Interview with Greg Davies and Alex Horne on Taskmaster
Series starts 15th October 9pm, Channel 4
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Where did the idea for Taskmaster come from?
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. I 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 said, ‘There’s something in this’, and we started pitching it as a TV show with Greg hosting.
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?
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?
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?
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.
You’ve also featured comedians who are on the cusp of a huge career, such as Romesh Ranganathan and James Acaster. It’s a step up for them, doing Taskmaster, isn’t it?
Alex: I wouldn’t hesitate to take full credit for Romesh’s career. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that man owes us everything. To the extent that I think a reasonable man would think about financial remuneration for it. 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: Yeah. I think instead of a brief trip to Manchester to record one show, 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.
They spend ages in the make-up room spilling, then they talk about their lives during the tasks because they bring in personal items or whatever. 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 10 weeks, didn’t he?
Greg: I mean, David Baddiel, that series, said to me on three separate occasions offcamera, ‘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?
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?
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?
Congratulations on the BAFTA. Is it all the sweeter for waiting ten series to get one?
Greg: I don’t think any of the team expected 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.
How was it to be given your award over Zoom by Kermit and Miss Piggy?
Greg: It’s funny, even getting such a wonderful accolade as a BAFTA, there was part of my brain going, ‘Miss Piggy’s voice is different’.
Alex: I was slightly troubled by that. I liked the Zoom element because we were all on a Zoom call and my kids were watching and lots of the team who would never normally be involved in the ceremony, because the ceremony is normally quite exclusive and only a few of you can go. They do all the work and then the execs and us go and pick up the award which never feels quite right.
Greg: I have to say I was Zooming with Alex and his family, and I’m not convinced his kids are into the show.
Alex: No, they’re pretty big fans of Romesh [who was also nominated for The Ranganation] so they were slightly disappointed.
Greg: We had a lot of drinks. It was a really exciting internet party. Alex even got in his jacuzzi during it.
You’re signed for six series with Channel 4 including this one. Given how popular the show is with comedians, are you able to pretty much pick and choose names at this stage?
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 likes of Jo Brand really opened a few doors and 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.
Is there a tiny tease you can give us for the next few series, any hints you can drop?
Interesting. Johnny Vegas must have been up there for a while though, right?
What was Daisy May Cooper like?
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?
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?
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?
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.
There’s a Taskmaster board game which is excellent, but it does involve making a lot of mess?
The show’s very popular with families, though. There’s a PG version of Taskmaster on Dave so kids can watch.
Alex: Yeah, they were showing that at 7 o’clock every day during lockdown which is great and we’re hoping Channel 4 are going to do the same. It’s one of the few shows you can sit down as a family and watch, except for the swearing.
Greg: I’m amazed that I haven’t had the expense of editing those taken out of my wages, because largely it’s me being incapable of controlling my potty mouth.
And the home-tasking that you did on Twitter during lockdown was also a success all over the world.
Alex: We were amazed by the amount of different countries that responded to the tasks. I liked that there were lots of families, but there were also lots of people who were by themselves, which I almost found more touching. There was some bloke in his flat desperately trying to compete against a family of six…It formed real communities which was very sweet.
Alex, are you looking forward to being called Little Alex Horne by a whole new audience?
Remind people how tall you actually are?
Greg: He’s not. It’s a lie.
Finally, who’s on the hit list for more Taskmaster?
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 9pm Thursday 15th October on Channel 4. Catch series 1-9 on All 4
Source Channel 4
October 15, 2020 5:35am ET by Channel 4