What made you sign up to Taskmaster?
It’s right up my street because it’s relentlessly silly. You never get bored doing it because you don’t know what’s coming next. It’s very clever. Even on studio days, we didn’t know what tasks they were going to show. It’s been fascinating. I did Big Brother once, and you get conditioned in Big Brother after three weeks, to the extent that when I came out I didn’t know how to cross the road without being told.
Taskmaster was a bit like that because all you want to do is please Greg. It all becomes about that. Although it’s trivial, that master-slave relationship does get to you in the end. And when you make him smile or laugh, it’s such a thrill. In the prize task you never know whether your gift is going to please him or not. It’s like when you’re dating someone. There’s a lot of jeopardy involved.
Did you have any tactics for trying to please him?
No, because I hadn’t watched it that closely. I was trying to stick to the brief, but in some tasks, people were being very clever by interpreting it in a surreal way. I wish I’d thought of that. I was just getting it done.
If you hadn’t watched Taskmaster closely before doing it, did you know what you were getting into?
I did, but I didn’t realise how popular it is. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone I was doing it, but I brought it up in conversations, and what I realised was that young people particularly love it. They absolutely love it, and they watch it in different countries. It was nice to be a part of that and it was nice to be on such a well-run show, because they’ve been doing it for a while so it’s ever so smooth and comfortable. And the people on production are nice people, which is unusual in television.
Did you speak to any Taskmaster alumni?
Yes, I phoned Jo Brand when I was offered it because she’d just done it. I said, “Is it the sort of thing I’d enjoy?” and she was very encouraging. She said, “Yes, because you think on your feet, and because there are so many comedians there, there’s no pressure on you to be funny because everyone gets to be funny.” I didn’t feel competitive about it.
None of you seemed all that competitive compared to previous years.
No, quite. I have watched a few series with these young bucks, trying to bump everyone out of the way. It’s funny, but hopefully we are still funny in a different way. We’re all in the same boat and I’m kind of amused by everyone, including people I didn’t know that much about. Lucy Beaumont is so funny, and Sam has a very interesting mind. It’s stimulating to be around people who have got a different take on things.
But you knew Sue before?
Yes, I knew Sue. We did Just a Minute together. She was very sharp and clever with the tasks in this. Normally, comedians, we’re always on our own. I tour on my own, it’s just me and my tour manager, so it’s really delightful to be with people on this, and being with funny people, over a long period of time. You get to know how they work and what might be their bit and you all have space to be fun in different ways.
How did you react to the tasks? Some people panic when they first open them up.
Oh, I didn’t have that. My problem is not being bored, exactly, but being, “For God’s sake” when I first read it. Being unenthusiastic, shall we say. Some of the tasks were so cryptic, almost nerdy and designed to confuse you.
Tell me about your relationship with Alex. Was he helpful, at all, during the tasks?
It took me a few days to work out, “Who is this person?” because he doesn’t communicate much when you’re doing tasks. He’s quite circumspect. Putting someone down is a comic device I’ve used often over the years and he was the only person there, so that’s what I ended up doing.
You don’t get much from him, but he’s very scrupulous and fair. He was just always there in the corner, usually behind the camera with his clipboard. It’s a strange role he has because he’s the clever one, but he’s also the inferior one compared to Greg. It took me a while to work that out. But I did like him, and after we’d finished a task, if I said, “That was terrible,” he’d say, “Oh, you’d be surprised” so you’d hope that you hadn’t done as badly as you thought, which was quite nice. But it was so relentless – task after task, day after day – so it became a way of life. He was a constant presence during these task days.
I very much enjoyed your constant put-downs of Alex.
Well, I’m naturally a bit dour. I was mortified sometimes when Greg said, “Oh, you look bored” because that’s just my way. I thought it was just because I was older and cynical but actually, thinking about it, I was like this as a child. It’s just the way I am.
And how did you get on with Greg?
It’s unusual for me to want to please someone, but I’ve been a bit puppy-dog with him. He’s very enigmatic, and everyone’s looking at him all the time. He has a very well-developed – I was going to say inner child, because he’s very giggly and childish – but he’s really an alpha male. I should imagine he’s in charge wherever he goes, whatever he does. I might be wrong but I can imagine him going into a shop and ordering a sandwich and being, “This is what I want and give it to me now.” So I hated disappointing him. I hated it when he got a bit dismissive. It’s mortifying, and you feel slightly jealous if he’s praising young Sam, you know?
People often say being on Taskmaster brings out your inner childishness.
Yes, it does. It’s a bit like being a kid, but it’s also a bit like being a wife in one of these marriages where they have multiple partners. You want to be the one chosen to give him his favours.
How do you describe the relationship between Greg and Alex?
Like a lot of marriages, it’s all different things mixed up, isn’t it? So there’s obviously affection, and there’s a very deep knowledge of each other. And it’s funny because you think Greg’s always the one in charge, but then you know that Alex is the one behind the tasks, so they subvert that. It’s complicated, just like proper relationships are. And it’s not at all like Morecambe and Wise, or any of these other partnerships. It’s a million miles away from that, which is unique, really.
Did you have any moments where you go, “I could have done that so much better”?
Yes, you do. I was really pleased with all my prizes and there were a couple I thought were perfect for the brief. But it all depends on what mood Greg’s in. You think, “Please like it” and he may well heap praise on you but then he likes the next person’s gift more and the next one more.
Have you learned anything about yourself?
Yes, I suppose I have. I’ve learned that sometimes it pays off to think about things more and not be so impulsive. I’ve always had this idea that your first thought is probably the best one, and it often is. In a pub quiz, the first thing that pops into your mind is usually the right one but in this, lateral thinking would sometimes have been a good idea. I can’t change the way I am, but you do think, “Gosh, how long did it take Sam to think of that?”
Have you got anything coming up that you can talk about?
I’m playing Seaman Smee in panto at the Palladium with Jennifer Saunders, which will be lovely. I’m a big fan of hers and I loved working with Dawn, so I’m sure I will love working with Jennifer. I'll be touring a brand new stand-up show next spring. It's called 'A Fistful Of Clary' and it has a western theme... it was only a matter of time before I eased myself into some chaps. I'll also be playing Herod in a touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar this autumn. I'm looking forward to presenting my crazed, queer, imperious King Herod. I'm thinking Putin meets Cleopatra with a hint of Biggins.