I am sitting in my study, my head in my hands, desperately trying to avoid eye contact with Alex Horne over Zoom. He’s sitting, impassively at first but with increasing confusion, watching a video of me in my living room, pretending to shoot a giant spirit level like a shotgun, in time to Macarena, the 90s smash hit. At the end, after video me has mimed throwing a grenade and jumped into an offscreen sofa, Horne turns back to interviewer me (now bright red and cursing Los del Rio), not with anger or disappointment, but with curious pity. “You need to explain a lot of things.” It is one of the best and worst moments of my life.
This should have been a simple interview with the creator of Bafta-winning Taskmaster before the launch of the new series this week – but Taskmaster is anything but simple. To get a real taste of the show, I’ve been set four bizarre tasks to complete, straight from the Taskmaster’s assistant himself – and he’s going to judge them during the interview. I am excited and terrified.
Before we get to Horne’s verdict on my efforts, I decide to butter him up by telling him how much I’ve been enjoying the show during lockdown. Naturally, he’s heard it all before. “A lot of people have got in touch and said really nice things like ‘The programme has saved our lockdown!’ The amount of messages I get like that, I think, ‘God, it feels like the whole country is watching it’. And then you get the viewing figures. Which are absolutely fine, but … it’s amazing how many people watch MasterChef and Antiques Roadshow.”
Why have so many people jumped on the show during lockdown then? “It’s definitely escapism – and I think it helps that, unlike other panel shows, you want to see it to the end. Each show has a climax. I think you’re doing well to turn off, unless you go ‘well that’s not my thing at all’. One of the things we’re really proud of is that every single task is different, even if there are similarities. You never know what’s coming up next.”
I can’t put it off any longer – there’s not enough small talk in the world to save me from judgment. First up, my challenge was “Use 100 pictures of one animal to make a picture of a very different animal”. I show Horne my effort – a snarling diplodocus, made up of 100 photos of my cocker spaniel, Waffles. Happily, Horne is impressed. “It’s amazing how much your dog looks like a cabbage,” he says at one point, a sentence I am taking as a compliment – before moving on to his verdict. “I can imagine one better, but I don’t think I can imagine fewer than three worse.” He gives me a healthy four points – second place in a hypothetical show. I consider updating my CV there and then.
In the real show, Horne isn’t the one judging. That’s down to the host, the tyrannical Greg Davies, part mad king, part headteacher – imagine the final years of Henry VIII if he also sat on the OCR exam board.
When I ask Horne if he ever disagrees with Davies’s judgment, the answer is instant. “Yes. Most tasks. It’s frustrating, really, because I know that if he scored it in a certain way, then the episode might unravel in a certain way. Quite often he’ll score it completely wrong, so someone has already won with two tasks to spare.” Despite this, Horne wouldn’t have it any other way – “I’m always pleased that Greg is invested. I’m more interested in him caring about who wins, rather than him churning out scores that we’ve told him to say.”
Indeed, while Horne is the mastermind behind the entire series, he’s acutely aware of how crucial Davies is to the show. “It’s his little twinkle. His job is pretty difficult – he does have to say to people who have tried really hard, ‘that was rubbish’. And he doesn’t often offend them. It’s finding that dynamic of clearly being playful, but also being honest.”
Speaking of being playful but (brutally) honest, it’s time for Horne to judge my attempt at the second task: “Receive a photo of a famous person wearing a little pink hat, winking and holding up a photo of you. You may not use Photoshop.” Here, I used my showbiz connections (ie, the fact that I went to university with the son of Radio 4 legend Andy Hamilton). I got a photo back in just three and a half hours – a delightful shot of the creator of Outnumbered and the regular Have I Got News For You participant winking joyfully and holding up a photo of me while in a pink hat. Amazingly, Andy’s wife, Libby, knitted the hat in just a couple of hours specifically for the task, a feat which is so kind for a pursuit that is so stupid that it makes me question a lot of my life choices.
Almost immediately, Horne queries how famous Andy Hamilton is. “I think he’s a quality famous person – he’s got a body of work behind him – but if somebody’s got Hasselhoff in a pink hat, then he might trump you. I’m only saying that because Greg bends the rules – frustratingly.” Fortunately, I had anticipated this, and am able to provide a backup with an even more convoluted backstory. Each week, my wife and I videochat with my uncle and aunt in San Francisco, and he’s taken to setting up a little photo of the Queen in another room in front of a webcam so that it looks like she’s on the call with us (this makes it sound as if he’s a rabid nationalist, but I swear it’s a joke). He kindly put a pink hat on her, thrust a photo of me in front of her and drew a wink on her face.
