QI, BBC2/4

by | Sep 11, 2003 | All, Reviews


Great blunders in history include the Charge of the Light Brigade and Hitler’s invasion of Russia. Now there’s been another one, as the BBC, under attack from a rattled government and blood-scenting Sky, has given us QI.

The programme was billed as the world’s most difficult quiz show, where the questions were impossible but the answers could win points if they were Quite Interesting (QI – geddit?). Had it been even vaguely interesting, let alone funny, then it would have been OK. Instead it was a toe-curling mixture of indulgence and desperation that screamed “waste of licence-payers’ money” loudly enough to have spin-doctors and Sky execs beaming from ear to ear.

The format was pure Radio 4: a bunch of metropolitan glitterati being amusing (allegedly) on the assumption that the oiks (us) will feel privileged to witness it. Six words – “Chairman Stephen Fry, contestant John Sessions” – were enough to set the alarm bells ringing. Sure enough, less than 10 minutes in, Fry had Sessions reciting the dates of minor classical composers. “I’ve done this with John Sessions at parties”, said Fry, reminding us how privileged we were to be granted a window into their charmed lives. Thus set, the tone remained roughly unchanged for the rest of the show.

Sessions’ team-mate, Hugh Laurie, said hardly anything (a wise move, although it might just have been that he couldn’t get a word in edgeways). Opposing them were QI’s version of the Great Unwashed, Alan Davies and Danny Baker. Davies did his best but looked uncomfortable, while Baker got the occasional one-liner in and looked as if he was making a nice few quid for sitting there listening to Fry and Sessions show off, but wishing he was back home down Deptford way.

In a programme where the topics included the length of dwarf ant-eaters and the sexual orientation of Caravaggio, there was never going to be much chance of any real humour or interest. Time and again, QI cried “Look, we’ve made a clever connection between two obscure things”, and time and again the feeling was “So what?”. Recondite and wearisome, as the QI team might say if they were in the mood for plain speaking. If the BBC wanted to give the licence-fee bashers a field day, they couldn’t have done much better than this.

Three weeks ago we described BBC2’s newly-launched panel show QI as “a toe-curling mixture of indulgence and desperation”, and if memory and videotape serve correctly, that’s roughly what it was. But now, thanks to some tweaking of the format and guest list, it’s got better, to the point where it’s actually QG (Quite Good).

The tweaking has involved lightening things up a bit, while still keeping the tone a notch or two above Never Mind The Buzzcocks. The first programme became an intellectual love-in between chairman Stephen Fry and panellist John Sessions, a combination that, wisely, hasn’t been repeated. Instead Alan Davies has become the permanent panellist and permanent fall-guy, regularly giving the obvious (but wrong) answer which allows Fry to humiliate him with sirens, lights and 10-point penalties.

If Fry was too pompous, or Davies looked as if he gave a toss, then it wouldn’t work. But Fry isn’t (not any more, anyway), and Davies evidently doesn’t. The result, combined with less discussion of obscure Italian painters, and more about science (Fry’s hidden strength) and the natural world, is not only QI (Quite Interesting) but at times even QU (Quite Useful). And when a wilfully abstruse guest does turn up, such as Gyles Brandreth on this week’s BBC4 episode, the others laugh at him for being a prat, instead of going along with the pretence that it’s clever to know so much of so little value.

A few weeks ago the BBC had an embarrassment on its hands; now it’s got a show that proves that knowing things can be fun. Never underestimate the power of redemption.

What to say of you liked it

The wittiest and cleverest show on TV, where wilful stupidity and ignorance are chastened by quizmaster Stephen Fry.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A world full of intellectual snobs, lambasting those who lack a public school childhood where BBC4 is worshipped as a deity incarnate.

What was good about it?

• Stephen Fry and Alan Davies’ good natured battle of the king of culture versus the ultimate philistine. Fry: Name a green mammal?, Davies: A green frog.

