Alex Horne on the secret to his cult show Taskmaster: ‘It must be offbeat but not wacky, off-kilter but not bonkers’ | Taskmaster

Alex Horne is sweltering. Taskmaster, the British panel show in which five comedians complete tasks set by Horne across 10 episodes, is filming its 15th season. It’s an apocalyptically warm summer’s day in Chiswick, west London, at the former groundskeeper’s cottage where many of Horne’s meticulously planned tasks are filmed. Situated beside a busy golf course, under the Heathrow flight path and mere metres from the noisy A316, the location is a soundperson’s nightmare (it was chosen not only for its character, but also because it is close to the Taskmaster director’s house). The furious revving of car engines and the rumble of jets attack the low frequencies; wailing sirens and tinkling golf balls assault the high end. So as not to add to the ambient cacophony, Horne wears a vest which he says helps reduce the rustle picked up by the mic he wears on the black suit that has been his Taskmaster battledress since the series’ debut in 2015. It’s hot work.

Greg Davies – the titular taskmaster, who views the edited footage of contestants’ efforts along with a studio audience, ranking each comic’s performance out of five – refers to his sidekick as “little Alex Horne”. Horne, who is 44, stands at 6ft 2in. But it seems like an apt moniker today, as his trousers bunch schoolboyishly on the grass. When ordering his Marks & Spencer’s machine-washable suit – he owns four identical ones, worn on weekly rotation – he accidentally went for a 37in leg (“How? I don’t think anybody has a 37in leg,” he says). He didn’t bother to return it.

Horne holds his clipboard and whistle, a cross between an Olympic adjudicator and a smirking ringmaster, as the director calls “Action!”. Ivo Graham, a standup comic in his early 30s, emerges blinkingly from the decrepit caravan that serves as one of a half-dozen locations within the poky cottage’s grounds. Graham, with a sense of pantomime, picks up an envelope from the ground, breaks the red wax seal and reads out the task to camera. His ebullient manner immediately dissolves, replaced by a look of cold panic. Horne has asked him to compose a short piece of music – a recurrent task, with variations, across the show’s history. “I have no musical skills,” the comedian mourns.

The panel show is a uniquely British tradition, a format designed to showcase the most valued British characteristic: wit. To ensure each episode is sufficiently amusing, programmes such as Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks employ teams of writers who supply contestants with prefabricated jokes, to be performed as if they were off-the-cuff remarks. Taskmaster takes a different approach. Contestants read the tasks for the first time on camera. There is no time to contemplate a quip, to consider and discard the first two obvious jokes in favour of something more surprising. Here they must act on high-wire instinct.

Horne often says part of his job as the task-setter is to write the first half of a joke; it’s up to the contestants how they complete the gag. In season two, broadcast in 2016, they were told to “impress the mayor of Chesham”. Richard Osman chose flattery, composing a poem about Chesham’s superiority over neighbouring towns. Doc Brown launched unconvincingly into Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches. Joe Wilkinson spilled from plastic bags a forest of Calippo ice-lollies, eight cans of lager and £15 in cash. (Katherine Ryan won with a rap.) The viewer has the feeling of eavesdropping on the creative process, which lends the contestant – who we might only know from the sterile stage of, say, Live at the Apollo – authenticity. Each creative choice reveals something profound about the individual’s character or temperament, a trait that they might, in other circumstances, attempt to conceal.

This afternoon, however, it’s difficult to know where to look as a young comic is asked to instantaneously produce a skit that – and one must surely hurl this thought far from one’s mind – will in due course be watched by millions around the world. And yet, it is precisely this invitation for the audience to see the comic in a moment of vulnerability, as they truly are, that has made Taskmaster a phenomenon, one that has begun to profoundly alter the DNA of the British panel show.

Taskmaster Greg Davies with ‘little Alex Horne’. Photograph: Channel 4

The format was born through envy, Horne jokes. In 2009, while he was at home with a new baby, his friend, the poet and comedian Tim Key, won the Perrier award at the Edinburgh fringe. Horne devised a rival award scheme. Every month for a year, he set 20 comedians a task to complete. Then, at the following year’s Edinburgh festival, Horne hosted a show in which he judged the results, scored the contestants, and declared a winner. (The first task was to put the greatest amount of money into Horne’s bank account: Mark Watson deposited £200; no one else gave more than a fiver.)