The sheer amount of time exerted on this is enough to gain Horne’s approval – and another second place. “You have to remember that two out of every five contestants are very lazy,” Horne muses – so putting in depressing amounts of effort will earn at least third place. This is known, according to Horne, as “the Ed Gamble tactic”.
The subject of how different comedians take different approaches is an interesting one – the key is authenticity. “Andy [Devonshire, the director]’s main advice is always ‘You don’t have to try to be funny when you’re doing the tasks because that’s not funny.’”
For some acts, that’s easier said than done. “Tim Vine probably couldn’t resist doing some jokes. But you’re seeing the creative Tim Vine rather than The Punslinger. He’s one of maybe five or six people who would be desperate to do it again – he feels like he left some things out there.”
Other comedians have a kind of gung-ho attitude – and that’s something that initially made Horne quite wary. “In series past, I wasn’t completely sure we’d be able to cope with Johnny Vegas. I’ve done shows with him before, and he’s always the funniest person – I was always worried about having a flavour that’s too strong in the mix over 10 episodes.” Equally though, the varied tasks in the show means that you get to see a different aspect of the personalities of normally bombastic comics. “My mum had seen Vegas before and wasn’t his greatest fan. But now she is, because she saw how artistic and fragile he is. So we do try to show all the different sides of people. They can’t help but show all their colours.”
The show has evolved over the years – going from a niche comedy panel/gameshow on Dave to the mainstream award-winning Channel 4 phenomenon it is now – and sometimes looking back on where the show started can be disarming. “We’re not ashamed of the old stuff, but when you look back at the posters it does make you think: ‘My God, six men and one woman.’ Weirdly we didn’t say ‘that’s wrong’ and no one else did, either. It’s been a really quick shift in the landscape of telly, which is brilliant.” Looking ahead, Horne is hopeful the show can go much further with diversity. “In the next few series, we’ll redress the balance pretty well. If you don’t count me and Greg, who are, unfortunately, white males.”
And so, we move on to the third task: “Recreate the ending of a famous film using only items from your kitchen.” Naturally I decided to remake the climax of Thelma and Louise, but replaced the car with a cheese grater and swapped out Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis for two brussels sprouts (I used a Sharpie to draw on smiley faces and popped a glob of noodles on top for the hair). I spent an upsetting amount of time on this task, and I was absolutely sure I was nailed on for five points. Horne is less enthusiastic, mostly because of the title – in a moment of uncharacteristic recklessness, I had decided to call my video Brusselma and Louise. “Greg would not have enjoyed this title. It’s not bad, Jack, but it’s not great.” I get three points – a measly third place in the show. I fume. That’s a Saturday night drawing on vegetables I’m not getting back.
The show does get surprisingly heated between the comedians sometimes. “When you’re in the top two with two episodes to go, people get desperate to win,” Horne acknowledges. None more so than Daisy May Cooper, who was leading the latest series until a heartbreaking meltdown in the final studio task, allowing Richard Herring to swoop in and take the crown (a golden bust of Greg Davies’s head). “I really like that there’s genuine emotion. Lots of people wanted Daisy to win, lots of people wanted Richard to win. He’s a very nice man trying his best up against a … force of nature.”
While winning is important, most fans would argue the lovable losers are the real reason they watch the show – from Nish Kumar and David Baddiel to Paul Sinha and Katherine Parkinson. “If somebody does a task really badly, then that’s better for us than if they do it really well. We always tell people when they get back to the green room after doing a task that they’ve cocked up, ‘You’ve actually really won that task, because people remember them more than the geniuses’. No one likes the clever people.”
Which brings us neatly crashing to my attempt at the final task: “Demonstrate a brand new dance to the tune of Macarena that is better than the original Macarena dance.” I look up the words of the Macarena and discover that it’s about a woman cheating on her boyfriend while he’s joining the army. This, then, will be a reinterpretation of the Macarena from his perspective – a soldier during a reconnaissance mission, ambushed by enemy forces. That was the intention. The result is a mess. Horne struggles to come up with a positive, and wants to know why I decided to use a massive ruler as a gun. I have no answer. “What we were talking about before – I think you might be embracing one point there.” I’ve lost. Which, by the logic of the show, means I’ve won. But it really feels like losing.
Over the course of the hour, I feel like I’ve had the full Taskmaster experience – elation, impotent fury, white hot embarrassment. In some ways it’s remarkable how emotionally draining it can be. I’m tempted to mention this to Horne but he preempts this with another, more relevant observation. “We’ve been talking quite earnestly for an hour. I’m very proud of the show, but I don’t take it very seriously. I’m aware it’s a very silly programme.”
Taskmaster returns for its 11th series on Thursday 18 March at 9pm on Channel 4