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Summarize this content to 100 words Alex Horne is sweltering. Taskmaster, the British panel show in which five comedians complete tasks set by Horne across 10 episodes, is filming its 15th season. It’s an apocalyptically warm summer’s day in Chiswick, west London, at the former groundskeeper’s cottage where many of Horne’s meticulously planned tasks are filmed. Situated beside a busy golf course, under the Heathrow flight path and mere metres from the noisy A316, the location is a soundperson’s nightmare (it was chosen not only for its character, but also because it is close to the Taskmaster director’s house). The furious revving of car engines and the rumble of jets attack the low frequencies; wailing sirens and tinkling golf balls assault the high end. So as not to add to the ambient cacophony, Horne wears a vest which he says helps reduce the rustle picked up by the mic he wears on the black suit that has been his Taskmaster battledress since the series’ debut in 2015. It’s hot work.Greg Davies – the titular taskmaster, who views the edited footage of contestants’ efforts along with a studio audience, ranking each comic’s performance out of five – refers to his sidekick as “little Alex Horne”. Horne, who is 44, stands at 6ft 2in. But it seems like an apt moniker today, as his trousers bunch schoolboyishly on the grass. When ordering his Marks & Spencer’s machine-washable suit – he owns four identical ones, worn on weekly rotation – he accidentally went for a 37in leg (“How? I don’t think anybody has a 37in leg,” he says). He didn’t bother to return it.Horne holds his clipboard and whistle, a cross between an Olympic adjudicator and a smirking ringmaster, as the director calls “Action!”. Ivo Graham, a standup comic in his early 30s, emerges blinkingly from the decrepit caravan that serves as one of a half-dozen locations within the poky cottage’s grounds. Graham, with a sense of pantomime, picks up an envelope from the ground, breaks the red wax seal and reads out the task to camera. His ebullient manner immediately dissolves, replaced by a look of cold panic. Horne has asked him to compose a short piece of music – a recurrent task, with variations, across the show’s history. “I have no musical skills,” the comedian mourns.The panel show is a uniquely British tradition, a format designed to showcase the most valued British characteristic: wit. To ensure each episode is sufficiently amusing, programmes such as Have I Got News for You and Never Mind the Buzzcocks employ teams of writers who supply contestants with prefabricated jokes, to be performed as if they were off-the-cuff remarks. Taskmaster takes a different approach. Contestants read the tasks for the first time on camera. There is no time to contemplate a quip, to consider and discard the first two obvious jokes in favour of something more surprising. Here they must act on high-wire instinct.Horne often says part of his job as the task-setter is to write the first half of a joke; it’s up to the contestants how they complete the gag. In season two, broadcast in 2016, they were told to “impress the mayor of Chesham”. Richard Osman chose flattery, composing a poem about Chesham’s superiority over neighbouring towns. Doc Brown launched unconvincingly into Tony Bennett’s Rags to Riches. Joe Wilkinson spilled from plastic bags a forest of Calippo ice-lollies, eight cans of lager and £15 in cash. (Katherine Ryan won with a rap.) The viewer has the feeling of eavesdropping on the creative process, which lends the contestant – who we might only know from the sterile stage of, say, Live at the Apollo – authenticity. Each creative choice reveals something profound about the individual’s character or temperament, a trait that they might, in other circumstances, attempt to conceal.This afternoon, however, it’s difficult to know where to look as a young comic is asked to instantaneously produce a skit that – and one must surely hurl this thought far from one’s mind – will in due course be watched by millions around the world. And yet, it is precisely this invitation for the audience to see the comic in a moment of vulnerability, as they truly are, that has made Taskmaster a phenomenon, one that has begun to profoundly alter the DNA of the British panel show.Taskmaster Greg Davies with ‘little Alex Horne’. Photograph: Channel 4The format was born through envy, Horne jokes. In 2009, while he was at home with a new baby, his friend, the poet and comedian Tim Key, won the Perrier award at the Edinburgh fringe. Horne devised a rival award scheme. Every month for a year, he set 20 comedians a task to complete. Then, at the following year’s Edinburgh festival, Horne hosted a show in which he judged the results, scored the contestants, and declared a winner. (The first task was to put the greatest amount of money into Horne’s bank account: Mark Watson deposited £200; no one else gave more than a fiver.)Horne, who is lanky, meek and a born stooge, felt uncomfortable in the role of arbiter. He has described himself as a natural sidekick. So when his agency, Avalon, suggested the format might work for television, he asked Davies, who is full-bodied, commanding and a born educator – he taught drama in a school before he became known for playing a terrifying head of sixth form in The Inbetweeners – to assume the role of taskmaster. That left Horne to set the tasks and keep the scores (“the tedious part”, Davies says). In the original pitch, the plan was to film the tasks in comedians’ homes. Channel 4 paid for a pilot episode (which sensibly used the Chiswick cottage instead of anyone’s home), then rejected it. “They were worried that there was no script,” Horne says. “And that the cast didn’t change between episodes. And that the comedians didn’t know what they were going to walk into. And that I wasn’t well known.”Dave, the free-to-air channel owned by UKTV, needed new comedy formats and took the risk. When Frank Skinner, the veteran of the cast, agreed to take part, others felt emboldened to sign up. Taskmaster’s inaugural season benefited from fortuitous timing: the producers secured Romesh Ranganathan and Josh Widdicombe before either was a primetime fixture. The first cohort fully submitted to Horne’s spell. In one task, the comics had to buy “the best gift” for Davies, for which they were given £20. Widdicombe tattooed Davies’s name on his foot – a thrilling act of commitment.In my band, we’re all middle children. The older brothers have sensible jobs. We were allowed to do whatever we wantedTaskmaster soon gained a reputation among comics for its sympathetic edits. The producers do not shy away from showing a contestant’s failings, but it is never cruel. “For somebody over a certain age who’s had various dealings within television, it’s difficult to let go of control because you’ve been shafted so many times in the past,” Liza Tarbuck told Ed Gamble on the Taskmaster podcast recently. “I see how healing it is for people of a certain age.” Off-camera, too, Horne and his colleagues have cultivated a thoughtful, supportive culture. Josh Widdicombe became a father while shooting. One day he arrived at his dressing room to find a task on the table. The envelope was addressed to his newborn daughter. Widdicombe opened the task and broke down in tears. It read: “Have the best life. Your time starts now.”Compared with the highly charged, competitive environment of traditional British panel shows, Taskmaster allows everyone to have their turn, minimising the ego battling that can lead to women and less established names being crowded out. The show’s bookers ensure diverse casts (especially in more recent series). Earlier this month, Fern Brady posted on Instagram that her appearance on the show “made me profoundly accepting of my autistic self”. A new kind of show for a new kind of time, Taskmaster remained a niche hit until 2020, when it moved to Channel 4, the network that formerly spurned it. Horne says leaving Dave felt like a breakup. While he still refers to Taskmaster as a “cult show”, it has legions of fans around the world, and clips on YouTube have collectively notched up tens of millions of views. One of the most popular, James Acaster’s Best Taskmaster Moments, includes a classic scene in which Davies escorts Acaster to the rear of the stage for an on-mic telling-off. In 2020, the show took the Bafta for best comedy entertainment, and in 2021, it won best comedy entertainment show at the National Comedy Awards. Nowadays, agents petition the Taskmaster team on behalf of their acts. A spot on the show has become one of the most coveted bookings in British comedy.‘Please know that talking about yourself is awful and I say all of this with the appropriate amount of shame.’ Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The GuardianHorne, who was brought up in West Sussex and sings in the…

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