We have bread, thanks to the return of The Great British Bake Off in all its glory, and now we have our circuses, too. Taskmaster is back! Sure, in an ideal world we would have a functioning test and trace system instead, and a government fully on top of all possible national measures to protect its citizens, but we are where we are, and superficial distractions and emotional buttressing via comfort-entertainments are the only aids we have, so dig in.
Like Bake Off, Taskmaster has moved to Channel 4 (albeit from UKTV’s Dave rather than the BBC) and, like Bake Off, seems to have suffered not a jot from the translocation. All is gloriously as it gloriously was. Which is to say – charming, batshit, hilarious, determinedly low stakes, entirely absorbing and restorative throughout.
Greg Davies still presides, with the show’s creator, Little Alex Horne (who is 6ft 2in, but Greg is 9ft 6in and has put him on a tiny chair), as factotum and overseer of the various tasks the team of five celebrities – usually comedians – are set each week in competition for a collection of prizes they have themselves brought in. Johnny Vegas contributes a bottle of anti-reflux medicine and a useful account of his friend who pours it directly on to his kebabs. “Cut out t’middleman,” he says with satisfaction.
The pleasures of Taskmaster are many and various. Foremost among them is, of course, schadenfreude. The joy of seeing what you might once have assumed were robust, intelligent people crumble under pressure or reveal themselves to be so impractical you wonder how they habitually manage to stand unaided never lessens. In the opening episode of the new series (the first of six Channel 4 has commissioned) these particular laurels must pass from preternaturally hopeless competitor from the Dave years Roisin Conaty to actor-comedian Mawaan Rizwan. When charged by his fellow contestants with transporting an egg safely through the air from a balcony to a frying pan on a pedestal, Mawaan tries to fill it – already a famously full entity – with helium. From a pressurised canister. It does not work. Mawaan sees his folly now.
Another great joy is the sheer effrontery of the thing. That something so pointless, so silly, so endlessly daft should exist is just delightful. It is a confection as pleasing as any spun sugar decoration atop a piece of needlessly complex patisserie and just as hard to achieve. Horne and everyone else behind and before the camera need to hold the thing in perfect balance. The tasks need to be stupid but not ludicrous, widely but not endlessly interpretable and have scope for triumph and disaster without ever threatening to move off the very lowest stakes. The contestants need to embody a range of complementary attitudes and approaches.
This week, Katherine Parkinson is the coolly detached observer bringing intellectual rigour and imbecility to every challenge; Richard Herring is the jovial but determined dad figure; Daisy May Cooper is the earnest loser (“You’ve just rammed a cow into a hedge,” says Greg sorrowfully after the task of magically making a large object disappear is completed. “Do you think that’s how Siegfried & Roy dominated Vegas all those years?”); Johnny Vegas is Johnny Vegas (“’S what life will do to you,” he sobs, clutching the prize teddy to his chest as they watch another participant trying to complete the job of transporting pints from telephone box to shed without walking on the lawn in between); and Mawaan … Well. Mawaan. We’ll just try to remember how well he does with his version of the vanishing cow trick.
If it is a relief that the move to a big boy channel has done nothing to change its essential puerility, it is an even greater cause for celebration that filming under Covid conditions, including being without a live studio audience, has not affected any of its dynamics either. If anything, it has created an enjoyable extra edge of hysteria. The first ad break was prefaced by Greg roaring: “You don’t need new things! Just hold each other! We’re in End Times!” Part of the show’s appeal has always been the same one that The Crystal Maze depends on; the almost interactive element, the desire it engenders to be part of that gang having so much fun. Knowing that they are carrying on, acting the goat in the middle of the pandemic that envelops us all brings us, in an odd way, that much closer to wish fulfilment.
Sure, test and trace might be more medically useful, but would it be as much fun? Take your pleasures where you can.