The Masterson Inheritance was a successful experiment to see whether improvisational comedy — previously heard on radio with the panel game Whose Line Is It Anyway? — could be sustained in the format of a full-blown, half-hour comedy-drama. The first series was designed to resemble one of those monumental family sagas, telling the story of the Masterson clan (“a family at war with itself”) across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: the programmes were even labelled ‘Book One’, ‘Book Two’ and so forth, although each episode was self-contained. The second and third series retained the historical aspect but not the chronological progression, hopping backwards and forwards in time to settings including Ancient Rome and the age of chivalry.
The cast, which remained constant throughout the three series, was made up of six performers who either belonged to the Comedy Store Players or were closely associated with their work: Josie Lawrence, Phelim McDermott, Paul Merton, Caroline Quentin, Lee Simpson and Jim Sweeney. Several of these were already well-known for their television work. The brief — “no script, no rehearsals, just an audience and a couple of microphones” — was rigidly adhered to, and audience suggestions influenced the course of events. The narrator (usually Simpson, although Sweeney took over the mantle in at least one Series Three episode) had the greatest control over the flow of events, beginning the early scenes of each programme by introducing new characters which the other performers would immediately have to provide dialogue for. Their skill in bringing the show to a satisfactory conclusion each week was quietly amazing.
The cast (with the notable exception of Merton, who steadfastly refused to take the whole business seriously, but with generally positive results) played the show as straight as possible, but there were plenty of laughs to be had from their over-the-top characterisations, mistakes, attempts to throw each other off balance and occasional lapses into absurd anachronism. The series proved highly popular, and a television version was suggested at one point — although, as Lawrence quite rightly pointed out, this would have been impossible since it would have required the use of “a box of funny hats or something”.
External links: The Mastersons’ Magical Marquee