Taskmaster: Alex Horne on series 5, casting, remakes, the future

Taskmaster returns for a fifth series tonight on Dave, featuring Bob Mortimer, Sally Phillips, Nish Kumar, Aisling Bea and Mark Watson...

Greg Davies and Alex Horne in Taskmaster
Greg Davies and Alex Horne Photo: Avalon

“I think I could probably fit all that lot in my trousers,” says Tim Key gesturing at the crowded kitchen worktop of a London flat in this 2008 YouTube video. He then tests the hypothesis, starting with a loaf of bread, a bunch of bananas and a silver espresso maker. Into the trouser leg they go, followed by a parade of unlikely items – a cheese grater, a bottle of orange squash, an unwieldy marble bowl. Every so often, a hand reaches out from the camera to assist. It belongs to comedian Alex Horne, seen intermittently in the back of shot drinking a coffee and checking his watch.

“Yeah, we had a lot of free time,” explains Horne. “We lived together in my brother’s flat and we used to make little videos just trying to amuse each other. If you’re a comedian, you can only really write jokes for about an hour a day so you’ve got a lot of time to fill. We also used to film each other playing squash in suits for some reason. No-one really watched them, but it filled the time.”

Was the trouser-stuffing video (3,180 views in the last decade at the time of writing) the inception of Taskmaster, Horne’s hit comedy series which debuts its fifth series tonight on Dave?

“I guess there’s something in it,” says Horne. “Just thinking of really pointless things to do and seeing how well we could do them. You’re probably on to something there”.

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For the uninitiated, Taskmaster is pure TV joy. Each series, five comedians are set a series of ludicrous tasks by Alex and the team, which range from the simple (eat as much watermelon as you can in sixty seconds) to the ingeniously ambiguous (impress the mayor of Chesham). Greg Davies judges the winner of each round and hilarity genuinely ensues.

Taskmaster ran as an Edinburgh Fringe Show for a couple of years before its ‘comedians compete doing stupid stuff’ premise was translated to television. It’s since been more literally translated around the world, with versions in Germany, Sweden, Belgium and soon, the US, where Horne will present alongside Reggie Watts.  

“Everyone always says it’s very British humour,” says Horne, “but I think the bit in the studio is very British. Greg’s treatment of them is very British. The actual tasks, it’s almost like that Japanese gameshow Takeshi’s Castle. I love Takeshi’s Castle. I don’t know if it’ll catch on anywhere else.”

The major difference between the international versions, EU nerds will be pleased to learn, comes down to health and safety regulations. “In Sweden, they have a very relaxed attitude to health and safety, so their one is much more dangerous than ours,” explains Horne. “They did a task when they had to make a train driver beep their horn, which involved people clambering all over the tracks and trying to flag down the train, which we would never be allowed to do in this country.”

In the UK version, the five contestants are more cosseted. “Every series we have to tell people that they’re not allowed to climb on the roof,” he says. “They’re always trying to climb on the roof and they’re not allowed to because of insurance which is frustrating. They all want to do it, we all want them to do it, but there have to be rules. We have to get crash mats even if somebody’s jumping from one metre. I guess if somebody did hurt themselves it would be a shame… although,” he adds, “I think it would be funny to a certain extent.”

Aimless tasks have been a mainstay of Horne’s TV career so far. “Even when we did a stupid show on BBC Four called We Need Answers,” he recalls, “there was a physical round and all the things we made them do were absolutely pointless. We got a couple of celebrities to shout quotes from their autobiography as loudly as possible, which is a sort of Taskmaster-y type thing. We had Martin Offiah, the rugby player, shout out “MY MOTHER IS NIGERIAN”, which I thought was funny.”

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Before that, Horne worked behind the scenes in the early years of Big Brother. “I used to work as a logger, which is the lowest of the low, you just had to type up what happens. I definitely got some inspiration from it. It’s a factory, they really churn it out but it was amazing and they did encourage us to submit task ideas.”

What has filming five series of Taskmaster taught Horne about the human condition? “I like that we can pretend it’s all very deep!” he laughs. “I definitely think everyone’s competitive on some level, there’s virtually no-one who hasn’t cared at some point about something they’ve done. We’ve had some very relaxed people, but even very relaxed people have been upset at some point because they’ve been put in last place by Greg. I also think the cleverest people can do the stupidest things and vice versa.”

That’s certainly borne out on the show. Previous contestants included, for instance, Hugh Dennis, who won a scholarship to Cambridge University where he earned a first class degree and wrote a dissertation titled “The Spatial Distribution of Elementary Education in 19th-century Wakefield”, and can be seen in series four failing spectacularly to play hide and seek, and whacking a Babybel across a football pitch with a snooker cue. It’s that kind of show.

“As soon as they open the envelope, because there’s no warning and the clock’s started, everything goes out the window in terms of any preparation,” says Horne. “I’m amazed at how little the current contestants pay attention to anything that’s gone on previously. If I went on the programme I’d want to do a bit of Richard Osman, and bit of Al Murray…”.

Osman and Murray took differing approaches to tasks, the former scrutinising the wording on instructions to exploit any possible ambiguity and the latter splashing out on taxis and prop hire to get the various jobs done. How much did Al Murray spend in total during his series? “£380” says Horne. “I think it’s reasonable, you might win.”

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The star prize from series two onwards has been is a statue of Greg Davies’ head. “The winners do treasure it. I like imagining that it’s on top of their telly,” says Horne. Five mini-prizes provided by the comedians along a given theme each week are also up for grabs. And yes, says Horne, they really take those home with them. The blank cheque Josh Widdicombe offered up on ‘most amount of money’ week was cashed (but the money was later paid back). Romesh Ranganathan’s car and wedding ring went, “I think things were returned but they definitely made the most of the joke.”