Horne, who is lanky, meek and a born stooge, felt uncomfortable in the role of arbiter. He has described himself as a natural sidekick. So when his agency, Avalon, suggested the format might work for television, he asked Davies, who is full-bodied, commanding and a born educator – he taught drama in a school before he became known for playing a terrifying head of sixth form in The Inbetweeners – to assume the role of taskmaster. That left Horne to set the tasks and keep the scores (“the tedious part”, Davies says). In the original pitch, the plan was to film the tasks in comedians’ homes. Channel 4 paid for a pilot episode (which sensibly used the Chiswick cottage instead of anyone’s home), then rejected it. “They were worried that there was no script,” Horne says. “And that the cast didn’t change between episodes. And that the comedians didn’t know what they were going to walk into. And that I wasn’t well known.”

Dave, the free-to-air channel owned by UKTV, needed new comedy formats and took the risk. When Frank Skinner, the veteran of the cast, agreed to take part, others felt emboldened to sign up. Taskmaster’s inaugural season benefited from fortuitous timing: the producers secured Romesh Ranganathan and Josh Widdicombe before either was a primetime fixture. The first cohort fully submitted to Horne’s spell. In one task, the comics had to buy “the best gift” for Davies, for which they were given £20. Widdicombe tattooed Davies’s name on his foot – a thrilling act of commitment.

Taskmaster soon gained a reputation among comics for its sympathetic edits. The producers do not shy away from showing a contestant’s failings, but it is never cruel. “For somebody over a certain age who’s had various dealings within television, it’s difficult to let go of control because you’ve been shafted so many times in the past,” Liza Tarbuck told Ed Gamble on the Taskmaster podcast recently. “I see how healing it is for people of a certain age.” Off-camera, too, Horne and his colleagues have cultivated a thoughtful, supportive culture. Josh Widdicombe became a father while shooting. One day he arrived at his dressing room to find a task on the table. The envelope was addressed to his newborn daughter. Widdicombe opened the task and broke down in tears. It read: “Have the best life. Your time starts now.”

Compared with the highly charged, competitive environment of traditional British panel shows, Taskmaster allows everyone to have their turn, minimising the ego battling that can lead to women and less established names being crowded out. The show’s bookers ensure diverse casts (especially in more recent series). Earlier this month, Fern Brady posted on Instagram that her appearance on the show “made me profoundly accepting of my autistic self”. A new kind of show for a new kind of time, Taskmaster remained a niche hit until 2020, when it moved to Channel 4, the network that formerly spurned it. Horne says leaving Dave felt like a breakup. While he still refers to Taskmaster as a “cult show”, it has legions of fans around the world, and clips on YouTube have collectively notched up tens of millions of views. One of the most popular, James Acaster’s Best Taskmaster Moments, includes a classic scene in which Davies escorts Acaster to the rear of the stage for an on-mic telling-off. In 2020, the show took the Bafta for best comedy entertainment, and in 2021, it won best comedy entertainment show at the National Comedy Awards. Nowadays, agents petition the Taskmaster team on behalf of their acts. A spot on the show has become one of the most coveted bookings in British comedy.

‘Please know that talking about yourself is awful and I say all of this with the appropriate amount of shame.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

Horne, who was brought up in West Sussex and sings in the Horne Section, a five-piece comedy band that frequently appears on radio, podcasts and panel shows, and has just finished its run as a Channel 4 sitcom, is softly spoken and turbo-apologetic. “Please know that talking about yourself is awful and I say all of this with the appropriate amount of shame,” he says, as we sit down to chat in between tasks. The exaggerated persona he plays on the show – the deferential butler-worm, who appears to take quasi-sexual pleasure in Davies’s big-handed bullying – comes, in part, from Horne being the middle sibling of three, a position he thinks also affected his career choice. “In my band we’re all middle children,” he says. “The older brothers have sensible jobs. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted.”

