What can you tell us about the casting in this series, Greg?
It never ceases to amaze me. You expect the dynamic to be tried and tested by now, but no two groups are ever remotely the same. The way five people spark off each other and respond to tasks is always unique. It’s fascinating. Really, it’s like a science experiment. It’s sort of taken over from Big Brother, I think, before Big Brother got silly. I find the great joy of this show is the revealing of a side of people that they normally keep locked away.
There’s a loose grouping system where you can put a label on “the clever one” or whatever, but it’s never in the same way. For example David Baddiel was “the clever one” last time, and Victoria is this time, but they’re very different characters. Being clever is just one side of their personality. We as the public, and I include myself in this, like to reduce people as much as we can, especially with comedians or funny people, where we like to be able to sum them up in a sentence. This throws that all out of the window.
Talk me through them, then, starting with Victoria.
I knew Victoria a little bit, so it was nice to see a side of her that I hadn’t seen before. Victoria is a fiercely intelligent woman, and known for it – so when she’s less than logical, or baffled by her own logic, or furious that she’s been asked to do something nonsensical, it’s comforting to get another angle on that. The joy of comedy is you’ve got to select which parts of yourself you present to the public. But if you take Victoria as an example, she’s such a unique, warm, fascinating person, and you get to see a little bit more of that than you normally would. There are moments where she’s so disarmingly honest, you just think, “Aww, that’s so sweet.”
I don’t know how Victoria feels about being labelled as the clever one, mind you. She’s an international poker player, which shows that there’s more to her than some nerd who pushes her glasses up on her nose and reels off facts, and she certainly proves that in this series. The great thing about her is she’s happy to make absolutely bonkers statements, and then argue the case for it.
She was very argumentative with you, wasn’t she?
Very Head Girl. She has a natural authority to her. On many occasions, she walked into a room and saw the task, and if you didn’t know the show, and if you weren’t fully concentrating, you’d think that Victoria was running it, which I found hilarious. But at some point, she had to accept that not only was she not in charge, she’d also done some things very badly.
What about Desiree?
She’s naturally funny. The running joke we had with her was that every time she opened a task, she seemed surprised that it was a stupid thing to be asked to do. I’m not sure she ever accepted which show she was on. But she was so naturally funny, so warm, and had no hesitation about making herself look ridiculous. She’s got funny bones, and she really shines in the show. Her laugh is preposterously infectious. And her swears are so inventive! The weird thing is, some of them are designed to avoid swearing, and then sometimes she just comes right out with it. It’s a weird combination of someone who’s openly foul-mouthed, and someone who’s riddled with Catholic guilt. There’s no consistency of system there. But very few people use the f-word the way Desiree does. On more than one occasion, she read the task and went, “Oh, f*ck you!”. She’s one of those people I admire because when she says she’s going to do something, she does it, rather than fannying around.
What did you make of Guz?
You might have seen his sitcom, Man Like Mobeen, which is very funny. I was aware of him because I’d been on Would I Lie to You with him, and we’re both ex-teachers, so there’s a connection there. But he’s another one who is just funny to the core. He’s a compelling bulls**tter. He really could sell you anything, as I said on numerous occasions during the show. He fixes you with that piercing stare and tries to convince you of something that’s absolutely preposterous. He knows he’s not going to get any points, but he does a damn good job of trying to talk you into it. He’s just someone who’s born to do this. I loved watching him. I was as amazed that Guz was ever a teacher as I am that I was [a teacher]. He has the memory of a goldfish. But here’s the joy of it: he doesn’t care. Couldn’t care less – but often, the people who do well at Taskmaster are the people who have no intention of winning. They have no intention of lifting the trophy at the end, they’re just here to have fun with it – and he certainly had fun, and did better than any of us expected.
