News: Taskmaster – My Part In Its Global Success

News: Taskmaster – May Part In Its Global Success

Taskmaster has become a huge television success. The unique game show in which comedians have to perform increasingly silly stunts such as play golf with a potato or get a random 55-year-old to high five them in a shopping centre has become a worldwide hit. The format, originally created by co-host Alex Horne, has been sold to 170 countries at the last count and nominated for so many awards it is hard to keep up. This Thursday it is back for its eleventh series. The second since transferring to C4 in the UK.

Since it started on TV in 2015 the tasks have seen comedians go way beyond the call of game show duty. When they had to find a £20 present for host Greg Davies Josh Widdicombe had the word “Greg” tattoo’d on his foot. Elsewhere Bob Mortimer squeezed into a car boot with Horne. Roisin Conaty tried to transport a boulder as far as possible.

After you’ve seen Romesh Ranganathan trying to devour an entire watermelon in a minute you’ll be cancelling his dinner party invitation pronto. Watermelons are something of a theme – Richard Herring and This Country's Daisy May Cooper had to feed each other watermelons in the tenth series last year. As with Romesh it got very messy.

And the fun did not even stop during lockdown, with Horne setting tasks for the public online. His quirky Hometasking challenges included throwing paper into a bin – inevitably harder than it sounds – camouflaging yourself and turning your bathroom into a party venue.

The madcap format has stayed the same for C4 even though it has not always been easy to film during lockdown. The latest line-up features Charlotte Ritchie (Ghosts, BBC One), acclaimed stand-up Jamali Maddix (Hate Thy Neighbour, Vice), BAFTA-winning comic Lee Mack (Not Going Out, BBC One), actor, writer, and comedian Mike Wozniak (Man Down, Channel 4), and BAFTA-nominated actor and comedian Sarah Kendall (Frayed, Sky One). 

It's not often I can claim to have played a small part in a programme’s success, but I think I can with Taskmaster. Not that you would have seen me though. Unless you were one of the hundred or so hardcore fans at the Gilded Balloon Theatre in Edinburgh in 2011. Before Taskmaster started picking up rave reviews and featuring TV stars such as Lolly Adefope, David Baddiel and Katherine Ryan it was a humble Fringe one night stand.

The budget might have increased but the inspired silliness was there from the outset. Twelve months earlier, after there had been an even more anarchic dry run at Edinburgh 2010 (which was won by Mike Wozniak) Alex Horne contacted me to ask if I would like to take part with a group of comedians. Each month Horne would set us a task via email which we would perform alone and then at the Edinburgh gig the results of our endeavours would be revealed and points allocated to decide on a winner.

Horne filmed the Edinburgh gig and it became part of the pitch that landed him the commission from Dave. The rest is history. So it’s nice to know my involvement in a series of stupid dares played a modest if pivotal role in the show's global success.

Taking part was a revelation. It taught me more about comedians than I ever learnt writing about them for two decades. For starters they get brilliant snacks backstage. Now I think I know why people want to be comedians. On a table before we went on were crisps of all flavours, chocolate bars and as much fizzy pop as you could drink.

But more importantly taking part made me realise a) how instinctively creative comedians are and b) how fiercely competitive they are. While I did the tasks when I had a few spare minutes in my downtime it seemed as if the comics spent every waking minute coming up with different ways to outdo each other.

There was no Greg Davies as chief Taskmaster back then, but the seeds of the show’s future success were clearly there. Among those taking part were Josie Long, Stuart Goldsmith, Dan Atkinson, Mark Watson, Lloyd Langford, Joe Wilkinson and Horne’s real-life chum Tim Key, who became a 'Task Consultant' on the TV iteration. Key also appeared on the first series and tried to bag top spot in one round by bribing Horne and Greg Davies.

The live version quickly set the template for unlikely challenges. One task, for example, was to “create a copy of Alex Horne”. Obviously the simple option would have been a painting. I thought I was being clever when I noticed how ovoid Horne’s head was. I hard-boiled an egg, painted his face on it, glued on some of my children’s old fuzzy felt for hair and posted it to him.

I thought I was in with a shot of first place. But on the day I was wiped out by other entries here as in almost every round. Comedian Dan Atkinson had sculpted a Horne lookalike head. And even made a Lionel Richie/Hello-style video to go with it.

And as if that wasn’t enough, loitering backstage near to the crisps before the gig I had noticed a bearded, naval-looking man quietly leaning against a wall who looked remarkably like Alex Horne. When the time came he was carried aloft onstage by Tim Key, who had hired him for the day to use as a Horne clone.

Another challenge was to “cheer up” Bristolian comedian Mark Olver. I did my research on this one and discovered in an old interview with him what his favourite brand of artisan burger was. I then bought the burger from a van on the South Bank in London and travelled straight to Bath where I presented it to Olver during a gig he was doing at Komedia. It still was not enough to top the table.

If the comedians were brilliantly imaginative Alex Horne himself was not averse to a spot of mischief. In the middle of February I received an email saying there was a bonus round - extra points could be earnt by standing in the sea with a copy of that day’s newspaper. Should a risk a wintry dip? I decided against it. But then it got to April and Horne emailed again. Nobody had done it so the points were still up for grabs.

As it happened I was on holiday by then so I steeled myself and leapt into the icy Easter water near Bridport. It was only when it came to the August reveal that it turned out that Horne had only been sending these messages to me with the sole intention of giving me a self-inflicted dunking in the English Channel.

I had my moments though. Competitors had to get someone famous to send Horne a signed photograph. I used some tenuous showbiz connections to get Andy Murray to send Horne a picture on which he wrote something like “Alex Horne you are a marvellous person” and notched up some valuable points. I think Tim Key got very close to getting Jennifer Aniston.

It was not enough to snatch victory, although it did lift me off bottom spot. Josie Long was victor, beating Stuart Goldsmith in a gripping finale by fitting 18 grapes in her mouth. Goldsmith is still smarting from the defeat. "I had her on absolute lockdown and then one fell down the back of my throat and I gagged. We reprised that challenge on episode nine of the Infinite Sofa (his online chat show) in May 2020 and she beat me again - this time by bringing a bunch of the tiniest grapes you've ever seen, retaining the win in a personal grudge match I'm happy to last the rest of our lives."

To be honest I’m not sure if any of us expected the idea to have a future. But if they ever run out of comedians to invite on I’d love to be asked back. If I am I promise I’ll be more ingenious. And if that fails I’ll follow Tim Key’s tactic and bribe Horne and Davies.

Taskmaster 11 starts 9pm, Thursday, 19 March, Channel 4.

An earlier version of this article appeared in The i here in 2020.

 

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