He’s the geeky, 6ft 7in brainbox behind many of today’s biggest quiz shows. So how come he’s besieged by saucy messages and endless offers of marriage? It’s a teaser that leaves even Richard Osman struggling to answer. By Jim White
‘The theory is being a funny guy is like being a beautiful woman’
Richard Osman has the appearance of a man who knows the answer to absolutely everything. There he is on our television screens each afternoon, never caught out, never wrong-footed, telling us stuff we didn’t know about things we never really thought about. But if you want to flummox the co-host of Pointless, the BBC quiz show, then the question to put to him is this: how on earth did he come to be named 2016’s Weird Crush Of The Year by Heat magazine?
‘Ah, um, er, really, ah, well, I’m not the person to ask,’ he stumbles, momentarily – and most uncharacteristically – lost for words. ‘But the theory is, being a funny guy is like being a beautiful woman. And I suppose being on telly you get advertised more. What I do know is, it’s all very peculiar for me.’
With his big specs, his long face and his neverending frame folded in behind his Pointless desk, the most unlikely sex symbol is probably not alone in struggling to work out how he has weakened female knees across the viewership. But every time his phone pings, it signals the arrival of quantifiable evidence that he has. On his social media feed, Osman, who separated 10 years ago from the mother of his two teenage children (he is currently dating broadcaster Emily Dean), receives a bubbling torrent of proposals of marriage. Plus plenty of ambitious offers of more temporary liaisons.
‘I think a lot of people treat Twitter as a dating website,’ he says.
Not, he is quick to add, that he has ever made acquaintance with those seeking him out. ‘I don’t respond,’ he says.
The truth is that 46-year-old Osman is the most accidental of sex symbols, a man who, until he became a fixture on television eight years ago, harboured absolutely no ambition to be well known.
‘I didn’t ask for it,’ he says. ‘I didn’t seek it out. My life could very easily have gone on quite happily without it.’
And quite happily is something of an understatement: this was a man at the very top of his chosen field.
In 1992 he had left Cambridge University with a politics and sociology degree, keen to become a sports journalist. But then he answered an advert for a job as a researcher on a Sky TV series about video games. When he went for the interview he was overcome by an odd sensation. ‘It felt like I’d come home,’ he recalls. Working in television turned out to be his perfect job. Largely because he had, he admits, spent so much of his childhood in front of the set at the modest Haywards Heath home he shared with his mother and brother. His favourite shows were Superstars, Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and the programme he says is the greatest in television history, Family Fortunes. But he wasn’t fussy. He’d watch anything.
While his older brother Mat became a rock star as bassist with the Britpop band Suede, Osman was more than happy working behind the camera, well away from public recognition, coming up with formats, thinking of new shows. He proved to be very good at it. Over the years he invented Survivor, Deal Or No Deal, and Million Pound Drop. When he turned up with an idea, doors opened; executives knew ratings would follow.
In 2009, by now working as creative director at independent production company Endemol, he arrived at the BBC with a proposal for a quiz show.
It was called Pointless, and to demonstrate how it would work, he and a colleague stood in as the hosts. A watching BBC commissioner said something he never expected to hear: maybe it would be best if Osman himself presented it.
Pointless was an immediate success, establishing itself as a staple of the afternoon schedule. In case you haven’t seen it, the game show works like this: contestants are asked generalknowledge questions that have been answered by a group of 100 people prior to the show. The aim is to give correct answers that few or no respondents gave to the pre-show survey, meaning it is advantageous to give obscure or little-known answers.
Part of the show’s appeal stems from its two hosts: Osman and the comic actor Alexander Armstrong, a Cambridge contemporary. Their chemistry is written across the screen: Osman says that in eight years he and Armstrong have never had so much as a cross word.
‘People seem to think we’re either at each
other’s throats or that we’re lovers. Neither is true.’ More to the point, the pair exude upbeat good cheer. However foggy-brained the contestant, whatever the exhausting grind of recording 200 episodes, four a day in a two-month marathon splurge, on this show nobody will ever be humiliated for cheap laughs. Here, failure is greeted not by a sarcastic ‘you plonker’ but with a sympathetic ‘Aaah, what a shame’. ‘As a kid, I never liked mean programmes,’ Osman says. ‘My view is always try to be kind. That’s what my mum always told me: be nice. Listen, if there’s a joke, I’ll make it. But even then, sometimes you make a joke and you see a flicker in the contestant’s eye and you think: next time I speak to you I’m going to be lovely because I’m not sure you enjoyed that.’
Exuding knowledge and humour as he peered at the world through his bottle-bottomed glasses, Osman quickly caught the wider attention. Now, wherever he goes, he gets mobbed. It isn’t just that he is easily recognised. It is because he appears to be so genial on screen, people are far from intimidated about approaching him. Moreover, it is hard for him to escape the attention. As everyone that he meets seems to feel obliged to point out.
‘It’s the first thing people say when they ask for a photo with me,’ he says. ‘ “You’re tall,” they go. This is not some big revelation: I do know I’m tall. As I say to my son [who stands 6ft 5in at 16], you can’t actually change being tall. You can either be tall and confident about it or tall and embarrassed. Those are your only options. You can’t pretend to be short.’
Topping 6ft 7in in his teens, he has been asked what the weather’s like up there for as long as he can remember.
‘I wasn’t bullied, I always talked my way out of it,’ he says of his gangly youth. ‘But it was awkward. It’s being too tall for comfort. It’s taken me many years to be comfortable with it. Your head is always above the parapet.’
He pauses for a moment and flashes his big broad smile. ‘But you know what, there really are many worse things to be.’ His daily appearances on Pointless soon put the funny, tall, geeky guy in demand. He was a natural for comedy panel shows, an ace guest on chat shows, his World Cup of Biscuits for Comic Relief was embraced by millions.
This month he can be seen presenting the new series of Child Genius on Channel 4. The programme, which mixes quiz and documentary to uncover the nation’s brightest under-14, is that rare thing on television: a show Richard Osman didn’t think up. ‘Having seen the first two series I thought, “Ooh that’s a good idea, I wish I’d thought of that.” So when I was asked to do it I said yes, because I really admired it.’
And he feels more than comfortable mixing with some of the brightest minds around. Especially as they all belong to youngsters.
‘They are charming beyond words, they ask questions you aren’t expecting and they have a laugh. And I love their competitiveness. I’d have loved to have been on this show as a kid. Not because I was a genius but because I was so competitive. Still am.’
Indeed, the challenge of keeping up with the child geniuses has, he says, kept him in competitive shape. Which has been of enormous help whenever he hails a taxi.
‘The moment they clock me in the mirror, cabbies invariably say to me, “Here’s a good question for you.” If you don’t get it, it makes their day. But if you do get it, they are furious.’
Presumably, being the nice guy he is, just to humour his inquisitors, he pretends not to know the answer.
‘God no. Are you kidding me? I’d never do that,’ he says, perplexed at the very idea. ‘That’s like saying to Ryan Giggs: would you deliberately miss a penalty? Of course you wouldn’t do that. That’s what you train for, right?’
And, as he grins at the preposterousness of deliberately ducking a question, his phone chirrups another social media notification. Somewhere, some woman is hoping television’s favourite brainbox will take a moment from confounding cabbies to look her way. Child Genius, August 14, 8pm, Channel 4
Richard Osman, left, with Pointless co-presenter Alexander Armstrong.
Richard with his brother Mat in 1989 on Richard’s first day at Cambridge, left. Davina McCall, right, who presented Osman’s Bafta award-winning The Million Pound Drop. Inset below, Noel Edmonds who presented another of Osman’s winning creations, Deal Or No Deal