fri 12/07/2024

QI, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews



Back for a ninth series. Is that true? Or did you hear it on QI?

The world's favourite cuddly wit

A couple of summers back, I spent an entire term with an idling history teacher who watched, in his many, many free periods, the entire back catalogue of QI on his laptop. And gave us running updates. Much as we mocked him for his pseudo-intellectual thumb-twiddling, in a staff room full of chat about timetables, syllabuses and the iniquities of the tuck shop, the regular injection of dorky trivia – and the entrenched and bitter arguments it provoked – was very welcome.

That said, I cannot now tell you for certain whether the word “hello” was really invented along with the telephone, or if Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” was, in fact, for a while, the interim national anthem of some South American revolutionary state. Are these things true? (And did I hear them on QI?) Or are they commonly held urban myths – which I’ve now absorbed as fact, thanks to QI’s putting them in my head in the first place? Ironic, huh? QI is great fun, and good TV. But, as far as I can make out, in eight highly entertaining series the show’s principal achievement has been an increase in the sum of human confusion. A quite interesting attribute for a show dedicated to the advancement of knowledge.

Series nine opened last night, back on BBC Two (the proper home of the intellectual, we are told: isn’t The Great British Bake-Off on Two?), and everything was very much as per. Stephen Fry, the world’s favourite cuddly wit, rhubarbed and fossicked his way through the nth realm of intellectual arcana, joined – to confuse and torment and mock each other – by Sandi Toksvig (“illustrious”), Lee Mack (“incorrigible”), Jimmy Carr (“indubitable”), and Alan Davies (“‘ilarious” – though he really wasn’t, this week). The theme? “I-spy.”

There were ais, aye-ayes, and even some eyes – but, predictably enough, the letter "I" hardly got a look in. QI trades heavily on incredulity, wilful frivolity, and the answering of funny questions with more funny questions, and at the six-minute mark they were still on question one. But Mack and Carr were also on “yo momma”, so it wasn’t all bad. Fry even had a go (with amusing consequences. It’s true he can be a little bumbly; but you’ve got to love a man who says, “You can poo on whomever you like.” Grammatically, I mean).

Still, through all the intellectual smoke and mirrors – “fog and frosted glass” I suppose would be more (or less) accurate – I now perceive that there is an animal called an ai (a type of sloth) and another called an aye-aye (a lemur). And because I know you’re curious, I shall pass on that the aye-aye has an elongated middle finger, and his Madagascan neighbours don’t like being shown it. Still, who does?

I also know a bit more about the Mona Lisa (the most famous hairdresser’s “Is she looking at me?” poster of all time) and about The Laughing Cavalier; that Einstein’s head would make a good blancmange mould; how to make the Queen frown (on a fiver); that Baden Powell was a nutbar of the first degree; and that men look at dogs’ genitals. This last, I think, was news to all the men watching, but Stephen Fry said it, so it must be true.

Quite what I’ll do with this information, of course, and how long I’ll hang on to it…

But it’s this sheer foolery inherent in QI’s format that makes it so enjoyable. It’s surely the only cultural product – outside of Martin McDonagh movies, perhaps – where you can expect to find Frans Hals and Scooby Doo in the same sentence. The scoring system remains something of a mystery, but then the scores don’t really matter. Yesterday’s episode even upped the counter-intuitive-quiz-show stakes with a “Nobody knows” wildcard answer – like guessing the weight of a philosopher’s hypothetical.

What troubles me, though, as I say, is the information that does stick. Partly. Is a lobster really black in the water (and only red in the restaurant – and when the hell is it blue?!)? Did sailors really used to swim with their hats on, and why? And I know it’s going to be some time before I shake the idea that the aye-aye’s long finger is nature’s way of letting it eat Hula Hoops. As my history-teacher colleague so regularly had cause to ask, “Is that true? Or did I hear it on QI?”

The aye-aye has an elongated middle finger, and his Madagascan neighbours don’t like being shown it. Still, who does?

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