A Quite Interesting Sunday Evening In A Television Studio, 26 January 2003

Since moving on from the parental home, in which television played a central part, I have not been much of a television viewer at all.

But I did once spend an evening in a television studio, along with Janie, watching a pilot for a show that eventually became QI (Quite Interesting). I remembered the evening in question while having lunch with John Lloyd (the producer of QI amongst other hit TV programmes), Brendan May and Michael Mainelli in December 2017.

My diary was not very helpful for this memory…

…but I’m pretty sure that the “@6:30” appointment that Sunday evening was the television studio on the South Bank for that pilot show.

As I recall it, Brendan May had suggested that Janie and I join him to form a supporting posse for the first pilot TV show as part of John’s “Quite Interesting” initiative, about which we had talked at some length with John over the preceding months.

The conceit of this pilot version of QI was a panel show in which members of the audience asked questions of the panel. The panellists would then try to answer the audience questions with interesting answers. A cross between a quiz show and Question Time.

Brendan was there, with his (then) girlfriend Caroline Woofenden, plus Caroline’s sister, Susie. Once Janie and I joined, we were a posse of five.

I’m sure John had rustled up some other friendly posses and in any case had plenty else to do that evening, but I recall him taking the time to greet us warmly and to ask if Janie and/or I wanted to ask a question of the panel. We both said no, but John made absolutely sure that we really didn’t want to participate before letting the matter go.

Brendan, on the other hand, had turned up with a tricky question for the panel, which I recall was a slightly obscure (or should I say quite interesting?) question about Mozart. Brendan might recall the exact details of his question.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a quite interesting man, public domain image, source:

This pilot show was hosted by Peter Snow, best known (at least to us) as the face of the election results on election nights.

I recall that the show was to be titled Beat The Database rather than QI. The conceit of the show in that pilot form was the idea that the panellists were aiming to provide better answers than a database of facts. “Better answers”, in this context, meant being more interesting while avoiding common fallacies.

I remember all of our posse agreeing, after the pilot, that we thought the show should do well.

I recall watching the QI TV show when it was first broadcast, a few months later. I  was rather disappointed with the changes to the format, in particular the absence of audience questions and the switch from precise, game show scoring to “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”-style comedy scoring. Only the inclusion of Stephen Fry as host seemed, in my inexpert  opinion, like a good swap. Brendan agreed with me.

I remember Janie saying that there was no qualitative difference between the two formats to her eyes, while admitting that this is not really her sort of show anyway and that she hadn’t really enjoyed either format.

Caroline felt that that the QI format was much better than the Beat the Database pilot we had seen. I also remember Caroline gently berating me and Brendan for criticising the changes, reminding us that we are hardly typical TV audience. “If John Lloyd designed his programmes on your advice, he’d be producing programmes for an audience of two, neither of whom ever get round to watching TV anyway,” said Caroline, with words to that effect. She had a very good point.

But as this piece is about QI, I should record a couple of quite interesting things emerging from my process of writing this Ogblog piece.

The pilot we witnessed in January 2003 seems to have got lost in the recorded history of QI, certainly if Wikipedia at the time of writing is anything to go by.  Click here for a December 2017 scrape of the Wikipedia entry for QI. The existence of this Ogblog piece might itself lead to a Wikipedia correction of course – it wouldn’t be the first time – Ogblog has a social history function too, you know. QI elves should be crawling all over Ogblog like a rash by now, if they aren’t already.

A more serious reflection, though, emerging from our lunchtime conversation with John in December 2017, is that the idea of QI originally was much, much bigger than a single TV show.  The QI initiative set out to transform learning in society comprehensively. The idea was to take advantage of our additionally connected world of knowledge, exploding the “boring, encyclopaedic” approach to facts and teaching, not least rote learning, as  passé (no longer particularly useful) and insufficiently engaging for most human beings. Curiosity-based learning, arguably, is both much more fun and much more useful too.

Over lunch in December 2017, John bemoaned the fact that, nearly 15 years on, QI has not really progressed much beyond being a hugely successful TV programme. I recalled discussing the idea with John all those years ago; the TV show was intended to be the mere vanguard of this emerging curiosity-based learning movement. That thought also brought to mind the evening I spent at Brian Eno’s place a couple of weeks previously with the Economy team and ideas on how economics could be taught to youngsters using a vastly different approach from conventional neo-classical equations and simplistic “truths”.

Time for me to mix in a bit; the results might be quite interesting.

A Quite Interesting Postscript

On seeing the pilot for this Ogblog piece, John Lloyd kindly chimed in to correct my general ignorance about QI, Beat the Database and no doubt more besides:

Jane Root, then Controller of BBC2, commissioned THREE pilots from the QI project, to be co-produced with Talkback.


The first one we made (in 2002) was QI, which had a very similar feel to the present format, but without the closing ‘General Ignorance’ round with its forfeits.


We did have forfeits in the pilot, but they were dotted through the show randomly. And we did have a General Ignorance round, but it was the first of four rounds and involved things people didn’t know about generals.


It was Jane’s idea to conflate the two ideas and close the show with a ‘General Ignorance’ round, where most of the forfeits have ever since been clustered.


This was partly a brilliant insight – because she immediately grasped what the show’s signature idea would be – and partly a disaster – because if a question is flagged as ‘General Ignorance’, the panel realise at once that, if they ‘know’ the answer, they will be penalised. This has dogged us almost since the start.


The other two pilot programmes were called Beat The Database with Peter Snow, and Smartass, which would have been hosted by Jo Brand.


At the pilot of Beat The Database in 2003 (that you attended with Janie) Brendan was not a member of the audience, but actually on the panel as a ‘member of the public’ – the other two panellists being an ‘expert’ (the US philosophy Professor Steve Erickson (who was a friend of mine and Brendan’s) and a ‘celebrity’ in the form of Gyles Brandreth.


Unlike the preceding pilot of QI (which was indeed hosted by Stephen Fry, albeit as a last-minute stand-in for Michael Palin) and which we all thought was genuinely fresh, Beat The Database was not accounted a success by the production team.


Partly because Peter Snow didn’t get the idea until two-thirds of the way through (he thought the panel were lying), and partly because the QI Database that the panel had to ‘beat’ wasn’t then big enough to best them.


Still, at the time, we thought it was good enough (after what we had learned) to go to a series. However, after a three-month silence, I rang my BBC commissioner to ask if he’d watched the show.


“No”, he said, “Why would I? We’ve already commissioned one series about interesting information, why would we want another?”


That says it all, really.


And Smartass with Jo Brand (though it had been paid for) was never made.