'You’re largely seeing us flying by the seat of our pants' | Taskmaster day! Greg Davies and Alex Horne on the show's return © UKTV

'You’re largely seeing us flying by the seat of our pants'

Taskmaster day! Greg Davies and Alex Horne on the show's return

Where did the idea for Taskmaster come from?

Alex: Eleven years ago, my wife and I had had a baby, so I didn’t go to Edinburgh Fringe for the first time in years.  

Tim Key won the comedy award and I was sat at home with the baby feeling very jealous, genuinely. So, I set up a show for the following year and I invited 20 comics. I sent them all emails secretly, didn’t tell them who each other was, and said, ‘I’m starting a new competition which you can enter, I’m going to set you a different task every month’. 

Mike Wozniak won it and Tim didn’t, so I was happy. And none of the comedians was Greg Davies.

Greg: I’d love to tell you it wasn’t noted at the time, but it was noted at the time.  was in a sketch group, We Are Klang, and one of the members had been invited by Alex, so I knew about it.

Alex: That must have looked like a quite cliquey sort of thing.  

Greg: Yeah, it felt like there was a real Edinburgh clique going on and I was in the early stages of my career, excluded by someone I would have thought was a monster.

Alex: I think I would have been scared of you. I didn’t ask any of the bigger boys.

Greg: I wasn’t even that fat back then!

Alex: You were quite lanky weren’t you, but I just meant, we didn’t really know each other, is probably the truth.

Greg: We didn’t know each other at all but it didn’t stop me from feeling excluded.  

It was obviously a successful show…

Alex: It was on at midnight and only 150 people watched it but it got more word of mouth than it probably merited. It was one of those quirky Edinburgh things. So we did it again the following year, then Avalon [his agent and TV production company] said, ‘There’s something in this’, and we started pitching it as a TV show with Greg hosting.

Why Greg?

Alex: Well, I would challenge you to name anyone else who could do that job. He had all the elements that role needed, as well as being very funny and good off the cuff. I’d say his physical attributes lend itself to the role, but also the headmasterly qualities.

Greg: I’ve basically spent the majority of my adult life pretending to have authority. I certainly was like that in the sketch group I was in and on stage I tend to turn the volume up on everything I do. So, some bombastic tall shouty man setting tasks seemed like a very natural fit.

Alex: There’s a moment in every show where Greg does have to say, ‘That’s it, we’re moving on now’. And most comics…  even Johnny Vegas in this series listened to Greg and moved on, which I’ve seen him not do on many other shows.

Greg: Once I put the Taskmaster suit on, I become someone else.

Alex: Yeah, even our relationship: it’s odd but we do instantly have a different relationship.

Greg:  It is odd because it’s all very cordial off set, but as soon as I step onto set, there’s just a natural irritation I feel towards you. 

How would you describe your relationship on-screen?

Greg: Someone asked Phil Wang what surprised him about doing Taskmaster, and he said ‘I’m surprised that Greg really is bullying Alex’.

Alex: I’ve never felt it like that actually. I’ve always felt more scrutinised. It’s definitely not bullying, because you can see how much I enjoy it. The moment we’re off set, there’s a real brotherly love there.

Greg: Uncle and nephew.

How much of the studio show is scripted and how much is totally improvised?

Greg: We do sit down and discuss what we’re going to do, but I think the vast majority of that goes out the window in the studio. I’d feel pretty confident in saying there’s very little faux-spontaneity. If a comment seems off the cuff, or a judgement seems to be made in the moment, then it was.  

Alex: The conceit is that Greg’s seeing everything for the first time on the night and it’s not far from that.

Greg: There are some tasks that will require some thought and my lumbering brain sometimes needs to let it marinate overnight but you’re largely seeing us flying by the seat of our pants.

Alex: Greg never knows anything I’m going to say before the show, so when he’s reacting to me it’s completely off the cuff and we obviously never know what the contestants are going to say at any point.

Greg: It’s one of the exciting things about it. I might have some discussion points in my head beforehand, because I know there’s a certain task coming up, but more often than not they won’t even get used. The group gels as the series moves on and they have such a distinct language and way of responding and the characters emerge so beautifully that very quickly it feels like a gang.