• The show’s theme of colour that meant each panellist had a “Blue” buzzer such as Alan Davies’ porn soundtrack.

• The interesting facts such as learning the Greeks had no word for blue (they called it bronze), and that Newcastle’s third biggest export was once urine.

• When Fry revealed he had a tailor made suit for prep school that provoked much derision from the panellists – “Would sir like a cravat for his cross country run?” – Bill Bailey.

• Bill Bailey’s surreal wit – “Indigo is the colour of silence.”

What was bad about it?

• As in the first series (or Series A, as Fry would refer to it), the show ran out of steam about half way through.

• Fry sometimes got bogged down through a determination to present the exact scholarly value of a question.


1. Stephen Fry: “What is the commonest material in the world?” Clive Anderson: “Jim Davidson’s.”

2. Alan Davis sending Fry into apoplexy when he dismissed Ben Hur as just being “about chariot racing”.

3. Fry reading a job advert for pony express riders (“Wanted: wiry young teenagers not over 18…”) to which Davis countered with: “You wrote that.”

4. Davis musing over the possibility of testing how well cats survive falls from tall buildings.

QI Christmas Special, BBC2


1. When Alan Davies took over as QImaster from Stephen Fry and asked Fry questions about Aston Villa’s goalkeeper.

2. Mark Steel on how Radio 4’s Thought For The Day seeks to spread religious dogma through crow barring the Bible’s teachings into contemporary issues: “Isn’t Jesus going into the wilderness like God saying: ‘You may now turn over your papers and begin writing.’”

3. Alan Davies to Stephen Fry: “If you could have a superpower, what would it be?” Fry: “Invisibility. And you?” Davies: “No bodily smell.”

4. Mark Steel and Stephen Fry mocking David Frost’s predilection for toadiness, culminating in how Fry recalled hearing Frost call Tony Blair “beloved”.

5. After discovering King Herod’s wife was called Doris, Phill Jupitus did an impression taking the voice of a northern fishwife: “If he comes home covered in the blood of the innocent, I’m not washing his cloak!”

Have I Got News For You v QI

Hosts: HIGNFY was hamstrung by the ineptitude of former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook; you may as well have put Keith Chegwin in charge of the Home Office.

He delivered the witty script as if it was a dull appendix at the end of a cumbersome Parliamentary report.

Meanwhile, Stephen Fry was being as sharp and erudite as ever, even allowing the wilful Philistine Alan Davis to playfully wind him up.

Winner: QI

Panellists: HIGNFY was bolstered by the ever amusing Paul Merton, whose highlight was explaining the mechanics of the European Parliament in the style of Long John Silver. Merton’s team mate Dr Phil Hammond was pretty good, too, especially when he asked Robin Cook: “Do you think your life is futile?” But on the other side, Ian Hislop tempered his seething indignation; while PJ O’Rourke seemed to merely churn out lines he was given half-an-hour before recording.

Over on QI, Alan Davis enjoyed baiting Stephen Fry, while Jeremy Hardy came up with a few gags in his usual exasperated manner and Barry Cryer was quiet. But the heavy stone around the bag of cute kittens was Jeremy Clarkson. His boorish dismissal of Birmingham and incessant diatribe about cars were neither funny not intelligent.

Winner: Have I Got News For You

Rounds: HIGNFY’s rounds are so well-practised you would imagine they would run smoothly. And this may have well been the case again had a competent host been presenting, instead Cook blundered through them with all the élan and grace of Margaret Thatcher performing Swan Lake.

QI mixed in some amusing remarks into quite an informative set of rounds, that was slightly let down by Alan Davis becoming increasingly circumspect on the General Ignorance section, where his adherence to wrongly held beliefs is always very funny.

Winner: QI

QI, BBC2/BBC4, Fridays

Did we like it?

It continues to be the only show that successfully marries witty comment and genuinely interesting facts; perhaps if Sir David Attenborough did impressions of animals a la Johnny Morris or David Mitchell and Robert Webb gave impromptu dictionary definitions of obscure words that may change.

