Richard Osman’s 14-year-old daughter is mortified by her dad’s new-found status as a heart-throb. Osman, Alexander Armstrong’s “Pointless friend” on the hit BBC1 quiz show, was voted a celebrity magazine’s Weird Crush in 2011 and regularly receives marriage proposals on Twitter.
“My daughter is appalled by it at all times, but you know you have to appal your 14-year-old daughter otherwise you’re not doing your job as a father. I’ve got a 12-year-old son but all he cares about is his PlayStation, which is fine.”
Fame and unlikely sex-symbol status came out of the blue for 42-year-old Osman five years ago when, as UK creative director of the TV production behemoth Endemol, he pitched an idea for a new quiz show to the BBC. “As always with quizzes, when you try to sell them [to a channel] you have to play them through, because they are impossible to explain. It gets very complicated, so I played the co-host.”
When the run-through was over, the BBC asked if he’d consider doing the job for real when Pointless made it to air. “I said yes; I was very chuffed. A small run was commissioned for BBC2 so I thought, ‘That’s fun, at least I can say I’ve made a TV show.’ Four years and more than 500 episodes later, we are still here.”
Pointless, which quickly moved to BBC1, was an immediate hit and has a huge, devoted following of well over three million at 5.15pm, which, in many households, is Pointless time. Everything stops for 45 minutes as fans rattle their brains to think of the most obscure, correct answers to questions about anything and everything, from “words ending in –low” to “WTA number one ranked tennis players”.
I meet Osman at Endemol’s offices in west London. He is unnaturally tall – 6ft 7in – so tall that I have to tip my head back a little bit as I say hello and shake hands. It’s like looking at a bookish owl at the top of a telegraph pole. He’s cheerful and friendly, with a sunny outlook on life. His favourite word is “lovely”. Just the day before, he and Armstrong filmed this year’s Pointless Christmas special. “Wizzard played I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day, the real Santa was there, as were the Chuckle Brothers, and Xander and I wore Christmas jumpers.”
Xander is, of course, the friendly diminutive for his big mate Alexander Armstrong. The pair’s easy-going, softly insulting friendship lies right at the heart of the Pointless appeal. It’s the dynamic that keeps people tuning in. They’ve known each other for years, since both were at Cambridge University.
“After we left, I went into telly and he went into comedy. We’d bump into each other every now and again and have a little chat. I’ve always wanted to work with him. When Pointless came up there had been talk in the papers about Xander doing Countdown, though I don’t know how true that was. But the team here was aware he might want to do a daytime show so it approached him.”
It’s impossible to imagine Pointless in any other hands and Osman is effusive about his friend and co-host. “He has so much to do in terms of explaining the show and keeping it on track, he’s effortlessly funny, the contestants love him and he lets me take the mick out of him something dreadful, all day, every day. None of it is scripted – we record four shows a day, there’s no time for that – we just throw stuff out there.”
As Armstrong’s “Pointless friend”, Osman sits at a desk with a fake laptop (“It’s a prop”) to check contestants’ answers. The aim is to secure a pointless answer to a question first asked of 100 people in 100 seconds, to win the daily jackpot and, most importantly, get your hands on a “coveted Pointless trophy”.
Contestants play in pairs and it’s always thrilling for snobs like me to sneer at the holes in people’s general knowledge (my personal Pointless Waterloo round involved Robert Redford films; no one had heard of Robert Redford). But neither Armstrong nor Osman is ever unkind, sarky or insulting to contestants. Neither will Osman be drawn into spilling the beans on contestants who might have got on his wick. “I like every single one of them equally.”
Both he and Armstrong love the participants. “If you didn’t like people, doing four shows a day would drive you mad. But I always try to stay aware of the fact that they are only going to be on Pointless twice, so we have to make it special so they can have fun. Everyone constantly surprises you – it gives you such a brilliant view of human nature, all of these people with hidden depths.”
Come on, you must see an awful lot of thickos, I wonder. He’ll only go this far and no further: “People can come along, especially students, who want to make an impact and subvert the game and you think, “Ah, no, not on my watch” and within one question we bring them onside. Whenever students are on they are either much worse than you would expect, or they are brilliant. There is never any middle ground.”
But what about these 100 people to whom Pointless gives 100 seconds to answer questions. They must feature a goodly proportion of lame-brains, considering their lack of knowledge about, say, politics. Besides, who are these mysterious 100 people?
“It’s all done online. We go to an online polling company whose job it is to take a representative sample of the population and they ask the questions. They are random people who don’t know they are doing it for Pointless, though I suspect if you are a Pointless viewer and you were asked, you’d work it out very quickly.”
The questions are compiled by a group of eight people “who spend their lives scouring lists and finding new lists. Verification takes for ever; you can’t just go to Wikipedia and say, ‘This is right’. We have to get three separate sources [to verify] everything. I get people on Twitter saying to me, ‘You got a fact wrong about this or that’. I always look into it and the people on Twitter are always wrong and the Pointless team is always right.”
And talking of Twitter, what about those marriage proposals? Osman is single, so is he tempted? “I am almost certainly not going to say yes to a Twitter marriage proposal.” Sorry ladies. You’ll have to continue worshipping from afar with your weekdays-only 5.15pm date, a civilised time for civilised people.
Osman continues: “The truth is, almost everyone in the world is lovely. But the world is ruined for us by the sociopaths and those who aren’t lovely. They are the ones who make all the noise and make the news. The rest of us just think, ‘It’s 5.15, we’ll all get together and have a bit of fun’.”