'I have no self-esteem... I have no dignity' | Victoria Coren Mitchell on being in Taskmaster © C4/Avalon

'I have no self-esteem... I have no dignity'

Victoria Coren Mitchell on being in Taskmaster

Series 12 of Taskmaster is coming to Channel 4 later this month. Here, contestant Victoria Coren Mitchell explains why she signed up, why she rejects Greg Davies’ authority, and how the tasks reveal celebrities for who they really are…


Why did you sign up for Taskmaster?

I’ve been asked before but I didn’t do it, mainly because I had a small child, and I didn’t like leaving her behind anywhere. This series coincided with her first term at school.

I was worried about being at home by myself, and I thought I might end up at the school, up at the window, claws on the glass, shouting, ‘What are you doing with my child?’ So I thought it would be quite good to be physically removed to a different situation, facing some distracting challenges.

 Did you ask any previous contestants for advice?

I did ask a couple of people, mainly David Baddiel, who is a bit like me in that intellectually, he’s fine. He can cope with getting his sentences out but he wasn’t necessarily brilliant at everything on the show, much as I enjoyed his performance. He’s a close friend and I asked him, ‘Was it humiliating?’ and he said, ‘No, it was incredibly good fun, and everyone’s lovely. You’ll enjoy it.’ He was right, and they were, and I did.

Did you have a strategy?

No. Back in the day, I used to bet on reality TV, so I watched quite a lot of shows where people went on and had challenges.

If there’s one thing I learned, you can’t pretend to be or do anything, or have any strategy. Your only decision is that you’re going to say yes or no to taking part, and once you’ve said yes, that’s it: you’re in it, and you’ve got to do what they tell you to do. Obviously, I didn’t think I’d be this rubbish at it, but what can you do? You live and learn.

I’m sure there were plenty of tasks that you were good at.

Hmm. There was one Crystal Maze-type riddle one that I was able to do, although even that involved trying to decipher a map of a room, and I lost a good 18 minutes going. ‘There’s a weird shape,’ and then Alex had to whisper, ‘That’s what a window looks like in a drawing.’ I was hamstrung by the physical element.

Are you saying that’s the only task that you did well?

For me, the bicycle task ended quite well, because I didn’t fall off or sustain an injury even though it was my first time trying to ride a bike. Another thing is, I don’t really accept Greg’s authority. I think a couple of my tasks were excellent. The fact that the Taskmaster didn’t think so is neither here nor there. It’s not a court whose authority I submit to, so he couldn’t stop me secretly in my head marking myself higher.

People might be amused that you’ve never ridden a bike or made a paper aeroplane …

Other people must have had a more textbook childhood, with cycling and paper aeroplane making. I hadn’t realised there were a lot of things I couldn’t do, but that’s how it panned out.

Did you manage to persuade Greg to change any of your scores?

No. I was constantly pushing back, but I lost all the struggles. It’s all I had, though! I have no physical skills, I didn’t know what I was doing, I had no dignity. All I had was a slightly analytical mind, and the opportunity to try and talk myself out of things, which didn’t work.

I resorted to shouting in my head that I’d actually got eleven points, while outwardly conceding to Greg’s apparent ‘scoring system.  ‘Okay, in your world, I came last and got two points. But in my world, I’m up to four figures already.’ They can’t police our minds. They can say certain things out loud, but in my head, I may be the best contestant they’ve ever had.

Is that what stopped you from crumbling from total lack of self-esteem?

I don’t know, I’m used to having a total lack of self-esteem. I’ve never had any, and I’ve bumbled my way to hosting one quiz series, where I’m surrounded by like minds; I don’t ever have to get out of the chair. I read bits off a card. All my weaknesses are well hidden – in some cases literally, beneath the desk.

So being slightly rubbish at things, it’s just a case of whether to share that with the Channel 4 audience. Once I’d said I’d do it, that ship had long sailed.

There was a word-based task which you did surprisingly badly on. Are you cross about that?

No, that was fine. There was a sentence where you had to work out a double negative and decide whether to ring the bell or not, and although I sort of worked it out, I missed a vital bit of the instructions. So I didn’t get the points, which is fine.

Where it was slightly unfair is that I think the other three rang the bell just because they felt like ringing the bell; I don’t think they did a better job of the negatives. But my head was absolutely gone. By that stage I was so baffled by all of it that I couldn’t even figure out a simple sentence.

Some of your tasks, I feel, may become absolute classics.

Well thank you. That’s very kind. But I fear what you’re really saying is, ‘The gulf between your apparent capable dignity on other programmes and your absolute inept hopelessness here is enjoyable to watch.’ So I have mixed feelings about that statement.

Victoria Coren Mitchell Taskmaster

Greg alluded to you and Alan Davies being the ‘intelligent quiz people’. Are people at home going to be pre-judging you for being a certain way?

Well, to answer that question seriously, I don’t think it’s possible to go on television without people judging you a certain way, especially for women.

Everybody else on this series of Taskmaster is a comedian, and I’m not. I’m not even a professional TV personality. I’m a sort of semi-professional gambler who does a bit of broadcasting almost for a hobby.

You can’t work in television unless you’re happy for people to judge you a certain way, usually wrongly, so I don’t really mind that at all. Casual viewers of Only Connect would think that I have poise; regular viewers would know that isn’t true. I have poise like Inspector Clouseau before he treads on a bomb!

