The Boys are Back in Town

After a year off, successful sketch troop WitTank are back – except they're not, as they are all performing solo. Nonetheless, Jay Richardson finds three performers who remain utterly joined at the hip.

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Published 16 Aug 2016

Relationships in sketch groups can become notoriously fractious. But interviewing WitTank, I don't think any of us expected the Armenian Genocide to be invoked so early on.

Naz Osmanoglu once revealed on stage that he was 19th in line to the Turkish royal throne. More recently, he's been elevated to 17th, thanks to circumstances entirely unconnected to the coup plot against President Erdogan, he assures me.

“They're actually supportive of our family because they're quite an Islamic government and the Ottomans were the caliphate,” he states, matter-of-factly. “They presented me with a nice plate a few months ago. And I quite like plates.”

Even so, he's attracting some “increasingly alarming people on Facebook”, stresses Kieran Boyd. “It's like they think he could be the Turkish Donald Trump. 'Make Turkey great again!'”

With “distant Armenian blood” pumping in his veins, Mark Cooper-Jones certainly reckons it's time for a reckoning. “It's a point of tension in the group,” he confirms. “I'm waiting for the call where someone asks Naz and I to make a documentary about the Great Crime. Put you in your place.”

Chatting to this engaging trio occasionally recalls a heated, confusing game of Risk. Named after a spoonerism that Osmanoglu took six months to understand, WitTank were formed during feverish and resentful plotting at Durham University. When the university revue, featuring the likes of future standups Nish Kumar, Ed Gamble and Tom Neenan rejected them, they formed a rival act with five others and briefly considered the name Stromboidal Mackerel.

For three whole weeks, Cooper-Jones—a future member of the Royal Geographic Society—laboured under the misapprehension that Boyd, with his classically Irish name, was Russian. Looking back, he can only blame it on the rarefied boarding school education he shared with Osmanoglu, inspiring “total mistrust of outsiders”.

“I remember us having these Machiavellian conversations,” Osmanoglu recalls. "'Who do we like in the group?'"

“We were thick as little shits,” adds Cooper-Jones. “'I think the Russian one might be a good writer'”.

Boyd protests: “I was just keeping my head down...”

“'What think you of the quiet Russian, shall we cull him?'” Osmanoglu continues, ignoring him. “'No, we'll keep him and if necessary kill him later. We'll kill the tall one and the very confident one...'”

“'The one who came up with Stromboidal Mackerel!'”

“Yeeeees, we got rid of him in two weeks!'” Osmanolgu leers triumphantly, suddenly back in the present and shooting a sharp glance at Boyd. “You made it through the first wave. Then we realised you could speak English and we were like 'Ah, he's alright'.”

The rest is history. After a run of eight successive years at the Fringe, the group put their collective sketch efforts on hold in 2015 and have returned this year with solo standup hours. Although Boyd is the final member of the group to perform his Edinburgh debut, he was actually the first to try standup.

“I'd gone to Germany, was bored and was sending them sketches that they were ignoring,” he explains. “So I just wrote these routines so that I had something to do when I returned. And, of course, once I'd done standup, they had to do it too. It had to become competitive.”

Once WitTank were established on the Fringe though, having shifted from unconnected sketches into extended, single narrative pastiches of the public school system, “no-one was allowed to work on their standup until [the sketch show] was ready. And it was never completely ready,” admits Cooper-Jones.

“That's why we all just wanted to focus on one show this year. With two shows a day, you're splitting the worry. Your hours, the rewrites, everything.”

The mood in their shared flat is certainly more peaceful this time round, suggests Osmanoglu. “Because we've had some pretty cataclysmic arguments when we've been working together. I really wish we'd filmed some of them.

“You've got that stony focus where you're all about the performance, you can't deal with emotions. But then you get back to the flat...” He mimes slitting a throat. “It's just nice that we can be supportive now.”

Within the sketch dynamic, everyone “has to be happy with the product equally: every sketch, every idea, every line,” Cooper-Jones adds.

“With standup, it's just you that gets to make the creative decisions. The others are informing and advising. But you can go, 'I'll take that, I won't take that'. With WitTank it's always: 'I promise you that I'm right!'”

“'How can I convince you that penguins are funnier than flamingos?!'” Osmanoglu parrots.

All three have had a tough year to potentially draw on in their standup. For Osmanoglu with Exposure, it was the heartbreak that precipitated him having a meltdown; for the other two, it was just “being his friend and having to listen to him”, Cooper-Jones says.

So it is that the ex-teacher is once again striving to impart his passion for his favourite subject in Geographically Speaking. Boyd, meanwhile, is exploring his love of heavy metal and aspects of his Northern Irish family—so easily confusable with Russian—in the ill-advisedly titled Egg. “I just picked it as a meaningless word,” he laments. “But I've spent four months rebuffing questions about fertility and whether I've got a child.”

Empires have risen and fallen across Europe since WitTank's Channel 4 sitcom, based on their boarding school shows, went into development. But negotiations are ongoing. And as they wait, the relatively oiky Boyd has become the group's unlikely authority on posh privilege.

“Initially, these two would have conversations that I didn't understand at all,” he recalls. “But latterly we've done a few comedy workshops at their old school. So I've been there enough times and met enough people who taught them to feel like I went there myself."

Cooper-Jones enthuses: “He's got by far the best memory of the group, so he remembers stories we told him 10 years ago. He knows more about our school than we do.”

After a decade on the Fringe, WitTank are a “stormy, stressful” but successful “three-way marriage” Boyd concludes, a doubly unfortunate expression given that Cooper-Jones has just revealed his sketchmates will also be best men at his wedding next year.

“There's no other option,” he sighs. “I was looking for other people for the flat too. But it's always these guys.”