What was good about it?

• Stephen Fry as the dilettantish ‘QI master’, arbitrarily tossing points hither and thither like a farmer sowing his seeds while occasionally imparting a juicy aphorism or quixotic quip.

• Jimmy Carr, much like Johnny Vaughan on the Best of the Worst, has benefited greatly from a lack of over exposure. We don’t know, perhaps the ghost of Giant Haystacks has had him pinned down in the dank depths of a cave in eastern Albania; we don’t know. All we do know is that his pithy one-liners sound much better in incrementally smaller doses rather than every week in some panel show.

• We learned this week that one army used to coerce prisoners who were masquerading as part of army to chop off their own heads in order to terrify the enemy.

• The tragic tale of how two bears survived the trauma of being sent off the Niagara Falls in a barrel only to be shot when they crawled on to land.

What was bad about it?

• Because every panellist now knows the most obvious answer is likely to bring down the godly scorn of Stephen upon their ignorant brows, they are becoming increasingly reluctant to do so. And even Alan Davies seems to be doing so out of a sense of duty in his role as court jester.

• Sometimes Stephen is repeating himself, such as the revelation that the heads of aristocrats guillotined in the French Revolution were alive for a good few moments after the decapitation. And also contradictions seem to be occurring such as when Stephen said: “The most serendipitous discovery was penicillin.” On a previous edition we’re sure this was attributed to Arab stable boys and a French scientist who recognised their practice.

QI, BBC2, Friday 14 October 2005


• When the swotty Rory McGrath irked Stephen Fry with his knowledge of the Latin names of animal species. “The puffin! Fractula Arctica!” Fry: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. You’re beginning to try even my patience now.”

• The banter about having sex with a chicken. “You can get an egg out of it.” “You wouldn’t have any problems girth-wise.” “Especially if you’ve got an egg-shaped cock.”

• Jimmy Carr’s failed effort at intellectual smugness. “All the indigenous mammals in Australasia are marsupials.” “And therefore not mammals,” riposted Fry.

• When Rory McGrath muttered the difference in Latin names between two very similar birds, Sean Lock called across: “Do you get called tosser much?”

• Rory McGrath confounding the They Think It’s All Over stereotype of uncouth yob and scoring the highest ever total on the show.

QI, BBC2/BBC4, Friday 27 September 2005

What to say if you liked it

The comedy panel show which educates as well as entertains.

What to say if you didn’t like it

A glass edifice of self-indulgence, which, each series, gets closer to scraping the sky with its throbbing priapic sense of self-importance.

What was good about it?

• The wonderful Bill Bailey and Alan Davies musing about how rats all face the same direction as they’re magnetic.

• Stephen Fry’s superb hosting of the show. The way in which he will always, sometimes innocently, try to trump any “quite interesting” fact the panellists may pipe up (which Arthur Smith picked up on), and he even bemoaned the age of 17 (which had been polled as the most “popular” age to be) that he was in prison.

• Rich Hall on a ludicrously expensive map. “For £5m, I’d want a map showing me reading the map I just bought.”

• Fry: “Where was the last place in Britain to convert to Christianity?” Bailey: “The summit of Ben Nevis.”

• Arthur Smith on Scottish cuisine. “Fish supper where the supper is ‘and chips’.”

• Smith’s yearning to be six-years-old again. “You can put your head in custard and no-one cares.”

• Andy Hamilton having a brainstorm on the subject of the only other mammal other than the duck-billed platypus to lay eggs. “Isn’t a chicken a mammal?”

What was bad about it?

• The audience applauding the buzzers. The last occasion on TV when a show was so fawned over was the eighth series of Red Dwarf.

• On some occasions the panellists seemed to be complacently waiting for a fellow panellist to make a witty remark rather than come out with one themselves.

• Alan Davies and Rich Hall often looking and sounding bored.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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