Painting a horse while riding a horse, concealing pineapples on your person and stacking potato-based products. Welcome to Taskmaster, Dave game show and subject of the latest RTS Futures event.
The programme, which has been a hit with UKTV audiences and earned nominations for RTS, Bafta and Emmy awards, began life on stage in Edinburgh, explained its creator, Alex Horne, at a sold-out event at the London Transport Museum.
Every month for a year, in the run-up to the 2010 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Horne asked a bunch of fellow comics to complete a daft task. “The first task I sent them was, ‘Deposit some money in my bank account – most money wins.’ Mark Watson put nearly £200 in; no one else got over a pound – and that funded the project.”
Other tasks followed. “Send me something large through the post” elicited copies of Eddie Large’s autobiography; while Tim Key found a hedgehog in just eight minutes. At the festival, all 20 comics were on stage with Horne as he reviewed their efforts.
“It was a fun night, but it was long and unwieldy,” recalled Horne, who halved the numbers of comics for a repeat performance at Edinburgh the following year.
Horne’s management company, Avalon, whose TV arm makes comedy shows Catastrophe and Man Down, thought the idea would work on screen. However, Taskmaster was rejected by a host of broadcasters, before UKTV’s then senior commissioning editor, Richard Watsham, gave it the green light.
“This was a really brave commission. No one else commissioned it because they couldn’t quite [visualise] it – they could see the enthusiasm but it felt risky,” said UKTV deputy director of commissioning Hilary Rosen, who has looked after the show at the broadcaster from the start.
Taskmaster didn’t follow the template of TVs hugely popular panel series: standalone shows, peopled each week by different panellists. “We had to commission several episodes of [Taskmaster] because it has a narrative arc. The same people are in the show every week. No one else was doing that at the time,” she continued.
“[UKTV] were very supportive and trusted us,” said executive producer and series director Andy Devonshire. “It’s not a panel show and it’s a bit strange.”
The first series aired on Dave in summer 2015 with a top-notch panel of Frank Skinner, Josh Widdicombe, Roison Conaty, Romesh Ranganathan and Key. “We got Frank involved [and he] was crucial in terms of getting [that] calibre of people,” said Horne.
Most of the tasks are invented by Horne, who described the process as like “coming up with a joke” – but with a crucial difference: “I write the opening line and get a better comedian to write the punchline.”
The first part of the show is shot in a West London house where most of the tasks are attempted, although sometimes it goes further afield. Horne’s favourite task – “Impress the mayor” – took Taskmaster to Chesham Town Hall.
Not all tasks work, said series producer Andy Cartwright, who explained how “Burst the bubble wrap” was tried and failed in three series. “Everyone ended up stamping on it,” he said, which made for dull telly.
The same task cropped up in the Swedish version of the show but worked better. “They were allowed to use petrol and torched it, which got rid of the bubbles very quickly,” said Devonshire.
When the tasks for an episode have been filmed, the show takes to the studio where the “taskmaster”, comedian Greg Davies, assisted by Horne, passes judgement and awards points for the panellists’ performance.
“People have asked, ‘Were you annoyed that you didn’t get to host your own show?’” said Horne. But he revealed that Davies had always been his choice for the role. “Greg is ideal and it was always the plan. I love my role as sidekick,” he said.
“We could say, ‘’We always knew that Greg and Alex would have great chemistry – it was obvious from the start’ – but it’s not. Greg is known to be an extremely nice and popular person. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the chemistry is going to [work] – you’ve got to be lucky,” added Rosen.
Taskmaster has just finished its fifth outing on Dave and a “champion of champions” special to crown an overall winner from all five series is scheduled to air before Christmas.
The RTS Futures event, “Taskmaster masterclass: get your idea on TV”, was held on 8 November at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, London. It was chaired by Sky commissioning editor Bill Hobbins, and produced by Tara Magan and Tom Popay.