I guess she’s known primarily as being an impressionist – and she’s a very good one – but I think she only did one or two impressions throughout the whole series. I don’t think she reached into her bag of tricks more than once, because she didn’t need to. She’s really funny – and loud! Every time she greeted her teammates, I wanted a pair of ear-muffs. I loved that energy. She seemed to be constantly ramming ice or frozen peas down her clothing. She’s someone who threw herself into everything. That’s what you want with Taskmaster, someone who goes, “I don’t care what I look like.” There’s a task where she sat on a cake and I wouldn’t be surprised if that video becomes viral for the wrong reasons. I don’t think we needed to see her sitting on a cake that long, to be honest.
Like Victoria, she was quite argumentative with your scoring system.
Yes, but only in a playful way. Contestants soon learn that my judgements are two things: they are inconsistent, and I stand by them. As a despot, that’s what you’ve got to do, even if you perhaps make the wrong decisions – and God knows in this series, I made, off the top of my head, three decisions that I stood by at the time, and afterwards I went, “That was a terrible, terrible decision.” The contestants are dealing with a slightly unpredictable despot, and they need to factor that in. So if it doesn’t work, it’s their fault, not mine.
And lastly, Alan?
Well, he’s a funny one, Alan. Unlike a lot of comedians, he’s not a natural show-off. He’s not someone who tries to pull focus, but he’s quietly hilarious. And, of course, as I do to all middle-aged people – which is ironic, given my age – I always tar them with the middle-aged brush, and say that they can’t be bothered to do things. But the truth is, Alan’s responses were often quietly very clever and thoughtful. He was a comforting presence. I got the impression he was having a whale of a time. He was giggling away like Muttley throughout the whole show. He often did terribly, but sometimes he did well and surprised me. He really entered into the spirit of it. With the prize tasks, a lot of comics grab the first thing they see as they’re leaving the house, but Alan really made an effort on two or three things, which I found adorable. I love that a middle-aged man is at home, making things to offer as a surprise task on this ridiculous show.
In the grand scheme of things, where does this series sit? Is it the funniest or the weirdest, the most argumentative?
I think it’s unique, as they always are. When you put five people into this preposterous format that that hairy little weasel Alex dreamt up, the combinations are endless. The different ways that they respond to things are endless, and that’s the reason it’s still going, and the reason it still feels fresh, and the reason it’s still finding a new audience. Since we moved to Channel 4, the audience has doubled. All of a sudden, there are people discovering 12 series of this madness. I wouldn’t put these five as the ”‘most” anything. I think they’re unique and funny, and people will love them.
You mentioned earlier that you occasionally make decisions you regret. Are there any tasks from previous series that you get a lot of stick from fans about?
Yes, I get a lot of stick! I do! I particularly get a lot of stick online, but I don’t care. I genuinely try to score things fairly, but some of the things that I have to judge are subjective. There are things that I might delight in that perhaps somebody else wouldn’t. It’s not a science, appealing to my judging system, but there you go. I can hand on heart say that I try to do the right thing every time, and I weigh things up. But then, in the spur of the moment, sometimes you reflect on a decision you’ve made, just as you do in life, and you think, “I got that drastically wrong.” People get absolutely infuriated by that, and all power to them. We live in a country where there is free speech, and I welcome it. I’ll ignore it, but I welcome it.
Is there a specific task that still comes up as being controversial?
I saw some fuss online from series two, when I disqualified Joe Wilkinson’s potato throw because his foot was touching the mat. I got sent a video by Alex recently saying, “This is still doing the rounds.” It was from a man who’d taken some time putting a video together that proved, in his opinion, that Joe’s foot was never on that mat, and that it was a travesty of justice. The fans are passionate, and they want it scored fairly. All I can say to them is I genuinely do try and do it fairly, but I sometimes, occasionally, might get it wrong.
Is there a chance that you would ever be a contestant on Taskmaster, perhaps for charity?
I’d have to know who the Taskmaster was going to be first.
Alex suggested Guz might make a good Taskmaster.
Yes, I can see that. He’s got the right amount of substance-free authority.