On car journeys, Horne and his brothers would play number-plate-based games, or pub cricket, where one’s score is equal to the total number of physical legs belonging to the people or animals in a pub’s name. Together, the family watched the quintessential task-based gameshows of the early 90s, such as The Krypton Factor and The Crystal Maze, supplying some of the DNA Horne recognises in Taskmaster’s design. He attended Lancing college, an expensive private school near Shoreham-by-Sea. There, Horne became secretary of a travel society for which he had to deliver a speech once a term. It was the first time he had tried to be funny in public. “It wasn’t all ‘heads-down’ at school, which was helpful,” he says. Still, it was sufficiently heads-down that Horne progressed to Cambridge University.

While the private-school-to-Oxbridge career path can instil in young people a narrow, arguably damaging definition of success, the games Horne designs for Taskmaster accommodate a broad range of proficiencies. His tasks don’t only reward the Olympic superlatives of fastest and strongest. While some are measured objectively (“Don’t blink: longest time wins”), many have subjective solutions (“Make the best music video for a nursery rhyme”), a mixture that levels the field between the athlete and the poet. Moreover, contestants who discover legitimate shortcuts or ingenious cheats are always rewarded. “We really don’t want the young sporty man to run away with it each season,” he says.

Still, Horne is something of a stickler for rules. During filming in the cottage, he wears slippers – not for comfort but because, in the early days, the team agreed to wear them to avoid treading mud or task-related substances through the corridors. He is the only crew member to have stuck to the policy. This character trait juxtaposes pleasingly with the extravagant capriciousness of the taskmaster himself. While in the studio Davies is occasionally bound in his points‑giving by numerical results, more often he is free to judge on whim and instinct. This provides the randomising element that every great game, from poker to golf, requires. Horne considers golf the perfect Taskmaster game: “‘Get this ball into that hole in as few shots as possible. Your time starts now.’ It’s so stupid,” he says.

Horne has designed hundreds of tasks, not only for the television show, but also for the spin-off books and board game. Inspiration for these mini games can strike at any moment, but he usually drafts tasks while driving, or while walking his dog, Loki, around Chesham, Buckinghamshire, where he lives. He is not averse to borrowing, either. “I took the family on a camping trip and the youth leader asked the kids to run across a field while shouting,” Horne explains. “They had to run as far as they could before their breath ran out. I thought, ‘We’ll have that.’” There are no fast rules or guidelines for what makes an idea suitable for Taskmaster. Horne says tasks must loosely be “offbeat but not wacky; off-kilter but not bonkers”. Ideally, there should be 10 ways of approaching the challenge, rather than two or three.

Sometimes we see celebrities acting in ways that cut pleasingly against their public persona. The image of Victoria Coren-Mitchell failing to ride a bicycle is just one of a dozen indelible examples of someone known for their superior intelligence being put in a context that shows them to be lacking. Horne recalls David Baddiel, who haplessly failed at many of the tasks, leaning forward during a break in recording and whispering to Davies: “You know, I am really clever.”

The show is filled with callbacks and sly nods to delight the attentive viewer. Returning props create recurrent themes: ducks, potatoes, pineapples. As in so-called legacy board games, where play sessions leave marks on the board that carry from session to session, so the Taskmaster cottage bears marks and scars from previous seasons. Horne enjoys writing new tasks that riff on old ones, too. “Easter eggs won’t make people laugh,” he says, “but they’re just nice to have, particularly for what it’s fair to say is an audience on the nerdier side.” Extras return (Fred the Swede has a compilation of clips on YouTube that has been viewed almost a million times) and previous contestants, such as Al Murray, who lives close to the cottage, occasionally have cameo roles. These echoes provide a meta texture – yet another novelty in the context of panel shows – that build a sort of comedian cinematic universe.

Today’s compositional task outside the caravan is a two-parter, a classic Horne design trope in which, once the first task is complete, he draws a second envelope from his suit pocket – a follow-up challenge that usually forces the contestant to curse their previous choices. In one memorable example, former Bake Off presenter Mel Giedroyc was presented with a loaf of sliced white bread and an assortment of chocolate bars and sweets, and tasked to make an “exotic” sandwich. Then Horne presented her with a second envelope that instructed her to eat her exotic sandwich. Surveying her teetering creation she said, partly to the film crew, partly to viewers: “Oh, gang.”

