“I sit in a hot tub and let the bubbles inspire me”: Alex Horne and Greg Davies on 17 series of Taskmaster

“I sit in a hot tub and let the bubbles inspire me”: Alex Horne and Greg Davies on 17 series of Taskmaster

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Thursday, 28th March 2024
Greg Davies sits next to Alex Horne
Greg Davies and Alex Horne (credit: Avalon/Channel 4)

After 17 series of playing minion to Greg Davies, you’d think Alex Horne would have his eyes on the Taskmaster's throne.

But when the duo Zoomed in from a press day in New York — testament to its trans-Atlantic, if not global appeal — there were no signs of a mutiny. The long-suffering sidekick still knew his place.

Read on to hear the true source of Horne’s boundless inspiration for task devising, and a disgruntled Davies ruing his breakfast order.

You’re 17 series in, how has your relationship evolved over the series?

Greg Davies and Alex Horne: Hmm…

AH: Well, we've just spent the last three days together, and it's not gone that well.

GD: There's been a lot of tension in the last three days. On camera, I think, the relationship’s softened. I feel less animosity. And Alex has to actually work harder to make me angry on camera — and he does, he deliberately says things to irritate me.

AH: I do my best.

GD: Because I think I've softened with age. So on camera, I think it's a battle for him to poke the hornet's nest. Off camera, it's pretty complicated and it would probably take up the whole interview…

AH: I ordered an omelette this morning, and so Greg also ordered omelette, and the omelette wasn't very nice. And that’s all he’s talked about since.

GD: I know I could have not ordered an omelette, but every now and again, I think, ‘let’s throw the guy a bone and do things his way’. And 100% of the time, it works out badly. We waited 40 minutes for a dry omelette, and I'm still furious now. It sounds like this is a bit for your interview, but it's not, I’m genuinely livid.

Well, I'm glad I got the big scoop there. Alex, are you fed up of playing second fiddle to Greg, then?

AH: No, not in the slightest. I think me — or my character — is still revelling in sitting next to him, and thinking ‘I'm the luckiest boy in the world’.

GD: And on camera?

AH: I’m not sort of subdued at all. And occasionally I do get to wield a little bit of power, or Greg lets me do something and I get a bit nervous. So no, it's exactly the same really.

GD: It's a tale as old as time really. For every king, there were always a number of underlings pedaling away doing the graft. But you've got to have the crown out front.

Is there anything that's gotten harder about the making of the show?

AH: No, I think things have got easier. For our bits, we used to meet up before the show and write it a bit more, but now we do things more off the cuff and trust each other.

GD: I feel that we have confidence in the world, and it feels like the universe is fairly neatly bordered. So we feel we know what to do.

AH: People always say ‘are you not running out of ideas?’, but I don't think you can run out of ideas.

GD: Well, I've got to say, the one public compliment I would pass Alex's way is that his capacity for coming up with endlessly inventive tasks is seemingly bottomless.

AH: Thank you, Greg.

GD: I do think it's incredible. And I think it's incredible that he's found a home for that talent, because anywhere else it would be worthless. If he just lived in a village, he would be derided.

AH: I do live in a village.

GD: Yeah, you know what I mean though, if you hadn’t found this as an outlet…

AH: Right, yes, if I was trying to do it on a farm…

GD: I think you would be seen as a sort of novelty character in the village.

Alex, have you found it harder over the years to come up with those ideas? Have you had to try out new methods?

AH: Not really, I've got quite a bank of things in my notepad. And the more you do something, the more the ideas come. When we're making the show, they sort of - [*Looks at Greg*] He’s going to talk about my hot tub, I think. I’ve got a hot tub.

GD: He’s irritated I bring it up because you asked him how he does it and he has a very specific way of doing it that he hasn't told you about, and he may as well just tell you about it.

AH: I sit in a hot tub, and you can't use a phone in a hot tub so I've got a waterproof notepad, and I let the bubbles inspire me.

GD: And if that quote doesn't make it into whatever you're writing…

AH: That's my favorite place to work, so I spend a lot of time in it. But I don't think that's a great image to remember me by.

How much of an involvement do you have in the casting? And do you consider what kind of chemistry everyone's going to have?

GD: We all discuss it, and we're all mindful of getting a good mix. But the interesting thing is that you do deliberately create what you perceive to be a good mix, and they always are a good mix, but not necessarily in the way that you're expecting them to be. People confound our expectations every series.

AH: But we try not to make it too formulaic. It always happens that there is somebody who's older than the others because that's how age works, but it's not like a deliberate, ‘Let's have an old guy we tease for being old’.

GD: It’s never, ‘let’s have this type of person’. And that wouldn't work anyway, because in the context of the Taskmaster world, people are never what you expect them to be.

AH: But we know what the next two series are after this one. And I think they’re always surprising. What I really want is that no one can predict what the lineup is going to be.

GD: No one was expecting Elton John, for example, in the next series.

AH: Yeah, he’s the first non-comedian, Elton John, to be in it.

