Greg Davies has always been big in comedy. He’s 6ft 8in. Yet on Taskmaster, the comedian seems bigger still, lording it over not only the contestants on the daft panel show cum parlour game, but also Alex Horne – the sidekick host who Davies offhandedly christened “Little Alex Horne” in an early series. The name stuck and has become a running gag at the top of each episode.
It’s an ironic nickname (Horne is 6ft 2in) yet sums up why Taskmaster is one of TV’s most refreshing comedies. It’s nonsensical, silly and different from anything else on TV: comedians, such as Frank Skinner, Richard Osman, Sally Phillips, Mel Giedroyc and Bob Mortimer, flounder as they attempt to win odd tasks like “Collect the most tears in an eggcup”, “Cheer up a former traffic warden”, or “Do the most preposterous thing with a chickpea”, all in a bid to win points from the Taskmaster, Davies. It’s this distinctiveness that no doubt helped it beat The Graham Norton Show, The Last Leg and The Rangana-tion this year to win the BAFTA for best comedy entertainment programme. There’s really nothing else quite like it on TV.
Davies, 52, will be familiar from his TV appearances in comedies like Cuckoo and Man Down, but the teacher turned stand-up comedian is best known as Mr Gilbert, the headmaster in The Inbetweeners. Horne, 42, is best known for his musical variety act, The Horne Section, and as well as being the focus of Davies’s ire on Taskmaster, he’s also the show’s creator.
You could be forgiven for not having seen Taskmaster. Having aired on UKTV channel Dave for five years, it steadily built up a loyal fandom of more than a million viewers a week and became a cult hit with a dedicated following. Now it has the chance to reach a wider audience for its tenth series, moving to Channel 4 after a deal was signed for the broadcaster to make six series of the show across the next three years.
It’s come a long way from the initial idea Horne had in 2009 when he set 20 comedians monthly tasks over the course of a year, culminating in the inaugural Taskmaster show at the Edinburgh Festival in 2010. Production company Avalon and Horne subsequently pitched it to broadcasters (Channel 4 included), and while most didn’t have the confidence to commission it, Dave saw something in it. The name Taskmaster stuck, Davies was brought on board and there have since been more than 70 episodes, a book and even a board game.
Here Davies and Horne tell Radio Times about their off-screen relationship, how The Great British Bake Off gave them the confidence to move channel, and if there’s life after Taskmaster…
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Taskmaster is finally coming to Channel 4! Comedians and co-hosts @gregdavies and @littlealexhorne are our cover stars this week and share how they created their unlikely double act and Bafta-winning comedy. See inside the issue for the full interview! Also in this week's Radio Times: Michael Hodges explores the life of Artemisia Gentileschi – one of the greatest female artists ahead of Inside Museums; @afuahirsch shares her tangled history with slavery and the journey she went on for the new show Enslaved with Samuel L Jackson; Mike Leigh, writer-director of the beloved classic Abigail's Party, shares his dissatisfaction for the TV version of the original play; the directors of John Bishop's Great Whale Rescue on the difficulties of creating the show; and Jodie Whittaker uncovers her roots in Who Do You Think You Are?. All this and more available in this week's Radio Times, available now at newsstands and via the link in our bio! . . . Cover feature shot exclusively for Radio Times by @simonwebbphoto ???? #radiotimes #radiotimescover #jodiewhittaker #wdytya #abigailsparty #mikeleigh #johnbishop #samuelljackson #afuahirsch #taskmaster #gregdavies #alexhorne #comedy #history #documentary #art #museum #insidemuseums #artemisiagentileschi
One of the things Taskmaster fans love most about the show is the irritable, cantankerous (yet very funny) dynamic between the two of you. How did that relationship develop?
Greg We did a pilot – a non-broadcast pilot – and the brief was that I was just going to be an overlord who was horrible to everybody. How that’s distilled down is I’m now less horrible to everybody, but consistently awful to Alex.
Alex Yeah, you probably started off being quite nice to me. That’s completely flipped.
Greg The dynamic has somehow morphed into all of my rage being channelled Alex’s way.
Alex And in the pilot you had a cane, which sort of seemed ridiculous immediately.
Greg With a gold “T” on it, yeah. As soon as I sat down, I felt absolutely ridiculous. So that didn’t make it past the pilot.
Alex Our relationship definitely felt easy straightaway. People always ask me how Greg came up with the “Little Alex Horne” nickname, and if it was part of a grand plan. But there was no memory of that. He just started saying it.
Greg A lot of it happened in the moment, you know? You’re in front of an audience and your synapses are firing away!
Do you remember the first time that you both met?
Greg I certainly can’t remember where it was.
Alex I’ve got one memory. My first memory of you, Greg, was… we did a gig at a university – the farmer’s university in Wales.
Greg Oh, God. The agricultural college?
Alex Yeah. And you did quite well. I think I might have been the compere, but we didn’t know each other very well until this show.
Greg Not really at all. I mean, let’s get to the point: there was no relationship whatsoever.
It’s all the more extraordinary that you’ve built such an enjoyable on-screen relationship, in that case…
Greg Isn’t it? It’s strange. Because there was nothing to start with.
Alex Less than nothing.
Greg And now there’s a simmering contempt that people seem to enjoy!
How do you feel being so entrenched in this “mean” persona, Greg?
Greg I think that people who watch the show – and exactly the same happened when I was in The Inbetweeners – have formed the false impression that I have any genuine authority in life. It’s a pantomime authority; in real life I’m shambolic, so it’s preposterous. But people like to be told off and put in their place, and actively ask me to tell them off – online and in person.
Do you just get a lot of sympathy, Alex?