How do you get such good names to take part?

Alex: Word of mouth has really helped us. I do quite often thank Frank Skinner because he agreed to do the very first series and that was a real stamp of approval. He had a nice time on it, which really helps, so that set the ball rolling.  And the fact that Jo Brand did it has helped, of course.

Greg: The word’s just out now that people aren’t being brought onto the show to be humiliated. Well, they are, but it’s very much with their consent and they know the boundaries of that humiliation. There’s a very caring approach to the people that are on the show. They’re not fodder. 

Alex: I think Andy Devonshire the director deserves credit too. He really makes people look the best they can in terms of the creative tasks where people make little movies or whatever. Sometimes they’re a work of art.

Greg: Because it’s a ten-week series, by the last episode you really feel you know these people inside out. It’s been really nice to introduce some [newer] people.  

Several former Taskmaster contestants, such as Mark Watson, talk about Taskmaster in their stand-up afterwards. It’s quite a big part of their lives.

Alex: They spend ages with us, and they might be having a baby or getting married or getting unmarried at the time. They do their tasks over several different filming days between November and March and then they come to the studio for five full days. So, you always remember what you were doing the year you did Taskmaster. 

Greg: The tasks don’t give people anywhere to hide. Stand-ups usually have absolute autonomy on what they want to put out and the persona they want to be. It’s very controlled. So, Taskmaster becomes memorable for them because they’re not performing according to the rules that they’ve drawn out for themselves, and they’re showing other aspects of their character.  That can work negatively and positively for them of course, but I think a lot of people find it memorable because they’re performing and not in a way that they traditionally would

The best example of that has got to be David Baddiel, who basically had a very slow breakdown over teb weeks, didn’t he?

Alex: That was absolutely fascinating.

Greg: I mean, David Baddiel, that series, said to me on three separate occasions off camera, ‘I’m really intelligent, you know’. He started listing his books and even his academic qualifications at one point. I think he is the most stupid ‘clever’ person we’ve had. But that’s wonderful and I think that anyone that watched David making those mistakes would just love seeing someone who’s normally so cerebral be such a klutz. I think people really warm to another side of the man.

Talking of crossovers with their personal lives: does Josh Widdicombe still have your name tattooed on his foot?

Greg: I think he’s got that for life. I’ll never quite get over that. 

Alex: It was a good choice of tattoo, very funny. Not ‘Taskmaster’ or anything, just ‘Greg’.

The show has moved from Dave to Channel 4. Why the move?

Alex: It was all fairly natural. We came to the end of our contract there. UKTV were very generous. We’re so grateful they commissioned us not just once, but then for nine more series.

It wasn’t like we broke off and said, ‘We’re heading somewhere else’. Even the advert breaks help because that’s what everyone’s used to.  Channel 4’s a comedy channel, or at least historically it is, so the chance of more people watching it felt like a natural time to try to grow.  

Will fans notice any changes?

Alex: No. We haven’t been pushed into booking any different names, we haven’t changed any element of the show except some Covid stuff, like having to put the chairs two metres apart. There’s a slight sadness to ending any relationship, but it’s all very amicable and when the Baftas happened, we were on a Zoom call with them and they were getting drunk celebrating with us, which all felt lovely.

Congratulations on that Bafta!

Greg: it. It was a genuine surprise, but it’s nice to have it recognised and especially for my little bearded friend there who devised the whole thing and so consistently sits in his jacuzzi and comes up with amazing tasks.

Are you able to pretty much pick and choose the comedians who will take at this stage?

Greg: More or less, yeah. There’s still people we’re desperate to get, and there are also people that are asking to do it, but they can’t make the dates work. It’s fiddly. 

But we’re also trying to keep the line-ups interesting. No one’s ever predicted what the line-up’s going to be and that’s part of the joy of it.  There’s lots of voices in the room about selecting the right make-up of people but I think most people who we’ve approached say ‘yes’ to an extent. It’s not very often that people give us an absolute ‘no’, anyway.

Alex: The cast of series 11 is as good as any we’ve had in terms of not just the big names, but interesting people that you wouldn’t normally see on this sort of show. There’s someone in the next series that I get asked about the most, I suppose.

