who might show up. 

“I was 23 and a bit naïve,” she says, “but I definitely knew that earning £10,000 over two days wasn’t going to be easy. They were asking me, ‘What’s your type? Do you like someone clean shaven? Is it someone tall and handsome?’ So I knew they’d show up with someone who was the opposite of those things. But I had no idea the level of crazy…”

Indeed, Tiffany’s new best friend was Daniel – needy, lank-haired, and supremely irritating.

“I remember when I first saw him it was an instant feeling of, ‘Oh my god, this is going to be crazier than I thought!’” she says. “He started talking about how he had screws in his brain. I had to just smile through it, thinking, ‘This is on another level.’ I had to act along immediately.”

My New Best Friend was about creating an imperfect match. Based on the research, Wootton and Liam Woodman would find the contestant’s Achilles heel and craft a bespoke irritant who would test them to the extreme.

“More often than not, we tailor-made each character,” Wootton says. “It was like a factory line. We’d go to the basement at the production company Tiger Aspect, and I’d pace about in character, improvising, and trying different accents. We were playing around and making ourselves laugh, but also really thinking about who this person is and what their reaction will be to this character coming into their life.”

Wootton remained in-character for the whole weekend and even stayed overnight. Contestants were forced to play along at all times, even when it was just the two of them – a concept sure to upset anyone whose life is ruled (as mine is) by the traditionally British dread of social awkwardness.

Much more than just pulling out a bag of patience-testing tricks (though Wootton has plenty of those across six episodes: ditching real-life friends in annoying places; incessant singing; sticking his fingers in other people’s food; keeping them awake all night), each episode would play out with its own narrative, usually peaking with ridiculous behaviour at parties or family meals. If contestants could survive that final get-together, they get the cash.

First contestant is posho lad’s lad Tim, who finds himself paired with the ultra-camp Stevie. Tim’s immediately embarrassed by Stevie in front of his macho, testosterone-fuelled chums.

“Trust me mate, I haven’t shagged him,” Tim jokes about Stevie to a pal, trying to both play along and distance himself. Twenty-four hours later, Tim – under Stevie’s orders – has come out as gay and is performing a solo sex dance.

There’s a tense moment when Tim hosts a casino part and his brother almost throws Wootton/Stevie out. “He got really angry. I could feel it in the room,” recalls Wootton. “I’ve always managed to talk my way out these things as the character.”

By Wootton's own admission, playing Stevie as ultra-camp and forcing Tim to pretend to be gay – in contrast to his lairy, red-blooded mates – seems crass or obvious. But it gets under their skin beautifully – an example of how astute My New Best Friend was, by examining behaviour under pressure.

Next to the casually misogynistic and homophobic banter being thrown around that casino party, Stevie doesn’t seem like such a bad best friend after all.

But Matt Walsh would come face-to-face with Wootton’s most terrifying creation – trust fund sociopath Sasha. “I remember it vividly, second-by-second,” says Walsh about meeting Sasha. “It was cringe-worthy and terrible. I was told to go about my day and at some point during the day, Sasha would introduce himself with the words ‘hello stranger’. I had to click into character and pass him off as a friend I used to do martial arts with.”

Walsh remembers trying to manage all kinds of bad behaviour that didn’t make the edit: Sasha throwing money at builders (“I was thinking, ‘They’re going to kick the s––– out of him!’”), insulting people in the street, and toying with Walsh when it was just the two of them.

Walsh tried to chat casually out of character, by asking Wootton, "How did you get into this, mate?" (he meant acting). Sasha fired back: “Get into what, you f–––––– idiot?”

“It was just abuse!” Walsh laughs. “He was really trying to push my buttons. He was good at it. I really did want to throw him out of the window.”

Walsh had made the mistake of saying he likes to “tick all the boxes” on his application. Sasha used it against him and led Matt on an odyssey of box-ticking japes, including breaking into a car and posing for photos at the crime scene – while wearing a dress and lipstick, with tampons stuffed up his nose.

