Interview: John Lloyd, professor of Creative Ignorance, QI
Image credit: Rex Features
We talk to John Lloyd CBE, founder of the TV show ‘QI’, about knowledge, bewilderment and the similarities between producers and engineers.
To begin with, a couple of not-so-tricky questions:
Who has got more Bafta awards than anyone else in the world, except for Dame Judi Dench?
Who devised and/or produced such iconic British TV and radio series as ‘Spitting Image’, ‘Blackadder’, ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, ‘Quote … Unquote’, ‘The Museum of Curiosities’ and ‘QI’?
Who collaborated with Douglas Adams on the iconic radio series ‘Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy’ and rose to such heights as playing the Voice of the Book in the latest instalment?
What’s the name of the one and only Honorary Professor of Ignorance at Southampton Solent University?
The answer to each of the questions is the same: John Hardress Lloyd, the legendary producer, director, writer, raconteur, presenter and comedian. I would call him “a national treasure”, were it not for his dislike of clichés. One of the main aims of QI, that two-lettered signifier of popular education, which Lloyd single-handedly invented, is to counter obviousness and stereotypes.
A couple of years ago, Lloyd had three more letters (CBE) appended to his name by the Queen and, apart from the rather vanilla ‘Commander of the British Empire’, those letters may have a rather less obvious meaning.
“I have always admired engineers,” Lloyd explains. “One of the first documentaries I directed was about a group of them working on a South China Sea oil rig. They were incredibly well paid and, after the shift, they would all fly to Hong Kong and buy themselves new Ferraris. But the true reason for my admiration was the engineer’s limitless curiosity about how things work. I shared that quality from childhood and like to call myself an engineer manqué.
“Making a TV programme is rather like construction engineering: a great piece of architecture is beautiful, but only very few people know how ventilation works. The job of a producer/director is to disappear, not to be noticed. When people say the film is well-directed, it means they have failed to appreciate it properly. We have to be invisible, like engineers.” So then, we might very well conclude that ‘CBE’ can stand for ‘Could-Be Engineer’.
We talk in the new QI offices in Covent Garden. Here I have to confess that nearly 13 years ago I was recruited (by Lloyd himself) to the ranks of QI ‘elves’, i.e. writers/researchers. I stayed there for a couple of seasons, including season ‘E’ (each year, QI shows are built around one letter of the alphabet) and, among other things, did some research for a set of engineering-related questions.
Here’s a collection of ‘quite interesting’ engineering facts specially prepared for E&T readers by QI’s acting elves:
• Engineers at MIT have invented a transparent robot that can catch fish and kick balls underwater.
• An elite engineering school in India is to teach students vashtushashtra, the 8,000- year-old theory of architecture similar to Chinese feng shui.
• A team of bioengineers at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, is developing a new technology to provide people with bespoke, 3D-printed, artificial knees.
• Canadian engineers have created software that can tell when you’re driving and texting at the same time.
• Rolls-Royce is developing an intelligent jet engine that learns from experience, can communicate with other engines, and will one day be able to repair itself.
• Half of New Orleans is below sea level due to human engineering projects. In the late 1800s, all of it was above sea level.
• The Toyota Engineering Society has created an android that uses AI to score baskets better than professional basketball players.
• Engineers at the University of Illinois have developed an artificial muscle made of carbon fibre and rubber that can lift 12,000 times its own weight.
• A team of engineers from Glasgow and Ukraine has built and tested a rocket made of solid fuel that consumes itself during flight.
• Engineers at UC Berkeley have built a solar-powered box that produces practical quantities of drinking water out of thin air at night, even in the Arizona desert.
• Since 2006, over two dozen Americans have been killed by keyless cars. They don’t realise the engine is still running and die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
• More than half the petroleum engineers in the US work in Texas.
• In 1978, Nasa engineers designed a make-up kit for female astronauts. It was never used.
•The first successful all-metal passenger plane had wickerwork seats.
Under Lloyd’s skilful leadership, QI has become one of the most popular shows in the history of British television, continuously attracting record numbers of viewers not just in the UK, but also overseas. I ask Lloyd how it all came about and what the secret of QI’s ongoing success has been.
“In 1993, at the age of 42, I felt unhappy, powerless and ignorant – a kind of a midlife crisis perhaps. I realised with sudden clarity that, with all my education and experience, I didn’t really know anything, like, say, how a tree actually grows. Having been in television for all those years, I had a fairly vague idea of how a TV camera works. That made me think about the power of ignorance – not the arrogant kind which is just lack of information, but the Socratic ‘Even the things I know about I do not know about’. In this respect, ignorance is more important than knowledge, because it drives creativity and encourages learning.
