Richard Osman has been on our telly for only a little over a decade. Originally a producer, he decided to sit in on a demonstration when pitching a quiz show called Pointless to the BBC. Osman somehow ended up getting the job of brainy sidekick and, after more than 1,000 episodes, he now seems like an established part of the front-room furniture.
He doesn’t have gimmicks, but he does have distinguishing features. He is very tall. He wears solid spectacles. He and Alexander Armstrong, his pal and co-presenter, are geniuses in the art of affability.
“Being on telly is just a joy,” he says. “By and large people are nice to me. I like walking down the street and chatting to people. I live in West London and people know they can come up and talk to me about Fulham [Football Club]. I was down the shops today and someone came up from across the road and said: ‘Who are we going to sign?’ No preamble. That’s a nice thing to happen on the way to M&S. Right?”
My view is that the brain of a 75-year-old is identical to the brain of a 50-year-old. The wiring is identical
It seems as if he is pulling on no artificial personae on Pointless or – the quiz show for hardcore Osmanistas – Richard Osman’s House of Games. He is every bit as chummy when joshing with Maxine from Berkhamsted about her interest in pre-war porcelain. He wears his learning lightly. He is touchingly thankful for any good words about his first novel.
The Thursday Murder Club (whose film rights were sold even before it hit shelves) concerns a group of older people who take to solving crimes as a hobby. It works well as a mystery. It also works as a gentle rebuke to those who write off elderly folk. There are jokes about engaging badly with new technologies, but there is never any sense that the characters are being ridiculed.
“Oh, that’s very kind,” he says. “My view is that the brain of a 75-year-old is identical to the brain of a 50-year-old. The wiring is identical. What changes is more grief, more experience, more insight. When thinking how they’d act, I’d ask myself: ‘What would a 30-year-old do?’ There are certain physical things that limit them. But in other ways, things are easier. There are fewer consequences for them.”
He wrote the novel in secret while toiling at his other jobs before springing it on (as it transpired) eager agents. Why now? Osman is closing in on 50. He has at least two busy careers. Who needs another?
“Yes, I have been busy since I got my first job at 21. I haven’t had time off,” he says. “But I got to the stage where I was doing a little less producing. This idea came to me when I had the time and had gathered the discipline. I gave it a month and then thought: I think I quite like this. I didn’t tell anyone because the worst thing in the world is someone telling you they’re writing novel.”
Yes. As the old gag goes, “Neither am I.”
“Ha, ha! Yeah, sure you’re writing a novel. Okay.”
Fans of Pointless – “the quiz show where the lowest scorers are the biggest winners” – will have gradually patched together a sketchy biography of the man behind the non-functioning laptop. Whereas Armstrong is upper middle-class and slightly tweedy, Osman makes no secret of his more humble background in Essex and Sussex. His mum was a teacher. Dad walked out on the family when he was just eight. He may have attended Trinity College, Cambridge, but he did so on a full grant (them were the days).
When I tentatively wonder if he considered himself working-class, he gleefully grabs the subject and tears it to pieces.
“I am obsessed with class,” he says. “I did sociology at university. Right? Class is everything and we don’t talk about it nearly enough. I don’t know about Ireland, but in Britain – particularly in England – everything has to be looked at through the filter of class. On the first page of John le Carré’s first novel he talks about Smiley travelling ‘labelless in the guard’s van of the social express’. Right? I grew up in a family definitively in the British working-class. My mum then became a primary school teacher. Lower middle-class? Now, I couldn’t be more middle-class.”
He and Alexander Armstrong became friends at university. Watching them on Pointless, one thinks – unfairly, because there’s no real snobbery – of the 1966 “class sketch” from The Frost Report in which John Cleese looked down on Ronnie Barker who looked down on Ronnie Corbett. Armstrong supports the Countryside Alliance. Osman supports Fulham. Those gags are still about.
“Other than that, it’s impossible for anyone to look down on me,” all six-foot-seven inches of Richard Osman says with a laugh. When at Cambridge, he learned about class both inside and outside the lecture hall.
“If I have a chip on my shoulder it’s because there is a certain type of middle-class person who doesn’t understand what privilege means. It can be class privilege. It can be gender privilege. They don’t know what we mean. Xander is not one of those people. He has every privilege, but he understands that and he gives back. He has different opinions to me, but our motives are the same.”