Romesh Ranganathan could do a good job as well …
Yes, but let’s not use this interview to suggest replacements for me! Someone will sit on that throne over my dead body. I’d be a great contestant, so part of the reason why I’m able to channel my rage so effectively in that room is because I’m secretly thinking, “I could have done that much better.” The only things I struggle with are the logic tasks, where Alex gets his nerd on and starts putting codes for people to work out. I’d be rubbish at those. But all the others, I genuinely think I would be incredible at. The joy is, I will never do it so I can’t be put to the test, which I’m sure will annoy people reading this. I’m happy to put it on the record though: I would be superb. I hope it doesn’t come across as arrogant, but I would have been a contender to win all 12 series.
What would Alex be like as a contestant?
I was about to say he’d be good at the nerdy, quiz-type, unravel-the-mystery tasks, and rubbish at the physical ones. But in this series he plays football, and I was blown away that he’s more physical than I thought. He walks like an animal that’s learning to walk on its back legs, or a Victorian wind-up tin soldier. He’s a very awkward man. Then I saw him play football and thought, “Ah, there’s some hand-to-eye co-ordination happening that I never knew he had.” There’s some motor skills going on there! The thing is with Alex, he goes into everything in a full-throttled manner. If you watch tasks where Alex is required to eat something awful, take his clothes off, sit on something awful, he immediately does it – which is what makes him the perfect assistant, because he is subservient.
Is your relationship any different this time around?
We’ve such an unlikely friendship, Alex and I, but it’s crept along nicely. I’m more than happy for it to be made public that Alex and I have been camping together. I never thought him and I would spend a night under the stars, but we did. It was pre-lockdown, and it was even voluntary. The fact that I did is progress for our friendship. Beneath the insults, you can sense a new warmth. He’s a clever bugger, isn’t he?
You’ve got another Champion of Champions coming up – are you excited for that?
Yes, I am. Although one of the many things that I find, once I sit in the throne of power, is that I despise competitiveness in anyone. A lot of the people who will be joining us again have naked ambition and are genuinely competitive. It’s something that puts my neck out, so I’m going to be extremely annoyed during it, because there’s going to be a lot of people who really want to win that.
Despite the fact they make themselves look totally foolish, celebrities still seem to be queuing up to do the show.
I hope so! Yes, I think they are. I think it’s because we reassure them before they take part that, outside of the obvious premise of the show, we’re not out to ridicule anyone. I like to think of it as making themselves look stupid, but on their terms. I think of it as a gang show. It’s no surprise that new friendship groups are born out of this show, although I don’t get invited to them. They always form WhatsApp groups, but I’m never allowed to join them.
Does anybody actively approach you and ask to be on the show?
You can tell when people want to be on it, but I’m just one voice. It’s a big group of people who decide. I’d like Lorraine Kelly to be on it. She’s such a comforting presence. It’d be good to see a different side of her. I suspect there might be an edge to her, so she’d be hilarious. It’s a great show for mischievous folk. Joanna Lumley would be great fun, get a bit of celebrity royalty on there.
Talking of royalty, Alex said he’d like Prince William on the show.
It’s the modern monarchy, so why not? Obviously the door’s closed to Harry now as he’s not an official royal any more, but William or Charles would be more than welcome. Actually, there aren’t many situations in my life where I wouldn’t want Prince Charles involved. I honestly can’t think of any occasions where Prince Charles wouldn’t enhance my enjoyment. Not Harry though, he’s banned. We also need a Dame. Shirley Bassey would be a sensation! I think these names are realistic. They’d say “yes”. They need a career boost, don’t they?
Can you win more BAFTAs?
I don’t know. It’s always nice to get a little bauble for the team. The team behind the show are so phenomenal. The two Andys – Cartwright and Devonshire – are such clever buggers, and it’s all thanks to them beavering away as well as Alex obviously coming up with this wonderful format. It sounds like such a cliché but everybody involved in this show is nice, apart from me. It’s just delightful. They go the extra yard, honestly they do, and I think that’s part of the success. It’s nice for everybody to get baubles, but we’re all having a lot of fun regardless. I think we’re just getting into our stride.