Alex Horne is gradually, cunningly, taking over your television. After sitting on the sidelines for years – frequent appearances in Dictionary Corner on 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown, devising the devious Taskmaster on Dave, acting as assistant to Greg Davies, and most recently voicing the button in The Button, BBC One’s homemade gameshow fast becoming a family favourite – Horne is now stepping into the spotlight.
This week he fronts a two-hour special with his Horne Section, a band (literally) of brothers (well, close friends), who have become a mainstay of the Edinburgh Fringe each August. Promising a mix of music, comedy and awkward dancing with Girls Aloud’s Nadine Coyle, we caught up with Alex Horne, sitting in the caravan in the garden of the Taskmaster house, to find out more.
The Big Issue: What does the word RETOXTREV mean to you?
Alex Horne: It sounds like a conundrum or something.
Yes, it was a conundrum on one of your appearances on the real Countdown [Alex Horne won three episodes in 2008].
Right. Were all the conundrums when you were on Countdown also words that could describe you?
I’m really not an extrovert, I don’t think. You get two types of comedians: extroverts and shy people who struggle. People are so disappointed when they meet me because I’m not funny in a social situation. I struggle at a dinner party to be entertaining but doing stand-up, you tend to know what you’re going to do, even if it’s improvised, so I know I can go up on stage and hopefully be funny. I can’t do that in my normal life.
Is there more pressure because you’re front and centre of The Horne Section Television Programme?
Yes, I’m normally very much the sidekick so I do have to be more alpha than usual.
How do you describe the show?
I’m not very good at selling things, but I’ll try. The Horne Section, first of all, is a thing I’ve been doing for eight or nine years. We’re a band of musicians, there is five of them and one of me, and we’re all old friends – two of them I’ve known from when I was a baby and our mums are best friends and all that, so we’re very close. We play songs, tell jokes and have guests from the world of comedy or music come and muck about with us. And then Dave gave us two hours to do that on television. It’s music and comedy, essentially. It looks lovely and sounds lovely – that’s the end of the sell.
Music and comedy are the ingredients of variety, which seems to go in and out of fashion…
Variety hasn’t gone away but the current version of variety is talent shows. You have variety, but you have four judges telling you whether it’s good or not. Hopefully people will just be enjoying it rather than saying what’s best and picking a winner at the end.
How much is improvised?
Improvised stuff works well live but less well on telly because you don’t quite buy it. We’ve got Nadine Coyle from Girls Aloud on and she doesn’t know where it’s going. We sing a song, one of her songs, ‘The Promise’ by Girls Aloud, but we sing it in a slightly different way so hopefully it’s fresh rather than… You often get shows like this where the artist comes out, will plug their latest single then perform that single. We’ve gone for a different angle.
Is the secret of Taskmaster seeing people amazingly succeed or amazingly fail, and rarely anything in between?
When we were pitching it Dave, the channel, said, ‘Do you not think it would be better if you gave the comedians warning of the tasks so you can guarantee it’ll be funny?’ Comedians are funny people, that’s why they’ve got the job so seeing their brains work is more entertaining than seeing the product of a day’s writing. I think that’s the secret of the show. You see people panic. They’re not always good, they’re not always bad, but they’re always one of the two.
There are a few more series of Taskmaster confirmed. Are comedians queueing up to be on it now they can see what a great showcase it is for them?
It is easier and it means they trust us. I think everyone’s gone away saying that was really fun. But I’m desperate for Jack Dee, Richard Ayoade and Dawn French to do it. These are people who’ve hinted they’re interested but they’re also the busiest people in the industry. And I also think we haven’t had enough people from Ireland, Scotland, Australia, America… There are plenty of routes to go down.
A US Taskmaster has recently started, where else is on your route to world domination?
Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium and Spain have versions. It’s really funny to watch their version of it. We have some say but we don’t really get involved. In Spain it’s a two hour Saturday night show, because all Spanish shows are two hours for some reason. It’s normally the same tasks, in a very different way.
You star as the assistant in the US version. Are you a major celebrity now?
We control the look of it and I’m there to make sure rules are adhered to. That was the stipulation. If they’d done it their way it might have been more mainstream but we didn’t want anyone to ruin it.
Do people suggest tasks to you?
It’s quite a subtle balance. We don’t want things to be wacky and bonkers but we do want things to be off kilter. I don’t think we’ve taken one from a member of the public but we may well have been inspired. We get sent a lot of videos of people’s own families doing their own games. And that makes me happier than anything.
Is that what led to The Button, the gameshow set in people’s sitting rooms?
Well, The Button wasn’t my idea. Someone from the production company thought a different way to do a gameshow would be in people’s houses, maybe subtlety influenced by Gogglebox, the idea that you don’t have to leave the home. Then me and the director of Taskmaster, Andy, were brought in to Taskmaster-it-up a bit and come up with the challenges. Normally with gameshows you get families in a weird situation in a studio and you don’t see real dynamics.
It’s nice to see real people on gameshows again.
The McCulloughs and the Marchants, they’re very ordinary people. And the money isn’t life changing but it will make a difference. It’s not like they’re risking a million pounds, so they try really hard and they have arguments with their kids. But I hope that it’s not invasive or too manipulative. We hope it’s warm rather than laughing at them.
You’re a musician, comedian, TV developer – when you were younger, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I ask my children that all the time. I wanted to be a writer so I’m not so far off that. I was a journalist for a good while. I worked at local newspapers down in Sussex, and really enjoyed it, and I did a journalism degree at Goldsmiths but I was also doing stand-up at the same time and local newspapers didn’t help because the stories were very silly. I did a story about a dead donkey once, and didn’t take it very seriously. I often say I’m a writer to hairdressers or taxi drivers, that’s an easy option as they stop asking questions after that.
The Horne Section Television Programme airs on Dave on 24 May at 9pm, and Taskmaster continues on Dave every Wednesday at 9pm