Interesting. Johnny Vegas must have been up there for a while though, right?

Alex: Yeah, although I was nervous, in terms of him causing damage to himself or someone else on tasks days, and on the studio days I didn’t quite know what sort of Johnny we’d get. Luckily, we got the tender Johnny, the funny Johnny and the artistic Johnny a few times. He’s a proper poet. He puts himself out there.  His heart is on his sleeve throughout and joyously so.

What was Daisy May Cooper like?

Greg: As far as I can work out, for the vast majority of the prize tasks she just fell into her kitchen and grabbed the first thing she could. So, I was absolutely fuming with her before we started the record. I like that. It gives me something to sharpen my teeth on.

Alex: We’ve had 45 people on before, and we haven’t had anyone like Daisy May Cooper. My wife is pleased with her, more than anyone we’ve ever had. She’s very naturally funny. We always talk in comedy about people who’ve got funny bones and people who haven’t, and Daisy is just a funny, funny person.

Greg: And she doesn’t edit. I think her responses are very real and in the moment.

Alex: She made a film for us which she believed was a work of art, and as soon as we showed it, it was clear to everyone in the room it was dreadful. But she insisted it was and refused to speak for the rest of the show at one point.

Greg: She’s not lacking in self-belief.  

Alex: She’s also the most pregnant person we’ve ever had on the show.

What about Katherine Parkinson?

Greg: She’s 90 per cent strait-laced and then another side comes out when you push her, which wouldn’t come out on most shows. 

Alex: She’s very poised, she’s a very elegant woman, but there again - a swan is an elegant bird until you put it in roller skates… My point is, it doesn’t matter how poised someone is in their day to day life, the tasks will find them out.  And they did with Katherine and she responded mightily impressively.

What about Mawaan?

Alex: There’s no doubt he will be a star. He is one of those triple threats, because he can do the singing, dancing, comedy thing, but he can also paint, he’s got amazing dress sense, he’s very confident and very funny.

He’s quite quiet and quite often says the thing that shines through. He was a constant joy. With the younger people you don’t want them to be dwarfed by anyone and he wasn’t, he stood up for himself.

Greg: He was quite frustrated at being referred as ‘the young man’ throughout, by us suggesting he’s got boyish charm. At one point he shouted, ‘I’m 29!’

And Richard Herring?

Greg: I just really like him. He’s quite a sensible man who does stupid things, so it’s a perfect show for him. He’s one of the mega-fans we’ve had on, who knows the show inside out. I think Richard is the only person I’ve ever met who, during the space of one task, can appear both 70 and 12 years of age at once.

Alex: That’s true. I guess that’s the same as all men. Men are always little boys and grumpy old men at the same time, but he is a particular example of that.

Greg: He said to me at one point, ‘It’s strange, Greg, you say such awful things to me and yet I’m not offended’.

Contestants often say they love doing Taskmaster because it’s like being back at school.

Alex: Yeah, and they don’t have to clear up either. They get permission to do silly stuff, they don’t have to pay and then they just walk away and get given a sandwich.

Alex, are you looking forward to being called Little Alex Horne by a whole new audience?

Alex: It’s funny, it’s not the words as such, it’s the way he says it that annoys me. Because that’s what people copy, they copy the high-pitched shouting. People are so disappointed when they meet me. They go, ‘You’re not very little’, and they’re cross with me. 

Finally, who’s on the hit list for more Taskmaster?

Greg: Well, go on, say it.  

Alex: Jack Dee.  

Greg: He always says Jack Dee, I think he’s absolutely obsessed with the man.

Alex:  Greg and I had a chat yesterday and we threw some names back and forth. People like Lorraine Kelly.

Greg: Lorraine Kelly is my version of Alex’s total obsession with Jack Dee. I have for many years thought I would love to see Lorraine Kelly responding to a task. I sense an inner steeliness and it excites me.

Alex: We had a very funny session, me saying names to Greg and him saying instantly yes or no. It’s amazing that people like Debbie McGee and Krishnan Guru Murphy got through.

• Taskmaster starts at 9pm  tonight on Channel 4.  Interview courtesy Channel 4 Press.

Published: 15 Oct 2020

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