As a long-term sufferer of chronic, incurable Anglophilia, I find myself drawn to content from across the pond with the dyspeptic regularity of an unfortunate intestinal condition.
Recently, I’ve begun to compulsively wander into the wilds of “Britcom,” which as you might imagine is short for British comedy.
Everyone who’s at least a little bit online knows Graham Norton, and possibly has a passing familiarity with the Big Fat Quiz of the Year. But let me tell you, it’s turtles all the way down, motherfucker. Once you step off into the infinite content spiral of Britcom, and experience the narrative delights of Would I Lie To You?, the informative chaos of QI, and the inventive kookiness of Taskmaster, you’ll never go back to dry and witless American late-night shows and network half-hours again.
In the wise words of a gif I have saved on my phone, “This is some professional like… this shit is in different areas! What the fuck!”
Let’s circle back to Taskmaster. Taskmaster, the cream of the Britcom crop, is a “panel game” show, with a fairly basic concept, of which all of the magic lies in the execution and the presentation.
Over the course of a few months, five contestants are set a variety of absurd tasks, which they are filmed completing in isolation on location at the Taskmaster House. Anchoring the antics of the revolving cast of contestants are the program’s host, Greg Davies, and his assistant, Alex Horne. At the end of the task season, the contestants come together to film the episodes in-studio, during which Alex presents the filmed tasks to a live audience, and Greg proceeds to dole out points and proclaim a winner.
Now, some clarification is necessary here. Alex Horne is the actual creator of the show, and chose Greg Davies to host the program. The show is written by Alex, including the reliably unpredictable banter segment between him and Greg at the beginning of each episode, which Greg is never forewarned about. Alex is the one who creates and constructs all of the tasks, picks the contestants, structures the episodes.
But here we come to the kinky crux of this piece. Within the narrative mythology of the show, however, the Taskmaster is the one who sets the tasks, according to his inscrutable whims, and it’s merely Alex’s job to see to it that they get carried out.
In the studio, Alex becomes “Little Alex Horne”— a title bestowed on him by Greg sometime during Series 3 which proceeded to become both permanent and iconic.
Little Alex Horne, despite being an above-average 6’2” in height, cowers beneath the monstrous 6’8” bulk of Lord Greg Davies, a.k.a. the Taskmaster.
Little Alex Horne is a nebbishy, officious, obedient creature who lives and dies to serve the Taskmaster.
Little Alex Horne is implied, canonically and textually, to live with the Taskmaster, sleep with the Taskmaster, cuddle with the Taskmaster, and have every aspect of his life, from his diet (strict) to his salary (zero) to his freedom to see his own children (nonexistent), controlled with an iron grip by the Taskmaster.
Little Alex Horne hardly has an identity of his own, subsumed as he is in the role of Greg Davies’ Assistant. And that’s the way he likes it. Probably.
Over nine seasons of chaos and madness, with contestants undertaking such diverse tasks as “Fill this eggcup with your own sweat,” “Make this Swedish person blush as deeply as possible,” and “Put something genuinely surprising inside this chocolate egg,” Britain’s best comedians have had the opportunity to prove their ingenuity and daring.
Fans will fight you over favorites, and over such controversial issues as whether Mark Watson deserved a point for dozens of cheeky texts, or whether Al Murray’s profligate spending during the course of competition counts as cheating.
But I’m not here to talk shop about Mel Giedroyc and Hugh Dennis’ adorable friendship, or rate James Acaster’s quality shirts, or even admire Noel Fielding’s artistic prowess.
I am here to tell you, after binging 9 seasons over the course of 4 weeks and witnessing the the relationship between Greg and Alex evolve before my disbelieving eyes, that Taskmaster is not only a popular panel game show, but it is also a dark horse of psychosexual, BDSM-flavored absurdity. The remarkably raunchy ongoing arc of the Taskmaster and his Little Alex is the driving engine behind the show, the heavy-duty homoerotic glue that holds it all together.
So, Alex is often asked to do things by contestants during the course of tasks, because the rules don’t usually specifically forbid it, and sometimes specifically require it.
He had to sit bare-assed on a cake in Series 6, leading Liza Tarbuck to literally call him, out loud and on air, a “greedy bottom.”
Lou Sanders, in series 8, dressed him up as a ventriloquist’s dummy and puppeted him, in a true evocation of the spirit of the Edinburgh Fringe.
During the course of various tasks, Alex has had to bite into a hot toothpaste pie, be wrapped up in clingwrap and imitate the miracle of birth, and have bits of his beard eaten by Noel Fielding.
If this were all the show had to give, it would be entertaining enough. Luckily enough, it’s not.
Alex’s reliable acquiescence to the contestants, however delightful, seems to carry some reluctance, and mostly be out of a sense of his assistant-ly duty. During the studio segments, though, there’s an entirely different tenor to Alex’s submission to the Taskmaster himself. And this is where I start to go insane.
When directly commanded by Greg, Alex sort of play-acts at hesitation, and there’s a genuine loyalty and a doe-eyed eagerness clearly visible underneath.
He’ll curl up into a dog bed at Greg’s feet; he’ll get on his hands and knees and allow Greg to literally jump up and down on his back. He’ll stick his thumb into his mouth at the command “THUMB!” from Greg.
He’ll reminisce with Greg about the time that “you took me camping, which i appreciated, and then you kept getting me to feel what was inside your sleeping bag,” and Greg will say, “It felt nice, though, didn’t it?” and Alex will reply “It felt lovely.”
He’ll call Greg “dear” and “darling” and literally crawl into Greg’s lap in order to look him in the eyes and say “Thank you, daddy.”
The degree to which I am not lying about any of this is remarkable!