The reason Greg referred to me and Alan as the ‘intelligent quiz show people’ is because everything in his soul yearned to call us ‘the old people’.

In David Baddiel’s series, Greg was always talking about David and Jo [Brand] like, ‘Here come the old comedians lumbering in.’ Greg Davies being nearly a full decade older than I am, I did say to him early on, ‘Good luck if you’re going to give it the old, "Here come Darby and Joan onto the set".’

Do you think there was any divide at all between the ages or the sexes?

No, I really don’t. One thing I would say is, they were the loveliest bunch of people. I won’t say ‘the nicest five’ because that would include me, and I have a horrible mind that thinks terrible things that I barely manage to conceal. But it was an incredibly nice group.

How competitive did it get?

What I liked about it is that nobody was genuinely competitive. I haven’t done many TV competitions – I did a Bake Off for Sport Relief, and then I did a show for BBC Two about a dinner party – but you sometimes get people on those who genuinely care about winning, which I always find odd, because the most money I’ve ever made is from playing poker, and I care about that because I might go skint if I lose and be unable to pay off the mortgage.

If it’s just a game, it’s just for fun. What I love about this group of five is they all feel like me. We were genuinely trying to do the task as best we could.

The only frustration is if you do it badly, and you’re disappointed in yourself – but it’s not about the other people winning and losing, which is a nice thing, and an important thing in life. I’m not going to pretend for my pride that I wasn’t even trying, and that’s why I did badly. I tried absolutely as hard as I possibly could on every single one, and I still turned out to be rubbish.

 What was your lowest point?

It was having to go behind a screen in full body silhouette next to Morgana [Robinson] because she’s like a supermodel which I am definitely not, and I'm always incredibly self-conscious about being looked at when I have to be quiet.

I don’t mind being on camera when I’m talking but I hate having my photo taken. Can’t bear it. So having to stand while everyone gets to look at your silhouetted shape behind a screen next to this beautiful creature, who’s 5ft 11ins and perfect, was definitely a low point.

But what’s wonderful about her is that people who are that beautiful don't need to make themselves ridiculous, yet she absolutely does. She’s very, very funny.

You do have to leave your dignity at home to do Taskmaster, don’t you?

You do in a way. But I didn’t mind sitting on a cake, or whatever. It depends what people assume.

People assume that I have dignity. They'll go, ‘She’s this sort of woman and she hosts this very cerebral quiz’ so I have a long way to fall. Whereas Desiree [Burch], for example, is a comedian with a lot of physical confidence and she dresses with great physical panache so people will assume, ‘She’s going to be really comfortable being ridiculous.’

Actually, I think she’s incredibly dignified. There’s something regal about her. She can be in a skin-tight catsuit, stuck to a fence trying to hold a snooker ball on a shelf, with an amazing elegance. And I absolutely don’t. That’s one of the joys of this show: your assumptions about people on telly are one-dimensional. They only show one side of themselves. This shows everything. 

What have you learned about yourself?

Nothing. I've learned nothing to my own benefit. I was happily cruising along under the assumption that I was quite good at mind games.

It’s like, I've never written a novel, because for all the time I don't write a novel, I might be one of the world's great novelists. I might be a Phillip Roth or an Anne Tyler, I just haven’t tried it yet. As soon as I write a novel, that fantasy is over.

I’ve had a very happy few years being a person thinking I could probably win Taskmaster if I ever did it. And now I know the truth. For me the lesson is that it’s better to quietly sit at home thinking about all the things you could be good at, instead of trying them. That’s my message to young people: squash your ambitions back into a can and just be happy.

Greg was so amused by some of your quotes that he said sometimes you sound like a robot trying to be a human being. How do you respond to that?

Look, I know it sounds funny, but I had to find a chair and they engineered a situation where I genuinely thought a chair might be hidden inside a sweet.

I was so far out of my comfort zone I wasn’t sure what a chair was any more. I had no reference points anymore.

There are parts of the world where for some months it never gets light or it never gets dark. That’s where I was. I didn’t know anything anymore.

Can you describe your relationship with Greg?

There’s two things going on at once: on the one hand, I'm a huge admirer of his. He's so funny, and so brilliant. Sitting on the set, watching him with the other contestants, was just great. I felt nothing but admiration. It was lovely to witness his comedy close up. And then he’d swivel around and go,’ ‘Now, Victoria, that was the worst attempt at a task we’ve ever seen on this show.’

I think he’s brilliant but I’m going to have to reject his view of my competence or I will stop thinking I can even put shoes on.

What about Alex?

Well Giant Alex, who is a foot taller than I am, is a much more kindred spirit for me. Greg is an alpha male, you know, and Alex is more beta like me.

In the Taskmaster house, when it was just me and Alex, it was fine. In the studio, when Alex was the junior, being squashed down all the time, it was very confusing. On the Only Connect team, Alex would be captain. In my house, Alex would be the most capable person. It would be, ‘Let’s get Alex in to fix things.

So it was odd to see him as the junior. Greg is to Alex what Alex is to me.

• Taskmaster series 12 starts on Channel 4 at 9pm on Thursday September 23.

Published: 8 Sep 2021

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