Other souvenirs have ended up in the houses of various participants over the years. A portrait of Greg Davies painted by Noel Fielding for instance, was framed and is now on display at Davies’ home. Tim Key framed the painting he did of a horse while riding a horse, as did Frank Skinner. “For some reason,” says Horne, “I’ve got Roisin’s [Conaty] horse picture at home.”

What makes a great task? “I like it when people read between the lines. Every task we want there to be variation in their attempts, so as long as somebody does something different, that’s good.”

‘Paint the biggest thing red’ was a past suggestion of Horne’s that was nixed by the show’s producers. That sounds brilliant, I suggest. What was the problem there?

“I agree with you,” says Horne. “I think that’s a good one. The problem is that we’ve learned that the comedians will do the most extreme things so as soon as you say that, they’re painting that house red. Then you’ve got a red house and the next person has to come in and paint a bigger thing red so we’d have to un-paint it every time. It’s not our house unfortunately, we rent it. Having TV producers means there’s someone saying ‘that will stop all filming for the next two weeks’, which is useful.”

The contestants film their tasks individually in the official Taskmaster house in Chiswick, and are under strict instruction not to discuss them until the studio filming session when they’re judged by Greg. The key to it all, says Horne, is that the reactions in the studio are completely genuine. “That’s the most important thing,” he says. “They’ve never seen anything that they’ve done before or that anyone else has done. They haven’t seen their own VTs, let alone anyone else’s and they really don’t know how the others have done, so they’re often thinking they’ve absolutely cocked one up and they do well and then vice versa. That reaction is crucial. Quite often, they’re laughing more than the audience. That’s a thing we really hold precious.”

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It takes approximately one day with each contestant per episode to film all the tasks over a series of months. “Bob [Mortimer] did his first one at the end of September 2016 and his last one this July,” he explains, “some tasks take two minutes, some take two hours. We always go for a drink with them before and we go through and explain the process, because a lot of them think that it’ll only be one task in a day, whereas we actually get about eight done in a day. It’s a weird day, but really fun.”

Which other task ideas never made it in front of the cameras? “Early on we had a task which was to give me a special cuddle, and we thought there’s not enough to it, it’s just silly. Then a few series later we thought, that’s a great task! It’s fine if it’s silly as long as it’s next to something which is a bit more practical so we put that in the next series.”

There have been lessons learned over the years. “One rule we have changed is that I’m occasionally used by people to do things which isn’t ideal, so now we are more putting in a rule that ‘You may not use Alex’, that sort of thing. And in the first series, there was stuff with the public—they had to high-five a fifty-five-year-old—and that was the one task where it felt a little bit like a different programme because it felt more like a prank show which isn’t what we want.”

To keep the home-made spirit of the show, the team now tries to avoid tasks involving specialist equipment. “Because we want people at home to be able to do the same things,” Horne says, “we feel that the more equipment we use, the less funny it is. Just trying to get an egg up in the air, high, I think because it’s much more relatable, it’s better.”

The tasks are only half the story. A truly great series of Taskmaster relies on the right combination of comedian contestants. They’ve all been great, but series four, with Hugh Dennis, Joe Lycett, Lolly Adefope, Mel Giedroyc and Noel Fielding, was the best yet. Series five, in which the aforementioned Bob Mortimer will be joined by Aisling Bea, Nish Kumar, Mark Watson and Sally Phillips, promises to top even that. (Incidentally, the comedians’ studio line-up is arranged in alphabetical order by first name, not by any other system.)

When casting, they’re not specifically looking for particular character traits, says Horne. “You don’t want five people who are all going to be Joe Wilkinsons, but you might have a couple of people who are Joe Wilkinsons. We think we need somebody who’s a bit quirky, somebody who’s perhaps a bit more mature… It’s just a feel. We want all the series to feel different so if we happen to have three grumpy women or two very tall young men that’s fine too. We get a couple of people and then think, who would be good with them rather than ‘we need a statistician here or a quirky man’.”

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For future series (ideally, he’d like to do another five, then take stock), Horne would like two best friends or a couple, “because that would be a dynamic we haven’t had because they’d be competing against each other which gives it a little edge. It’s always nice when Greg or I know somebody really well, like with Roisin and Tim in series one, they’re sort of our best friends.”

Series five’s Mark Watson is a good friend of Horne’s and took part in the original Taskmaster Edinburgh Fringe show. Does that give him an edge? “No,” says Horne decidedly. “That makes things slightly awkward because I get him to do things that he doesn’t necessarily want to do and I have to be his friend as soon as the cameras stop rolling but not his friend when they are rolling. It doesn’t make things easier for him. If he was looking for leniency, he didn’t get it.”

They’re currently working on casting next series, says Horne, “which is hopefully going to happen,” he quickly adds as a recommission-not-officially-announced-yet caveat. (Of course it’s going to happen.) With four years under their belt, it’s much easier to persuade people to take part, he says. “They’ve seen it now, which helps. There were some people—I won’t give names—who were resolutely ‘no’ because you do have to put your pride and dignity to one side, so it’s not for everyone.”

A champion of champions special is also on the cards. “It’s pretty likely,” says Horne. “I can’t reveal anything but we’re hoping. If it happens, it won’t be a full series, it would be a kind of cup final special.”

Finally then, what can we expect from series five? One word, says Horne, “Coconuts”. 

Taskmaster series 5 starts tonight at 9pm on Dave.