“I then thought that it would be nice to have a TV show where a bunch of middle-aged comedians would banter about little-known facts, and the audience would laugh and learn while laughing. A good name for such a show would be ‘QI’ which stands for ‘quite interesting’, but also, if reversed, for ‘IQ’, and it could aim to become a media version of the world’s first non-boring encyclopaedia.
“With my friend and fellow writer John Mitchinson, we used to daydream of bespoke QI schools, libraries and archives brimming with interesting facts. The original idea was to place QI headquarters in an Oxfordshire barn full of cutting-edge technology. We even found a suitable barn and were thinking of buying it. In the end, the barn idea did not work out, and – here’s a quite interesting fact for you – that very barn is now the Oxfordshire home of David and Victoria Beckham.”
With all his creative imagination, however, Lloyd could hardly have predicted that, by 2018, QI, propelled by the all-permeating and ever-growing universal hunger for general knowledge, would become a world-renowned institution, an industry in its own right. Continuing TV broadcasts are now part of the thriving QI enterprise, incorporating DVDs, YouTube videos, award-winning podcasts, newspaper columns, theatre productions and online archives, which contain, in Lloyd’s own estimation, “the largest collection of exclusively interesting one-line facts ever assembled in the history of the universe”.
And then there are the QI books, of course, which have sold over 3.5 million copies in the past 12 years – one every 23 seconds, which is a quite interesting fact. Indeed, the main reason for my meeting with Lloyd this time was the latest of the books – ‘2,024 QI Facts To Stop You in Your Tracks’ published by Faber & Faber last October. Lloyd put it together with two ‘incumbent’ QI elves – James Harkin and Anne Miller.
The facts in it are not just truly astounding (e.g. “the world’s smallest computer is smaller than a grain of sand” and “fish can cough”), but each of them is referenced and the sources can be found online by going to qi.com/2024 and entering the relevant page number.
“It is not a book but a portal; a gadget, a piece of technology,” says Lloyd. “It also shows that we do not invent the facts, as some people tend to think, but simply collect them.”
There is one question I cannot leave without asking, although it may be sadly obvious. In the QI TV show, he is now on letter ‘P’ – not too many left until the end of the alphabet. What then?
“We may end up doing 12 shows on Xylophones,” he smiles, before adding: “I sometimes say that as soon as we finish with letters, we’ll start with numbers.”
‘2,024 QI Facts to Stop You in Your Tracks’ is published by Faber & Faber at £9.99
QI’s much admired system of forfeits is the show’s closest brush with technology. By forfeits, QI regulars mean the answers that sound obvious, but are actually incorrect.
Alan Davies, the only permanent QI panellist, often goes for them (whether deliberately or not): for example, he answered “oxygen” to the question on what is the main component of air. A former QI insider, I still find it hard to understand how the immediacy of the forfeit alarms – loud klaxon, flashing lights, sounds of bells – is achieved, and I had to ask Alex Bell, one of the current elves, to explain for the first time in public how it works.
“Everyone calls our forfeit alarm the QI klaxon, but technically speaking ‘Klaxon’ is a brand name for a specific horn sound – the ‘awoooga’ sounds that old car horns make. Our forfeit alarm is a mixture of a number of sounds (only one of which is a klaxon). We once even klaxon-ed Jack Whitehall for calling it a klaxon.
“Contrary to what people often think, we never type the forfeits in live after a panellist has answered; that wouldn’t be fair! According to the rules, a forfeit is any answer that’s wrong, and obvious enough that the elves can predict it when we’re writing the questions. For the pilot episode of QI way back in 2001, the forfeits were a stack of cards with words scribbled with pen for Stephen Fry, our former presenter, to hold up.
“The bells-and-whistles system was developed by the scoring company Lumina for the main series, but to begin with it was pretty tricky to operate.
“Each forfeit was pre-selected and assigned a number, which our director would shout out if a panellist fell for the wrong answer. Then the sound, lighting and graphics desks would all have to independently set off their respective cues at the same time. That’s why it sometimes looked like we were typing in the answers; each episode can have up to 50 possible forfeits, so it takes a couple of seconds to find the right one and put it up on the screens. In recent years we’ve streamlined it a bit.
The current system is what’s pictured below this box: an elf-operated touchscreen grid, with sections for each question in a script, and a permanently loaded ‘Blue Whale’ forfeit just in case [“blue whale” is a popular wrong answer given often rather wryly by Davies]. As soon as I jab a forfeit the screens, lights and sounds all go off automatically. Eagle-eyed viewers might have noticed that the klaxons are a lot slicker these days.
“The only downside is that it’s quite easy to lean on the touchscreen and accidentally set it off; I’ve done it twice so far. One more strike and I’m fired.”
Another enigmatic bit of QI technology is the scoring system. How does that work? Here John Lloyd is quite categorical: “It is a proprietary algorithm – this is all I can say, or otherwise I will have to kill you.” I choose not press the matter further.
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