“Breaking into cars might have been on Sasha’s list of boxes to tick but it wasn’t on mine," says Walsh. "The car window wasn’t breaking – the brick was bouncing off it. I was thinking, ‘Is it this a prop? Is this guy actually bonkers? Is this one of my neighbours’ cars?!’"

It’s the only episode that doesn’t go the distance: Matt would pull out of the game during a meal with his mum and sister, after Sasha promises to take Matt to a Philippines holiday resort where you can eat women off a gib.

“I kept leaving the table,” says Walsh. “I was calling the production team saying, 'This is going to end badly, you need to tone it down.' When I came back the final time, it had kicked off. My mum was crying.”

Even for Wootton, putting family members through the ringer during those scenes was tough. “They’d always be the most difficult,” he says. “I’m aware of how crazy this sounds, but when you’re in it you just want to get to the end and say, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK! We’re not really going to elope! Your son’s not really being followed by the FBI!’ I’d get really anxious from feeling bad and I’d want them to have that pressure release.”

Of all the contestants, Tiffany Wardle best handles Wootton’s in-character antics. She recalls being less phased by the family meal, because it was too far fetched: as Daniel, Wootton claims they’re planning to marry and join a cult (“Though my sister was quite upset when she thought I was moving to the Falklands!” she laughs). The hardest part was colluding to trick her friends.

In the episode, Daniel sabotages a party at Tiffany’s house: he recites poetry, proposes, and corners her friends with accusations of sexual advances. It’s soul-curdling levels of awkward.

“I wasn’t bothered about me,” says Tiffany. “I was more bothered about my friends because they took it to a level that I wouldn’t have – just to see their faces, that was awful for me. All they were doing was coming to my party. But you’re putting them on TV and hoodwinking them. It was getting over that feeling of, ‘What have I done to all my friends?!’ One of my friends said afterwards they felt a bit used for the show. Well, so did I actually – but on a much larger scale!”

While most of Tiffany's friends are rightly disturbed by Daniel in the episode, a feisty pal called Mairead – who absolutely steals the show – is unimpressed and challenges Daniel. Tiffany recalls that Mairead stuffed a bouquet flowers in the bin and chased Wootton down the street – scenes that didn’t make the edit.

Wootton tells me that friends would be let in on the joke immediately afterwards to relieve any worries – unless they were great comedy fodder, in which case they might be brought back for more scenes.

Watched in 2020, our tolerance for recoiling with extreme awkwardness – to the point of almost climbing the walls with pure, unfettered cringe – may have lowered. Mine certainly has. I had to take breaks re-watching some episodes. My New Best Friend is hilarious; it’s also utterly excruciating.

But it's also an incredible, steely-nerved performance from Wootton – a long-form improvisation that requires him to react to real conversation (and be sharply funny at all times), remember where all the cameras and mics are hidden, and lead contestants through the story. “As a performer you’ve got to keep people in the game,” he says. “You can’t allow anyone to stop. If they stop, they’re going to look round and see what’s going on.”

The closest Wootton came to being caught out was during a moment when a friend of a contestant called Sam – harassed by Wootton as a Single White Female-style stalker – opened a microwave and found a hidden camera. “It felt like everything stopped,” says Wootton. “But Sam said brilliantly, ‘Oh that’s my camera equipment – I keep it in the microwave.’ His friend just shut the door and didn’t think anything of it. I kept my eye on this girl for the rest of the night trying to figure out if she knew.”

Matt Walsh says he needed a good drink after the experience, but held a party to watch the broadcast of his episode at a local pub. As for duping and upsetting his family, “It took a while to get the trust back,” he says. "We have a little laugh about it now and again."

Tiffany recuperated and later bumped into Wootton out-of-character. Wootton also recalls bumping into poor Tim a few years later. “He kind of came out in a bit of a rash,” says Wootton. “I felt really bad! I tried to explain in real life I’m not that guy!”