[Ed. note: This was, unfortunately, a joke.]

Is there any talk of expanding the criteria?

AH: We’ve not ruled it out, but for now, it's still comics. But there’s lots of different types of comics nowadays. In this one, we've got Sophie Willan, who's more a comedy writer and actress. And then Steve Pemberton who, again, is from different worlds. Comedy is so broad.

GD: But it helps to have people who are driven to some extent by making people laugh.

So how did this new group get on?

AH: Sophie and Joanne [McNally] were the ones we knew least well before, so they surprised us most. They were very, very funny. Whereas I knew John Robins very well from real life, and he didn't surprise me because he's the most competitive man in the world.

GD: Steve Pemberton surprised me because I'm a huge fan of Steve's work, and you don't really know what to expect, when you think of the grotesques that he's presented the world! But he's actually just charming and polite and very intelligent and very British.

AH: Nick Mohammed is pretty weird.

GD: Nick was what I expected, because I probably know Nick the best. But he didn't disappoint! He delivered my hopes.

AH: If you only know him from Ted Lasso then you'll be surprised.

GD: I mean, Nick chose to dress as a vampire for the whole series.

Nick Mohammed in Taskmaster series 17 (credit: Avalon/Channel 4)

Did you know what he was going to wear before you started filming?

AH: Well, we always say ‘what do you want to wear for it?’ And we show them what people have worn in the past. And normally, there's someone in the series who might wear a slightly outlandish jumpsuit. But he's the first to go all in, and sort of in character. It didn't change how he behaved at all, but he was just Dracula.

Did it not get in the way of his task solving?

AH: It was very hot.

GD: A more cynical man would say he deliberately hamstrung himself by wearing a vampire’s cape throughout.

The show’s become known for both promoting up and coming comedians and showing older comics in a new light, are there are any that you're particularly proud of playing a part in?

AH: Yeah, well on this little trip we've talked about Sam Campbell quite a bit, introducing him to a wider audience. He would have absolutely got that audience anyway, but I think, in our show, you’re on it for 10 weeks and you can really display what you're about.

GD: I think certainly in the UK we've given his madness a wider viewing, and we love that.

AH: It might just be that we hit them at the right time. But someone like Fern Brady, I think she could really be herself on the show. Then Mike Wozniak and John Kearns… There’s quite a few who probably would have got there anyway.

GD: Yeah we’re not claiming to be king makers. But we like to think we slightly chivvy things up in some cases with people we know are brilliant that perhaps people have not had the chance to see their brilliance.

AH: They don't need to be nervous about being on the show. Because even though it's a big shop window for them, it's not like you're coming on delivering your routine. You're just being yourself for 10 weeks.

GD: That’s probably the hardest thing for people I think: just accepting that all of their hard work that they've done to craft their material and their characters they have to leave at the door to some extent.

It makes them vulnerable, and it kind of shines a light on their creative process in some way. Because it's all spontaneous, right?

AH: And people have struggled with that: to be themselves on telly. Particularly the actor types. But then, someone like Sally Phillips, who was so good, you normally don't see the real Sally Phillips but she really took the opportunity.

GD: And was so fun on it and so unrestricted. And Steve Pemberton’s a good example, I think, you wouldn't know what to expect of him when you think of some of the League of Gentlemen, or Inside No. 9 characters.

AH: And some things he did really badly which is always great. You don't want someone to be good all the time.

GD: I love that. I love us exposing people who are perceived to be hugely competent, to be human. And I think it's good for them. Deborah Meaden [Dragons’ Den investor] springs to mind.

You’ve been asked before for your dream contestants. But if we can expand that slightly to dead or alive?

AH: I wouldn't mind Pelé. Pelé in his pomp.

GD: Pelé’s good!

AH: I just think it'd be funny on the lineup if there was Pelé and four comics. If it's real people: Stephen Merchant. I think he’d be really funny.

GD: Yeah we've spoken to Stephen and I think he wants to do it. Unless he's lying to us.

AH: But if you say the names enough then eventually they’ll do it. So I’ll have Pelé and Merchant.

GD: And if we had an American I really think Theo Von the comedian would be amazing on Taskmaster. I like people whose brains work in a way that I can't get my head round.

The show has been exported to multiple countries, the franchise's expanded to board games and books. What's the next thing?

AH: Well the VR game is coming out soon and I've played it and it's genuinely really good. It really suits it.

GD: And they've made me look quite buff, which I enjoyed.

AH: Whereas I’m the opposite, they’ve made me quite a weakling. We’re also hoping there will be this live experience thing where you go and do the things, which I think will happen. But we try to only do things if they're going to be good. We don’t want to milk it.

GD: Off camera, I'm hoping that Alex and I start figure skating as a couple.

Taskmaster was nominated for Comedy Entertainment at the RTS Programme Awards 2024. Taskmaster series 17 starts airing weekly from Thursday 28 March on Channel 4 at 9.00pm.

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After 17 series of playing minion to Greg Davies, you’d think Alex Horne would have his eyes on the Taskmaster's throne.