Each show ends with a studio task, in which the five comedians compete on stage. This requires a different kind of design from the team. “We’ve definitely had a lower hit rate with those,” Horne admits. When they work, however, these moments can prove the most memorable in the show’s history. In series seven, for example, contestants had to prod the back of the person in front of them with either their finger or a sausage. If the prodded person correctly guessed “sausage” or “finger”, the prodder was eliminated. “I don’t think there are any fixed rules,” he says. “A lot of it is on instinct. But those are fiddly. And we never retake, so if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.”

Taskmaster is a popular export. Some countries show the British version, while eight others, including Sweden, New Zealand and Portugal, film their own (the Swedes have a female comedian in Davies’s role). Some of the foreign versions employ a “designers’ room” – a group of task-setting comedians to spread the burden of having to originate so many new ideas for each season – but Horne is reluctant to relinquish control of what is, undeniably, the essence of the show. “Maybe I’m an idiot,” he says, “but I worry you’d lose that sense of authorship. Maybe there’s a little part of me that just worries it would be better.”

Filming Taskmaster with Joe Thomas. Photograph: Avalon/UKTV

Early on, the team attempted to take the show to the US, but changes to the format broke the spell and it was quickly cancelled. “The main problem was it was half the length of the UK version, but with the same number of ad breaks,” he says. “It forced too many changes.” Horne enjoyed the experience of walking out in front of American audiences to a roar of applause, “despite the fact that they had no idea who I was”, but he has no plans for a second shot. Instead, American audiences come to Britain – often flying to London to sit in on the live show recordings at Pinewood. More than 70% of the millions of people who have watched Taskmaster clips on YouTube are American, a fact that has led Avalon to recently launch an on-demand dedicated Taskmaster channel in the US.

The show’s influence is steadily spreading. New shows such as Richard Osman’s House of Games, and David Mitchell’s Outsiders borrow some of the format ideas pioneered by Horne and the team. Osman has said that Taskmaster’s success was what convinced BBC executives to allow the celebrity contestants on House of Games to remain fixed between episodes. Taskmaster’s continued rise is indicative of a sea change in British comedy away from competitive joke contests popularised by Mock the Week and, at a time of routine absurdity in the political sphere, a collapse in the value of satire towards a different kind of authentic, intimate humour. It is a show that invites the viewer, deliciously, to better understand the person behind the persona. (Backstage With Katherine Ryan, a recent Amazon Prime Video series, films the backstage banter and fits of nerves standups experience before sets – another example of the new intimacy of televised comedy.)

While task-setting is Horne’s passion, it’s clear that he also sees his primary role in the show as a facilitator for other comedians – to help promote up-and-comers, or to show old hands in a new light. He shrugs off viewers’ frequent suggestions for non-comedian contestants. “I’d rather see comics not being funny, than non-comics trying to be funny,” he says. “It’d be doing a disservice to the comedy fraternity and sorority because there are so many people who haven’t been on it who I think would be great. I’d rather have, say, Josie Long on than Anneka Rice.”

Fifteen series in, the juggernaut continues to accelerate. “I’d prefer it if Greg and I were the ones to call time on this,” he says, of the prospect of the show ending. “But for now, there’s so much more to do.” His shirt has come untucked – preparation for changing into his civilian clothing (“It’s the same suit, just one size larger,” he jokes.) But first, Horne is summoned to film the final task of the day, the team eager to catch the last of the light. He tucks his shirt in and, after Graham emerges from the house, hands the contestant an envelope and a retractable tape measure. One of the joys of Taskmaster is that while some tasks rely on hours of preparation, others require a single household prop. As Graham opens the envelope, a smile crosses his face. He squints at Horne, then at the tape measure, then back at Horne. “Oh yes,” he says. “Oh yes.”

Taskmaster’s New Year Treat is on Channel 4 at 9pm on 1 January. It will be followed by a new series in 2023.