My New Best Friend only lasted one series, but the same team has adapted and updated the concept for Gooseberry, a new pilot which has been made for Comedy Central in the US.

Playing a character called Noodle, Wootton hijacks a couple’s weekend in Los Angeles. The girlfriend is in on it, but the boyfriend isn’t. It's toned down, but the results are just as funny and candid. The format still taps into something innately voyeuristic and scandalous.

“It’s peeping through our fingers, watching, and curtain twitching,” says Wootton. “'Something dramatic is happening, let’s have a look!’ It’s always going to be there. It’s part of our psyche.”

My New Best Friend is available on All4

Thursday, June 27, 2019


Marc Wootton makes hidden camera show in the US
With Sacha Baron Cohen

Marc Wootton is piloting an improvised hidden camera show with Sacha Baron Cohen, Chortle can reveal.

Currently filming in Los Angeles, Gooseberry has been conceived as an anthology series of action comedies that play out entirely in the real world and is described as 'an audacious collision of comic thriller and immersive theatre'.

Baron Cohen is executive producer on the show, which is being made for Comedy Central in the US through his production company Four By Two Films. Lionsgate, makers of Orange Is The New Black, are co-producers.

The pilot has been created and written by Wootton with director and longtime collaborator Misha Manson-Smith, who previously directed him in 2010's La La Land, another LA-set prank show which co-starred Julian Barrett and aired on Showtime in the US and BBC Three in the UK.

Wootton and Manson-Smith also worked together on the BBC Three  comedies High Spirits With Shirley Ghostman and My New Best Friend, both of which involved pranking members of the public.

Dan Swimer, long-time writing partner of Simon Amstell also executive produces alongside Kara Welker, producer of The Whitest Kids U'Know sketch show, and Manson-Smith.

Manson-Smith posted an Instagram photo of himself with Wootton in Venice, California during filming.

Speaking to the New York Times about La La Land in 2010, Manson-Smith said that Los Angeles was perfect for Wootton's pushy, over-confident creations because 'it’s a mecca for real people who would be as exciting as Marc’s characters'.

Wootton's first television appearance was on Channel 4's The 11 O'Clock Show after Baron Cohen had left the programme to make Da Ali G Show. 

Some reviewers criticised La La Land, which featured Wootton's best known creation, fake psychic Shirley Ghostman, alongside wannabe actor Gary Garner and documentary filmmaker Brendan Allen, as a pale imitation of Baron Cohen's work after his Stateside success with Borat and Bruno.

Wootton’s last series was the scripted High And Dry, about plane crash survivors on a desert island, for Channel 4.

- by Jay Richardson 


Huge thanks to Pascale Lane for these fabulous photos of her with Marc taken yesterday at the Museum of Comedy in London. 

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


Catch Brand new Marc on BBC Radio 4 11pm tonight...

Episode 1

Date Night

Semi-improvised comedy show written and performed by Marc Wootton with Catherine Tate, Monica Dolan, Katherine Parkinson, Hammed Animashaun, Ellie White and Jamie Demetriou. Together they portray a series of couples all embracing the modern phenomenon of date night.

DATE NIGHT, noun: A pre-arranged occasion when a couple who have been together for a long time commit to a regular night out in order to keep their relationship alive.

The series follows a collection of couples who are desperately trying to keep their relationship functioning by creating a weekly date night intervention. For some, the relationship is already broken, for others it's their pre-emptive strike in the hope of new-found longevity. More often than not, the stakes are high, involving children, careers and homes.

Date Night is written and created by Marc Wootton whose previous credits include High & Dry (Ch4), La La Land (Showtime), Shirley Ghostman (BBC) and My New Best Friend (Ch4).

