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Alex Horne: “Mixing music and comedy was more fun than we were having individually, so we just carried on.”

| Comedy, Music | 07/09/2017

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Ian Cater, Chief Features Writer

Alex Horne’s an unusual entertainer.  Unusual in his preference for somewhat unfashionable but quirkily effective pun-heavy material.  Unusual in drifting from stand-up in the face of consistently strong reviews.  And unusual in his current ability to get programme commissioners to climb over each other to turn his latest ideas into TV gold.

The band he formed eight years ago with two former school friends – The Horne Section – is one such success.  You might have seen them on various comedy panel shows (such as when they hosted Never Mind the Buzzcocks) or heard some of their three acclaimed Radio 4 series.  If not, the premise seems relatively simple but is extremely hard to get right.  The self-styled “mischievous melody makers” perform offbeat comedy songs without any set style, other than a penchant for wordplay and whimsy.  These samples from an episode of 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown demonstrates this neatly, veering from hints of Flight of the Conchords in Seasons, to Vic and Bob in Lovely Day, and finally Chas & Dave in Chris Hoy Loves a Saveloy.

This show of variety helped The Horne Section gain a strong following, prompting a UK tour beginning this month.  It starts at the ideally-suited cabaret bar at Soho Theatre tomorrow, a venue they return to twice monthly up until December.  Given the band enjoy improvising with special guests, part of the thrill lies in the unexpected – not least on the opening night when Horne’s long-term collaborator, the unpredictable Tim Key, will team up with them.

Music man

Horne’s the lead singer and maestro of the group, despite being the least musically-minded and frequently sending up his limited vocal range.  “I love live music,” he says in his soft Sussex accent, “but didn’t grow up with lots of it or have musical parents.  I tend to have only one CD in the car, which is Roy Orbison.  That’s all I think you really need.

HorneSection2“But the conceit of the show is that I don’t really like music that much, whereas for the other guys it’s their whole life.  Yet I get to boss them around.  So I have all of the power and none of the talent.”

Of course, the modest 38-year-old does possess a great deal of talent, not least a remarkably calm presenting style and an uncanny ability to understand what audiences want to see and hear.  His first stand-up show, Making Fish Laugh, was nominated for a Perrier newcomer award in 2003 and he’s performed eight well-received solo shows since then – most recently in 2014.  However, towards the end of the noughties, stand-up started to lose some of its lustre for the Cambridge graduate, sending his inquisitive mind towards new avenues.

At the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe, Horne chanced his arm with two new ideas.  The first was Taskmaster, in which he set a group of comedians various challenges over the year – such as finding a hedgehog and gaining the most weight – and presented and rated their efforts in a live show packed with video clips and stories.  Although a slow burner, the concept proved a huge success, being picked up by Dave in 2015 and now staggeringly starting its fifth series next week.  Horne appears in the programme as Greg Davies’ assistant – a role he’s replicating in the US version hosted by The Late Late Show‘s Reggie Watts.

Horne’s other idea was to put together a quasi cabaret show with some of his old friends.  “I’d been a comedian for quite a while and my two best mates from primary school, Ben [Reynolds] and Joe [Auckland], had been jazz musicians for a similar amount of time.  We were all a bit frustrated and just wanted to do something different, so we decided to team up and try to unite music and comedy.  We booked a small room at Edinburgh and got friends from our respective industries to join us.  And it just seemed to work straight away.”

Across eight nights, The Horne Section – comprising Horne, Reynolds, Auckland, Mark Brown, Will Collier and Ed Sheldrake – were joined by the likes of Al Murray, Tim Minchin and Jimmy Carr, as well as Key and Mark Watson, both of whom have known Horne since their Footlights days.  The combination of big names and friendly faces – who ad libbed well with Horne and the band – worked fantastically in the chaotic environment they created.  “It was instantly fun because it was different to the norm,” he says.  “People liked hearing live music and seeing comedians improvising.  And mixing music and comedy was more fun than we were having individually, so we just carried on.”

Gentle taskmaster 

As you’d expect from the restless entertainer, the show’s format has altered a lot over the years.  “We experimented with a chat show, a quiz format and a tight performance piece, but this year’s set involves a lot of mucking about.  It’s our loosest ever,” he adds proudly.  “We’re going to sing some songs, talk to the audience and find out what they want us to do – we may or may not do that.  Then we’ll end by doing a stupid charity single that isn’t really a charity single.”

There will also continue to be greater focus on the band itself entertaining the audience.  “When we started, comedians did their normal sets with the band playing behind.  So if the comedian told a sad story, they’d play heavy music and that was it.  But gradually we phased out the comedians,” Horne says, as if trying to distance himself from that profession.  “Because we’re together all the time, we’ve built up our own bank of material.  We now tend to have one guest comedian, but we don’t generally need people like Jimmy Carr turning up to help us sell tickets.”

We_need_answers_watson_key_horneApart from Key, the tour guests remain unconfirmed, although Horne’s other close comedy friends – Watson, Josie Long and recent Edinburgh Comedy Award winner John Robins – could well be in the running.

Of Robins, Horne says he’s more pleased by his award than any other.  “When Tim Key won it [in 2009], I was furious because I was jealous and competing with him.  So John’s is very different in that respect.  But it’s an amazing show and the only sad thing is he had to go through heartbreak to create this work of art.”

Horne’s very quick to praise others and downplay his own success, giving the impression that his popularity amongst comics and in commissioning meetings is some sort of fluke.  The BBC has just announced that a family-orientated version of Taskmaster, called The Button, will broadcast at a prime time slot later this year.  And it’s given the green-light for Horne and Key to develop daytime quiz show The Percentage Game – another previous Fringe experiment.

“The pattern of my career is that I seem to come up with ideas allowing me to rely on other more talented people,” he says with a hint of embarrassment.  “That happened with The Horne Section and Taskmaster.  Once I got Greg Davies onboard for the first series, and then Frank Skinner, Josh Widdecombe, Romesh [Ranganathan], Tim [Key] and Roisin [Conaty], I thought it should do well.  Whereas if it’d just been me by myself, I wouldn’t have had any faith in it.”

While the pedigree of contestants undoubtedly contributes to Taskmaster‘s success – Series 5 features Watson, Nish Kumar, Sally Phillips, Bob Mortimer and Aisling Bea – Horne’s subtle presence helps tie the show together, which he eventually acknowledges.  “I think what I’m reasonably good at is harnessing other people and bringing the best out of them.  And most of the things I do, I try to make sure they’re a laugh.”  This is the closest Horne comes to blowing his own trumpet – something you might actually get to see if you catch The Horne Section over the coming months.

The Horne Section are performing at Soho Theatre on 8th and 18th September, 2nd and 13th October, and 10th and 13th November (get tickets here).  For full tour information, see their official website or follow them on Twitter @hornesection.  Additionally, to keep up to speed with Alex Horne’s various projects, head to his official website or follow him @alexhorne.  Series 5 of Taskmaster starts on Dave on 13th September at 9pm.

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