Spontaneous Combuster Reforms

Spontaneous Combustion in 1991. Courtesy of Phil Whelans. © Spontaneous Combustion.

Spontaneous Combustion in 1991. Courtesy of Phil Whelans. © Spontaneous Combustion.

Cult early 90s improv company Spontaneous Combustion featuring Phil Whelans are to reunite for a one-off performance.

Longstanding TVO readers will be familiar with Whelans through his work on The Day They Came to Suck Out Our BrainsPros From DoverIt’s KevinMy First Planet, Kill Phil and many more wonderful productions across stage, screen, radio and online.

However, what many may not realise is that Phil’s roots can be traced back to the very core of New Wave Comedy, and back in the early days, one such outlet was Spontaneous Combustion.

Founded in 1989 by (future bestselling novelist) Jake Arnott, the first line-up also included Luke Sorba (Brass Eye), Alison Goldie (Alexei Sayle’s Merry Go Round), Chris Standon (Jam & Jerusalem), alternative comedy pioneer Andrew Bailey and future The Day Today star Patrick Marber… plus Mr Whelans, of course.

The connection of Marber and Whelans at this point in time is particularly interesting for TVO: as it is one of the earliest known points in the birth of the comedic family which became The Velvet Onion’s raison d’être. Marber, of course, would go on to collaborate with Steve Coogan on Paul Calf’s Video Diary and appeared alongside Coogan, Chris Morris, David Schneider, Doon Mackichan and Rebecca Front in The Day Today, which then forms a direct connection right the way through just about everything we feature on our pages via this generation’s connections to Ealing Live, The Mighty Boosh, Dutch Elm Conservatoire and more.

The original Spontaneous Combustion line-up including Phil Whelans and Patrick Marber. Photo courtesy of Phil Whelans. © Spontaneous Combustion

The original Spontaneous Combustion line-up including Phil Whelans and Patrick Marber. Photo courtesy of Phil Whelans. © Spontaneous Combustion

So too, is Phil Whelan’s importance in the birth of our ‘realm’ not to be quaffed at, and we all know just how vital he’s been to a lot of our favourites (as mentioned above) in recent years. As such, perhaps more fuss should be made about Spontaneous Combustion with the steady eye of hindsight!

By 1991, however, the line-up of Spontaneous Combustion had survived several reshuffles, including the departure of Marber. Sorba, Goldie and Whelans were now joined by Stella Duffy (later to write Calendar Girls) and Niall Ashdown (who would later appear in Barking), with Wendy Catling improvising lighting and sound.

Over the next eight years, the company devised and performed five improvised plays (True Confessions, Outrageous Lies, Human Celluloid, Spontaneous Combustion Raise the Dead and Sub-Pos Office of Death), appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe, on the London comedy scene, and touring nationally to rave reviews and inspiring a generation of future performers in the process. A radio series – 1991’s Parodies Lost – and a TV pilot also followed, before everyone’s varying degress of success brought the group to a natural end. 

Spontaneous Combustion at their last reunion in 2012. Courtesy of Phil Whelans. © Spontaneous Combustion.

Spontaneous Combustion at their last reunion in 2012. Courtesy of Phil Whelans. © Spontaneous Combustion.

Now, for one special night, they’re reuniting as part of Luke Sorba’s Legends of Improvisation night on Friday 23rd September.

Sorba and Whelans will be joined by Ashdown, Goldie and Duffie for the one-off performance at The London Improv Theatre, for their first get-together since 2012.

Having recently seen Phil’s improv mastery once more via Seance Fiction, TVO is certain that putting him in the same room as his fellow grand masters will be comedic gold. Tickets – priced a meagre £6 – are available now over yonder. Should you wish to see comedy history, we suggest you make sure you’re present!

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