Richard/Barry/Patrick/Terry ….. Marc Wootton
Maddy ….. Katherine Parkinson
Rita ….. Ellie White
Carol ….. Monica Dolan
Terri ….. Catherine Tate
Narrator ...... Fi Glover

Sound Designers: David Chilton and Lucinda Mason Brown
Assistant Producer: James Peak
Producer: Anna Madley

A Black Hat production for BBC Radio 4

Monday, December 17, 2018


Looking For Oil Drum Lane

If you missed it listen again now: HERE

Looking for Oil Drum Lane Drama A dramatisation of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson's comedy writing partnership - from Tony Hancock's departure to striking gold with Steptoe and Son. Starring Marc Wootton, Phil Cornwell, Barry Castagnola, James Hurn and Toby Longworth. 

Weaving comedy archive and newly written scenes, the show follows the tortuous search for Oil Drum Lane, the fictional address of Steptoe and Son. Ray Galton and Alan Simpson met in a tuberculosis sanatorium in 1948. They became friends through a shared passion for radio comedy. To amuse themselves, they broadcast their own sketches over the hospital radio. After sending their material to famous comedy writers of the day Denis Norden and Frank Muir, Alan and Ray were encouraged to post some scripts to the BBC. An unexpectedly positive response left the fledgling writers ecstatic. Soon they became regular sketch writers for the BBC. They met Tony Hancock and rose to the top of their profession. But when Hancock decided to go it alone Galton and Simpson were devastated and left high and dry. The team was then commissioned by the colourful head of light entertainment at the BBC, Tom Sloane, to write ten comedy plays - but the loss of Hancock generated an impenetrable writer's block - until they hammered out a pilot sit-com that became Steptoe and Son. 

Ray Galton........................................Marc Wootton 
Alan Simpson...................................Barry Castagnola
Tony Hancock/Wilfred Brambell......James Hurn 
Harry H Corbett...............................Phil Cornwell 
Tom Sloan........................................Ian Pearce 
Duncan Wood..................................Toby Longworth 

Other parts were played by the cast Written by Ian Pearce Script Editor - Nick Romero Directed and Produced by Andrew McGibbon

Friday, December 14, 2018


Marc was delighted to once again be a guest at the first Great Ormond Street Christmas party the "Snow Ball" in London today as Mr Poppy alongside Spice Girl Emma Bunton, Stephen Mulhern, and Nick Grimshaw and GBBO stars as part of the 12 days of #GoshXmas.

Monday, November 26, 2018


Last night saw a Nighty Night reunion, screening and Q and A at the BFI as part of their BFI comedy season

l-r Marc Wootton Felicity Montagu, Justin Johnson, Ruth Jones, Mark Gatiss, Julia Davis, Kevin Eldon, Angus Deayton

Justin Johnson of the BFI said: 

"Huge standing ovation and such an enjoyable evening reuniting the cast of Nighty Night @bfi with plenty of mashed prawns in their own basket. Thanks to Julia Davis, Mark Gatiss Kevin Eldon Ruth Jones Felicity Montagu Angus Deayton Marc Wootton #BFIComedy"

Monday, November 05, 2018


Marc will be at the BFI again this month for the Nighty Night screening and Q&A.

Some tickets just released for this sold out Nighty Night event on Sun 25th November 2018. 

Guests just announced include Julia Davis, Angus Deayton, Mark Gatiss Kevin Eldon Felicity Montagu

For more info click HERE

BBC-Baby Cow 2004-2005
With Julia Davis, Rebecca Front, Angus Deayton, Ruth Jones
Series 1 168min (plus interval)

"Jill’s husband is very ill. So ill, in fact, that it’s time for her to go out and find a new partner while he selfishly clings on to life in the local hospital. Should it be Glen, a frugal man with a colourful tic, or next door neighbour Don, who meets her criteria but has a wife in tow? In manipulative sociopath Jill Tyrrell, Julia Davis has created a hilariously disruptive character."  J Johnson