Truly, I honestly cannot even begin to imagine what is going on inside Alex’s head as he scripts these intricate rituals for himself and Greg. The whole master-servant thing is something that has developed as sweetly and languorously as the best slow-burn fanfiction over the course of the show, which typically airs two series per year.
In Series 1, Alex started out pretty generically meek, and Greg as very blandly commanding, probably as per the original series pitch. But Greg slowly grew into his own role as the domineering Taskmaster, becoming more larger-than-life than he already was, and Alex’s role as his obsequious slave became similarly more explicit.
This might be derided as pointless flanderization, but I honestly think that the freakier they get with it, the better the show is for it. Series to series, the contestants change, but the ongoing revelations of their relationship provide the perfect, stable accompaniment to the revolving door of nonsense.
There’s the implication that the Taskmaster setting a task like “Give Alex a special cuddle” in Series 5, with the result of Alex being fondled by Aisling Bea in a robot outfit and spooning with Bob Mortimer inside a car boot, is part of their mutual ongoing lifestyle practice of a dom/sub relationship.
(Of course, there’s the Doylist explanation that Alex Horne, the person, not the character, is actually, literally, genuinely invested in his own continued humiliation in front of a national audience of millions, but I am hesitant to go there. Even though Greg did genuinely discuss Alex’s dick size with Alex’s wife, and then proceed to bring up said discussion on the show to Alex. I mean. Alright.)
I can point at the moment in Series 6 where Alex told Greg, “I want you to know I feel sad when you shout at me, but happy that it makes you feel better,” and I must also pay dues to the bit at the beginning of episode 2 of Series 7 where Greg punished Alex for thinking about food by snapping an elastic band, hard, onto his face.
In Series 9, Greg said something along the lines of “Do you know what I’d like now?” and Alex immediately stood up and started unbuttoning his shirt, and Greg had to wave him down and shout, “No, not that!”
ENOUGH, you say! How can this possibly be broadcast on television, you say! Think of the children, you say! Well, my friends, it’s England, and things are different over there. In England, panel shows, a genre which died out in America before I was born, are one of the most popular television formats. In England, comedians have real jobs in the real world for years before descending into the bowels of the entertainment industry. Women are allowed to actually age and be ugly and gain weight and still be on television. Anything goes!
What really drives me absolutely buckwild is how far Alex takes it outside the show. Less than 30 seconds into this Channel 4 interview promoting Series 6 you can hear him saying, with his voice, on television, “I’m Greg Davies’ assistant… in real life, in every aspect of life, he’s my father and my partner.”
At the Royal Variety Performance in 2018, Greg was brought onstage in a carriage pulled by Alex, in a full royal footman’s uniform.
In the official Taskmaster book, which I bought mostly just to read instead of actually doing any of the tasks because I am a friendless hermit, Alex capitalizes all of the Taskmaster’s personal pronouns as if he is literally God.
There’s also a bit in there where he says, “one occasion when The Taskmaster does unleash me is random women’s hen nights, where I am forced to make social appearances on His behalf. He lets me dress up in whatever outfits they choose and dance for as long and at whatever speed they suggest. He’s a one off, He really is.”
Now, don’t imagine that just because all of this text, not even subtext, literally text, goes more or less unacknowledged by the general viewing public, that it goes wholly unremarked on by the contestants.
In an outtake from Series 6 that is unfortunately geo-blocked but thanks to my recent exorbitant purchase of a VPN I was able to watch, Asim Chaudry admits that “I never know if you two are going to fuck or fight,” and Greg replies, “Frequently both. Simultaneously.”
In this extended clip of Greg and Alex’s intimate moment from Series 9, Ed Gamble can be seen and heard becoming visibly turned on, and Rose Matafeo speaks for all of us when she shouts, “FUCKING KISS!”
Trying to piece together the in-universe backstory for whatever the fuck these two have going on has been one of my main sources of joy over the past few stressful weeks. From what I’ve been able to gather, supplemented by my own crazed headcanon, the implication is that Greg and Alex live together in the Taskmaster house itself, ensconced in domestic bliss, and Alex is happily beholden to Greg’s every whim, doing things like making him the perfectly runny egg and letting him tie him up for hours.
A Series 4 outtake reveals that “when we’re at home, Alex is only allowed to move around like a snake.” Upon Joe Lycett’s request, Alex performs his “carpet snake” dance, and it’s, well. It exists. I could type up the dialogue that ensues but I’m not going to, please just watch the whole thing, and then enjoy this comment left below the video as the perfect chaser.
The Series 5 premiere drops a bit of vital canon that goes something like this:
ALEX: What do you do to me every morning for one hour against my will?
GREG: I let you take the dry skin off my feet.
ALEX: That’s true, but it’s also, a cuddle. You give me a cuddle.
There’s the admission in a Series 9 outtake that Alex wears a mouthguard in bed, or as Greg likes to call it, a gimp gag.
Then of course, there’s the kiss.
Yes, I saved the best for last. This is not an outtake. This is not a fake-out. This literally happened on the show, was aired, immortalized forever. In amidst the sadism and the banter and the over-the-top post-watershed horniness, the Taskmaster and his Assistant exchanged a gentle smooch in the 6th episode of Series 6. I just made a gif for the first time in like two years so I could show this to you without having to link a timestamp in the full episode, it’s that good.
ANYWAY. The first 4 full seasons of Taskmaster are available on YouTube for free internationally, and they’re currently uploading Series 5 one episode per week.
This article is, to be quite honest, not an accurate representation of the proportion of shippy content on the show, but I can assure you that you will become as invested in the contestants and the tasks that make up the bulk of each episode just as much as the Taskmaster and his pet carpet snake.