Whose Line Is It Anyway? (British TV series)

Whose Line is it Anyway? (shortened to Whose Line? or WLIIA) is a short-form improvisational comedy television show created by Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson, and hosted by Clive Anderson. Beginning as a BBC radio programme, it was successfully adapted for television after its acquisition by Channel 4, and aired ten series from 23 September 1988 to 4 February 1999.

Whose Line is it Anyway?
GenreImprovisational comedy
Created byDan Patterson
Mark Leveson
Presented byClive Anderson
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original language(s)English
No. of series10
No. of episodes136 (list of episodes)
Production location(s)
Running time30 minutes (inc. adverts)
50 minutes (Christmas special)
Production company(s)Hat Trick Productions
Original networkChannel 4
Picture format4:3
Original release23 September 1988 (1988-09-23) –
4 February 1999 (1999-02-04)
Related showsWhose Line Is It Anyway? (radio series)
Whose Line Is It Anyway? (American TV series)

Whose Line? consists of a panel of four performers who create characters, scenes or songs on the spot in the style of short-form improvisation games, based on topics either prompted from audience suggestions or predetermined by the host. The show's participants consisted of a rotating cast of noted comedians from Britain, Canada and the United States, including Stephen Fry, Paul Merton, Ryan Stiles, John Sessions, Colin Mochrie, Josie Lawrence, Greg Proops, Tony Slattery, Mike McShane, Wayne Brady, and Jim Sweeney.

The success of Whose Line? spawned several domestic and international adaptations. An American version aired on ABC between 1998 and 2007 and was revived on The CW in 2013, and is broadcast in multiple countries.[1] Whose Line Is It Anyway? Australia debuted on The Comedy Channel in 2016.[2][3] Two similarly-themed British comedy programmes, Mock the Week (2005) and Fast and Loose (2011), were created by Patterson.[4]


A frame from one of the opening sequences for Whose Line?, used from 1994 to 1998

In 1988, Dan Patterson and Mark Leveson came up with the concept for the show, revolving around games focused on creating improvisational comedy, using a group of performers. As part of their concept, Patterson and Leveson devised the show's title as a comedic riposte to a radio programme that had recently moved to television at the time, What's My Line, merged with the title of a 1972 teleplay (and eventual theatrical play) Whose Life Is It Anyway?. After pitching it to the BBC, the show was given the green light to run as a radio programme on BBC Radio 4 - this early incarnation ran for six episodes, with Clive Anderson as host, and both John Sessions and Stephen Fry as the programme's regulars.[5] During its run, the show's creators decided to adopt the approach used by an earlier BBC radio show, I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again - rather than having the show's credit read out by a traditional BBC Radio announcer, the performers in each episode were tasked with doing this themselves, but in an amusing, comedic style.

Following the end of the radio series, Patterson and Leveson began discussions with the BBC on creating a televised adaption of their concept. However, the broadcaster was hesitant on making the move and delayed making a decision until after further debate on the matter, leading to Channel 4, who eagerly liked the idea, making an offer during this time that the pair accepted.[6] Believing the adaptation of the radio show would become a hit, the first series of Whose Line was arranged to feature a total of thirteen episodes, which is uncommon in the UK as most TV series in their first year often begin with just six episodes. The move to television came with an immediate problem - although the adaptation was aimed at maintaining the same regular cast as the radio show alongside a rotation of guest performers, Fry had begun to dislike performing improvisational comedy and opted to pull out of the show before filming began, leaving Sessions, convinced by him, to remain as a regular performer for the first series.[6]

Whose Line was a success, effectively helping with the careers of its regular performers, Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence, and Tony Slattery, and was boosted by the introduction of Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie, and Greg Proops, reaching its peak by the end of the sixth series.[6] The latter halves of the third and fourth series were filmed in New York, while the tenth series was filmed entirely at the Raleigh Studios in Hollywood.

By the end of the tenth series, having run for 136 episodes between 1988 and 1999,[7] Channel 4 decided to axe the programme following the eventual slump in the show's viewing figures.[6] Reruns of Whose Line continued following its cancellation, though with episodes edited and reformatted as a result. The format itself was later picked up by ABC, after Stiles introduced Whose Line to Drew Carey, who subsequently pitched an American version of the same name to the TV network with great success.