A busy Twitter user, Osman rarely addresses party politics and rarely visits the more divisive areas of discourse. But every now and then he shows his hand. One thinks of an extraordinary incident from 2014 when Kelvin MacKenzie, former editor of the Sun, was a guest on Pointless Celebrities. Annoyed at the paper’s notorious coverage of the Hillsborough disaster (and other things), many fans tweeted angrily at him. Osman replied to every objection.
“My genuine apologies. Only found out just before and I complained, but to no avail,” he said to one. “Agree 100%, he absolutely should not have been there. I hope you can accept my apologies,” he said to another. It went on all evening.
It’s how you deal with trauma that matters. You hit a large bump in the road. How do you carry on?
“Listen, that’s a tricky one,” he says. “I don’t know who is going to be on and that’s how I prefer it. I wasn’t happy. I made it known. He has the right to be on telly, but I felt it was not appropriate on a Saturday evening entertainment show. My kid’s mom is a scouser. I very rarely put my head above the parapet about politics. I don’t think the world gets better for one more celebrity giving an opinion. But that was a situation I had to take responsibility for.”
Osman has, in recent interviews, been impressively frank about the absence of his father. He admits that it did trouble him as a child. But his older brother Mat Osman (yes, the bass player from Suede) was less concerned about it all. Richard met dad after having his own children, but they don’t seem to have made an emotional connection.
“It’s how you deal with trauma that matters,” he says. “You hit a large bump in the road. How do you carry on? Mat was just better at taking it in his stride. He was less into family. He wanted to be off in London. I like to have a family around me. So I dealt with it much worse.”
When Osman separated from the mother of his two children, he inevitably thought back to his own upbringing. Unlike his own dad, Richard has remained close to his offspring. The parallel must, nonetheless, occasionally give him pause.
“However awful my dad leaving me was, it is, for me, literally zero to me doing the same thing. This is my responsibility. I made it happen and I didn’t make what happened to me as a child happen. But I have been around my kids non-stop. I knew the pain they were going through.”
Following university, Osman moved into television production with his company Endemol, working on hit shows such as 8 Out of 10 Cats, 10 O’clock Live and the noughties smash Deal or No Deal (he knows who The Banker is, but he won’t tell). It never crossed his mind that he would end up becoming famous. That was for other people – like his brother.
Pointless, broadcast every weekday afternoon on BBC1, could have been off the air after a few series. But it found an audience. It eventually became a quiet phenomenon. The brilliance of the structure matters, but the gentle chemistry is also important. There is no aggression here. Armstrong and Osman are not going to laugh at anybody for offering a dumb answer (though they bristle at the words “that’s before my time”).
“It’s terrifying for people to be up there. You can see people’s eyes go,” he says. “Occasionally you’ll have someone on, and makeup will have said in the morning: ‘We didn’t like so-and-so. He was a bit rude.’ Then you are kind of like: ‘Hmm, interesting’. They get less of an easy ride. But, by and large, I want to make it as special as possible for people.”
You can see, when you’ve been locked up all this time, how important television can be
Now, The Thursday Murder Club opens up another chapter in a singular career. The book is already a hit. Ol Parker, who did such a good job with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, will direct the film adaptation for Amblin Partners, Steven Spielberg’s company. Osman notes that everybody has suggestions for casting. Judi Dench? Julie Walters? I had Penelope Wilton in my head for the lead sleuth.
“The Americans said: ‘Do you know who would be great for Elizabeth? Diane Keaton, ’” he says.
But the character couldn’t be more English.
“Yeah. She hints that she was in the security services. She might have been in the CIA. Who knows?”
Meanwhile, Pointless and House of Games fight back against Covid. The former will return without an audience. The latter is currently recording with greater distance placed between celebrity contestants. Now, more than ever, we need the good-natured quizzing.
“You can see, when you’ve been locked up all this time, how important television can be,” Osman says. “And I am desperate to come over and do events in Ireland. I never have a better time than when I am there. So anyone who wants to invite me, I am available.”
The Thursday Murder Club is published on September 3rd