Alex No. I think people tend to be on Greg’s side and join in. A lot of people shout “Little Alex!” at me. And in real life, I’m actually quite authoritative and strict.
Greg He is! I’ve seen him. I’ve seen him in action within the family. He’s an ogre.
Alex [laughs] I get people using my admin skills to try to basically plan their wedding or stag night. They say, “Can you just come up with six tasks for us on our hen night?”
Greg There’s no doubt that you get the worst deal when it comes to fans of the show. “Can you do an enormous logical task?” And all I get is: “Will you be horrible to me?”
Have you become friends away from the show, too?
Alex We lead quite different lives, because I’m in a house in the countryside, doing the school run – and Greg’s in a flat in London and has more of a single lifestyle. He’s been to mine and seen the kids and stuff, and I really love going to his flat. It’s nice not to have to talk about children all the time.
Greg I’m just so full of bluster compared to Alex. He’s a real doer, yet I think I’m a bit of a foghorn by comparison. It’s an unlikely friendship. Do you think we would have found each other without Taskmaster, Alex?
Greg I don’t, either…
Alex Greg keeps inviting me to go on holiday with him, and I keep saying no, but I think, soon, it’s going to happen.
Greg I don’t know whether I keep inviting you [laughs]. I think there may have been one invitation.
Alex I reckon it’s double that.
Are contestants ever genuinely angry about not only the tasks but also Greg’s scoring?
Alex Definitely on the judging. I think in the tasks, they know the deal. But in the studio… Greg in the most recent series we filmed, there was one contentious decision that had to be made, and for the first time ever, I handed it over to Alex because I wanted him to taste the pressure of what it’s like to have to make those decisions. He hated it.
Alex I was also very weak and went for the easy option rather than the correct option.
Greg Very rarely do people get genuinely angry, but there’s certainly been more than two occasions where people were genuinely cross with me.
Alex Two things happen a lot, which is Greg writing down on his card and showing me, “I think I got that wrong” immediately after, or writing down on his card, “That person’s really cross with me”.
Greg If people don’t invest in it, and if we didn’t invest in it, it wouldn’t work as well. I’m genuinely stressed if there’s a contentious decision, and I have to make the right call, or I feel that I’ve made the wrong call. While I’m in the studio, I really do beat myself up about I mean, as soon as I’m in the car home, obviously I put things in perspective [laughs].
Alex And most of the comedians snap out of it immediately and go, “Oh my God, I don’t know what’s just happened there.”
Greg Most. Most.
Greg, Josh Widdicombe had your name tattooed on his foot during a task in series one. Are you constantly surprised at how far the comedians will go?
Greg Always. There’s always at least one occasion during a series where we can’t believe that someone’s done the thing they’ve done. In the most recent series we did, someone genuinely left me speechless.
Alex Yeah – with a life-changing thing that’s happened.
Greg Also, as comedians, the thing that they hold on to is that they’ve spent a long time finding their comic voice and are very in control of the persona that they offer up, yet they just can’t do that in Taskmaster. And the results are always delightful. The person I always cite is David Baddiel. You think of him as being quite a lofty academic, but he gets dropped into Taskmaster, and the man’s a buffoon.
Alex It’s almost always the higher the degree, the worse they are. Katherine Parkinson has got a classics degree from Cambridge yet is an idiot – in the best possible way.
Was it hard to leave the channel that had backed you from the start? Did it feel like a messy divorce?
Alex Yeah. It was pretty horrible… But it’s fine. It was all very amicable. It was just a bit sad, like any sort of breakup, really. Especially a breakup where they can see the new partner, and the new partner is a bit bigger than them. It’s definitely awkward. But after the BAFTA win, we were on a Zoom call with Dave, and it was all lovely. That was a really nice way to mark what we had done together, I suppose.
Greg There’s no animosity at all; genuinely, there isn’t. They were just wonderful about it.
Alex They wished us well, and understand that it’d be an odd decision not to move to a bigger channel if it was offered. I’m hoping fans will be able to share it more with their mates, like my mum who can’t find UKTV. Just being on terrestrial should make it easier to find.
Did Bake Off’s move to Channel 4 give you cause for concern – or confidence? Some Bake Off fans have never forgiven them…
Alex Channel 4 were very reassuring. Lots of our crew work on Bake Off as well, and they said Channel 4 had been great and let them get on with it.
Greg We weren’t as contentious a move, you know? There were some huge changes of personnel and all sorts of things in Bake Off, so I think it felt more dramatic. This, to us, just felt like quite a natural progression.
Unlike previous series, this run was filmed without a studio audience, due to coronavirus restrictions. Did you consider postponing it?
Alex We considered everything, really. For a while, it looked like it would all have to be over Zoom on screens, which would have been a real shame. We were all tested all the time, and we talked about if someone tested positive, would we have a stand-in? Would we have them on Zoom from home? We talked about having an audience outside, like Henman Hill [at Wimbledon], but we thought it wouldn’t work.
Greg It was a different dynamic in the studio. Well, I’m sure Johnny [Vegas] wouldn’t mind me saying that he said he’s glad there isn’t an audience there, because he didn’t play up to them as much. I think that’s true of all of us.
Now you’ve created an award-winning double act, have you considered doing other projects together? Is there life after Taskmaster?
Alex We’re always nattering about it.
Greg We’ve had ideas about it, but it feels that while Taskmaster is running, that’s as much of each other as we need. I hope we do go on to do something different, though. And we’d want whatever comes next to be sufficiently challenging, and not just to plonk our dynamic into something that’s familiar. But at the moment, we’re both just loving this. I think it was Dale Winton who said, “Don’t quit the hit.”
Alex And I think we need Taskmaster to come to its natural end. Whenever that is…
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.