On 6 March 2011, over twelve years after the series finale, a special edition of the show was recorded for "24 Hour Panel People", a marathon of UK panel shows, in aid of Comic Relief. The recording was broadcast live on the Comic Relief website at about 9:30am, while the edited compilation shows for the event were shown between 13–17 March on BBC Three. Alongside Anderson hosting the show, the format was adjusted to feature five performers, and featured performances by Humphrey Ker, Josie Lawrence, Neil Mullarkey, Tony Slattery and David Walliams.[8]

In 2017, a stage-version of the show appeared at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with some members of the original cast.[9] The initial shows were a sell-out and extra dates and shows were put on. Sell-out runs followed at the London Palladium and The Royal Albert Hall.[10][11][12] In April 2019, it was announced that the stage-version of the show would be returning to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with Tony Slattery returning as one of the original cast members.[13]


Most television episodes of Whose Line Is It Anyway? featured four performers (with an exception of six in a 1989 Christmas special) who sit in a line of chairs at the back of the stage. The host sat at a desk facing the large performance area in front of the performers. The host introduced each performer with a joke or pun, usually all related on a common theme or topic.

The show is made up of games that are scored by the host, who declared arbitrary point values after the game, often citing a humorous reason for his decision. The points are purely decorative, served no practical purpose, and were often awarded to audience members or other arbitrary third persons. The style of the games are varied (see Games, below). Some feature all four performers, while others feature fewer. The performers who are not involved in a game remain in their seats at the back of the stage. Humorous banter between the host and the performers between games is also sometimes featured.

At the conclusion of each episode, a winner or several winners are chosen arbitrarily by the host. The "prize" for winning the show is to read the credits in a certain style, chosen by the host, as they scrolled.

Episodes were culled down from longer recording sessions with the best game performances chosen to compile into one or more episodes. Each series includes one or two compilation shows of unaired games from different taping sessions in that series.


The number and type of games played vary from episode to episode, and whilst some games such as "Questions Only" and "Hoedown" became more common over time, others such as "Authors" and "Remote Control" faded from use. New games were created throughout the show's run. Some games, such as "Tag," are based on traditional improv games, while others are uniquely created for the series. Most games consist of a single long skit performed by the chosen performers, but some, such as "World's Worst" and "Scenes from a Hat," are played as a rapid-fire series of short skits.

While all games are designed to test the performer's improvisational skill, some also test other skills, such as singing or doing impressions. Whose Line? features a number of musical games, which feature one or more of the show's resident musicians playing live backing music. Occasionally, pre-recorded music is also used. While they were good sports about it, many of the performers despised the musical games. In one episode, Stephen Fry is asked to perform a rap, and starts to do so halfheartedly, but gives up after a few words, and Ryan Stiles would frequently inject insults into the Hoedown whenever he is forced to sing it, usually pointed at the host or the Hoedown itself. Colin Mochrie would generally speak his lines instead of singing them for musical games.

Some games require suggestions or topics. Depending on the game, these may be solicited directly from the studio audience during the taping, or written down by the audience and/or production staff in advance and then randomly drawn for the performers' use. The host uses a buzzer to signal the end of a game, or of individual sections in the rapid-fire games.


SeriesEpisodesOriginally aired
First airedLast aired
11323 September 1988 (1988-09-23)16 December 1988 (1988-12-16)
21710 November 1989 (1989-11-10)16 March 1990 (1990-03-16)
31718 January 1991 (1991-01-18)10 May 1991 (1991-05-10)
41324 January 1992 (1992-01-24)17 April 1992 (1992-04-17)
595 March 1993 (1993-03-05)30 April 1993 (1993-04-30)
6111 July 1994 (1994-07-01)6 January 1995 (1995-01-06)
71228 July 1995 (1995-07-28)26 December 1995 (1995-12-26)
81412 July 1996 (1996-07-12)24 December 1996 (1996-12-24)
91910 July 1997 (1997-07-10)19 September 1998 (1998-09-19)
101111 November 1998 (1998-11-11)4 February 1999 (1999-02-04)


The original BBC Radio 4 broadcasts consists of host Clive Anderson along with two guests and the two regular contestants, Stephen Fry and John Sessions. Clive Anderson stayed on as host when the show moved to television, with John Sessions resuming his role as the only regular in the first series. He subsequently became a rotating regular in the second and third series. However he appears only twice in the third series, these being his final appearances. Stephen Fry appears only occasionally on the television series.

Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie first appear in the second and third series respectively; they each gradually increase the frequency of their appearances to the point that both appear in every episode from the eighth series on. Stiles is the most prolific performer on the show, having appeared in 92 of the series' 136 episodes (including compilations). Wayne Brady, who became a regular on the US version, appears in the final UK series for five episodes, including compilations.

Many of the show's performers, including Paul Merton, Josie Lawrence and Sandi Toksvig, were regulars with The Comedy Store Players, an improvisational group based at London's Comedy Store. Other regular performers from the British version include a variety of British, American, and Canadian comedians such as Greg Proops, Tony Slattery, Mike McShane, Stephen Frost, Brad Sherwood, Chip Esten and Jim Sweeney. The series also occasionally features celebrities in the fourth chair, such as Peter Cook, George Wendt, and Jonathan Pryce.

On the original BBC Radio series, the music was provided by Colin Sell, but when the show migrated to television, Richard Vranch (also of The Comedy Store Players) became the resident musician until the last series of the British show, playing electric guitar and piano and other instruments. For the tenth series in Hollywood, Laura Hall took over, playing mainly keyboards, and went on to be the in-house musician for the American series.

DVD releaseEdit

The first release of the UK show, featuring the first two series, was released on DVD in America on 27 March 2007 by A&E Home Entertainment, and in the UK on 25 January 2008 by Channel 4. The UK edition is edited to remove references to the ad breaks. Also, British episodes were released on VHS (in the UK only) in the mid-1990s. Additionally, a play-at-home book was printed in 1989, related to the British series.

Almost all of the UK versions (135 of 136 episodes) of Whose Line Is It Anyway? are available for free to those living in the UK on All 4.[14]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Szalai, Georg (12 September 2017). "'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' Sells to India, Australia". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  2. ^ "Whose Line Is It Anyway? Announced For Australia With Tommy Little As Host". Token. 2016. Retrieved 4 July 2016.
  3. ^ "The Comedy Channel commissions format for Australia audiences and signs series host Tommy Little". The Comedy Channel. 9 June 2016. Retrieved 4 July 2016.
  4. ^ Sweney, Mark (10 May 2015). "Channel 4's hit comedy Whose Line Is It Anyway to return as live stage show". The Guardian. Retrieved 3 November 2018.
  5. ^ Lavalie, John (14 May 2005). "Whose Line is It Anyway? [Radio]". epguides.com. Retrieved 28 January 2008.
  6. ^ a b c d Magnus Donaldson. "Whose Line Is It Anyway?". Retrieved 12 September 2018.
  7. ^ Fergus, George (14 May 2005). "Whose Line(UK)". epguides.com. Retrieved 28 January 2008.
  8. ^ "BBC - Red Nose Day 2011 - Schedule". Retrieved 5 March 2011.
  9. ^ Guide, British Comedy. "Whose Line Is It Anyway? - Edinburgh Fringe 2017". British Comedy Guide. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  10. ^ "Video: 'Whose Line Is It Anyway?' enjoying Fringe success". www.scotsman.com. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  11. ^ "Whose Line Is It Anyway? Live at the Fringe". Edinburgh Festival. Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  12. ^ Stephen, Phyllis (6 March 2019). "Whose Line is it Anyway? Live at the Fringe – tickets on sale now". Retrieved 2 May 2019.
  13. ^ Freeman, Hadley (29 April 2019). "Tony Slattery: 'I had a very happy time until I went slightly barmy'". Retrieved 2 May 2019 – via www.theguardian.com.
  14. ^ Wolf, Ian (20 December 2007). "News - 4oD comedy goes permanently free". British Sitcom Guide. Retrieved 3 January 2008.

External linksEdit