How A League of Their Own scored a BAFTA-winning formula for Sky One
It’s often remarked upon how a successful drama can help define a channel’s fortunes. Probably less mentioned is the ability of a successful panel show to shape perceptions of a channel and build a loyal audience, but it’s no less true.
Long-running shows like Taskmaster on Dave, Celebrity Juice on ITV2 and Eight Out of 10 Cats does Countdown on Channel 4 have racked up no fewer than 46 series between them (not including specials).
Huge hits in their own right, they also brilliantly capture the essence - well, some of it anyway - of the channel on which they appear.
Another of these panel show giants returns this week, in the shape of Sky One’s A League of Their Own, fresh from its triumph at this year’s BAFTA awards.
And there’s a change in formation for this, its 14th series, with presenter James Corden passing the baton to a guest host on six of the eight episodes because of other work commitments.
Clare Balding and Amanda Holden will be among those in the guest presenter’s chair, along with familiar faces from the show’s past and present including David Walliams and Jack Whitehall.
“James loves doing the show but this time he had a commitment he was unable to get out of, so we thought what a great opportunity to try and do something a bit different,” says A League of Their Own series producer, Jack Shillaker.
“We don’t want people just to come on and do an impression of James. The aim is to build each show around the guest host, and that poses challenges of its own. We want to make it feel like a bit of a treat for the viewers.”
Back in 2010 when the show, made by CPL Productions, first started on Sky One it was described as "an Olympic standard comedy show for anyone who loves their sport and a fun-filled half-hour for those who don’t”.
‘Panel show’ doesn’t quite do it justice. The show is rightly famous for the climactic and often extraordinary physical challenges it demands of contestants, from wing-walking and human table football to Jack Whitehall facing off against a cage fighter twice his size for nearly a minute.
Coming up with these ideas is one thing, creating them in the confines of the studio and making the logistics work, quite another, said executive producer David Taylor. “We try and make every show different, we try to push the boundaries,” he said.
“It’s not just a panel show. There are quite big logistical challenges and we’re doing it to a very tight schedule so it can be quite hectic. Ideas are the only currency that counts in television - that’s how you get noticed, by coming up with a good idea.
“So we say to everybody on this show, if you’ve got a good idea, we will do it, and if you’re the person who comes up with something that goes really well, people notice, they really do.”
The new series sees Freddie Flintoff, Romesh Ranganathan and Jamie Redknapp sent to Dartmoor to train with the Royal Marines.
“It was horrible!” said Flintoff, an ever-present on the show since its beginning. “We carried Romesh round, although I’m not going to lie, we all did our fair share of winging. It was just terrible, none of us are anywhere near being cut out to be marines.”
While a lot of the show is scripted, key to its success is leaving enough room for the stars to do their own thing which is when it is at its funniest, says Shillaker. “We’ve refined the process over 14 series, scripting enough so that you know stuff will definitely happen and it will be funny, but leaving enough space for people to riff and go off on a tangent, which is usually the best stuff.”
It’s a measure of the show's success that back in 2010 Flintoff had only just retired from Test cricket and Redknapp, also an ever-present on the show, was still a TV newcomer. And even Corden was new to this TV presenting business (an art he now appears to have mastered pretty well).
“It’s easy to forget that Jamie and Freddie were international sports stars by trade because now they are almost like stand-up comedians, taking things and turning them into running jokes,” says Shillaker.
“The secret to the show’s success is the chemistry between the lads, they are all so good and they are genuinely good friends,” he adds. “That chemistry is hopefully what comes across on screen. Our aim is for the viewer to watch it and say, I want to be friends with these people, I’d love to hang out with them.”
A League of Their Own returns to Sky One on Thursday 15 August at 9pm