We’ve come to expect the unexpected from Richard Osman, the affable frontman on quiz shows Pointless and House of Games.
Both are arguably two of the most inventive in their genre of the last decade, throwing, as they do, convention forcefully to the wind.
Pointless (and its celebrity version) – which Osman co-hosts with Alexander Armstrong – turns questions on their heads by tasking contestants to hit on the most obscure correct answers – to score nul points.
Meanwhile House of Games pits four celebrities in a series of eclectic, ever-changing challenges – most ingeniously silly – over five weeknights.
No shouting, just smiles
The two late afternoon shows have made a household name and face of Osman, who cut his teeth in TV as a behind-the-scenes producer. And although he never expected it, Osman says he rather enjoys all the attention.
“Being 6ft 7in, I’ve never walked into a room, got on the tube or walked down the street and not been noticed,” he says.
“Now with fame I have the fortune that people smile and say hello rather than shout. I’m happy to say hello back and those who know I’m a Fulham fan will come up to me and start talking about it. I love it.”
Osman may be the one who provides all the missing Pointless answers but he’s not involved in setting the questions and claims he’s not as brainy as people think.
“I’m good with words and at doing quizzes and I have a good memory but that’s not intelligence,” he says. “I’m visually impaired [he has nystagmus] so I see very badly. But it’s meant I’ve had to listen a lot and take in information really well.”
Nonetheless, he is the man who had the original germs of the ideas that grew into what we now watch on screen. So, although a self-professed champion of “mainstream” and “rubbish” TV, Osman clearly likes to think out of the box.
“My heart, my soul are very mainstream. I love shows like Homes Under the Hammer and Bargain Hunt. I wish I were cooler but I’m not. That’s my upbringing – very middle British and everything on TV then [the 70s] was a shared experience because there were so few channels.
“But there’s no such thing as a totally new idea. You just think, ‘What if this was mixed up with this?’, and you come up with a combination that people haven’t had before. I love to do that better than expected so that millions of people will love it.”
Humour, booze, cake and sleuthing
True to form, Osman’s latest project sees him remoulding again, but this time it’s himself – from TV personality to crime novelist.
Written in secret over 18 months, The Thursday Murder Club bears Osman’s offbeat hallmark in that it’s unusually set in a retirement village.
The idea caught even Osman off guard as it came to him on a what he thought would be a perfectly pleasant but uneventful lunch visit to his mother’s friend in one such community.
“The setting felt familiar because you’re in beautiful countryside but I was surprised because it was really busy with people everywhere.
“Then, when you start talking to them, 70 and above, you think, ‘My god, there’s some talent, wit, wisdom and sense of mischief in this generation, everything is there’.
“I thought this would be a great setting for a murder story. Let’s throw the worst at them and see how they deal with it.”
Osman’s protagonists are a wily gang of four whose past careers range from psychiatrist to secret agent (or so we’re led to assume).
Operating as the club of the book’s title they meet to investigate unsolved murders from the case notes of a former member and one-time detective.
It’s fun and and keeps the brain well-oiled. But their sleuthing gets serious with the here-and-now murder of a local property dealer.
One murder leads to another, not to mention an unidentified skeleton, a suspicious priest and multiple murky secrets, all of which demand unorthodox resourcefulness from our foursome to beat the police at solving the crimes.
Humour abounds, along with copious amounts of booze and cake. But there’s also much pathos as Osman doesn’t shy from tackling the frailty of old age. He says he’d like his novel to foster greater respect for older people.
“When you’re older, a number of things around you change. There are physical difficulties. There’s an awful lot of grief. But you’ve learned things other people haven’t and have so much experience to share.
“But, not only do we underestimate that generation, we also ignore the epidemic of loneliness. The book says it doesn’t need to be that way. When I was in that community, I thought everybody should have this option if they want it. I’m counting down the days!”
As a “huge fan” of crime fiction, Osman says he always knew it would be the kind of book he’d eventually write.
Moreover, Osman’s literary venture has served as the next best option to the career he would have pursued had things turned out differently.
“My granddad was a police officer in Brighton for many years, and that’s the job I would have loved to do more than anything,” he explains.
“Even now, being a police officer, detective and investigator I would absolutely love because I love that thing of what’s going on right under our noses that we don’t know about. Just ordinary looking people harbour secrets you would not believe. It’s fascinating.”
Still, the police force’s loss has been TV’s gain. Long before Osman became a popular figure on our screens, he was a producer at Endemol [with which he’s still involved] on hit shows such as Deal Or No Deal and The Million Pound Drop.
The Pointless Osman/Armstrong partnership happened purely by accident. Punting the show to the BBC, Osman’s role-playing of the question master went down so well, he was given the job (despite that never being his intention).
He enlisted the then comedian Armstrong (who Osman calls “Xander”) who he’d heard was foot-loose, having said ‘no, thanks’ to an offer from Countdown.
The two had been only vaguely aware of each other when contemporaries at the University of Cambridge and later their paths sometimes crossed in TV.
Now, thanks to Pointless – which started quietly at 2.30pm on BBC Two in 2009 before being upgraded to BBC One teatime – Osman says he feels “particularly fortunate that that friendship, which I hold very, dear, sort of developed on a television show”.
And as beguiling as the quirky format and occasional daft answers are, it’s the warmth of this duo – towards each other and the contestants – that makes Pointless so accessible.
“Neither of us is particularly slick – it’s just not what we have. We’re a bit shy and embarrassed of things. There’s never any script or rehearsal, nothing like that,” says Osman.
“But Xander, who is so charmingly enthusiastic about everything, and I have had the immense good fortune that as a partnership, there’s something people get from it, they can tell we really like each other.
“And people fascinate me. It doesn’t matter what people do, I always want to hear about it and Xander is the same. They come on the show and enjoy themselves – the world is not, as we’re told, this angry place where everyone is furious with each other all the time.”
And so, would Osman make a good team-mate?
“You know what? I’m really competitive, but I don’t mind losing. All I want to do is play. That’s what quizzes are. You’re just playing.”
The Thursday Murder Club is available from 3 September.