This interview is from our archive. It was published in 2009 (Series G).
Justin Pollard and Piers Fletcher interview
The British Comedy Guide talks to QI producer Piers Fletcher, and QI researcher Justin Pollard...
Hi Justin and Piers. Thanks very much for talking to us. Perhaps we could start off by asking you how you became involved in the interesting world that is QI?
Justin Pollard (pictured, right): I was originally an archaeologist at Cambridge. Archaeology is like gardening without flowers and the pay is commensurate with that level of disappointment... so, in the end, having worked for a while at the Museum of London, I had to find a proper job...
Having failed to find a proper job I thought I might try research for documentaries and got a job initially making tea and then researching and finally writing the shows. As a freelancer I worked as Assistant Producer on Time Team, and from there got the chance to produce a 7-part series about the history of Britain, presented by Bettany Hughes. As Channel 4 wanted a book to go with this, this was also my lucky break as an author. In another of those peculiar quirks of fate that are required for any sort of career in the media, that book was picked up by the Indian movie director Shekhar Kapur, who asked me to advise on a movie he was making called Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett. That started the other part of my career off, providing historical script advice for feature films. Since then I've worked on all of Shekhar's movies and been lucky enough to add my pennyworth to films like Atonement and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Last year I even got to do a little bit on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland which was lovely.
I became involved with QI, like I think we all did, through John Lloyd. He had heard that I did a bit TV research and, as he had also worked with Working Title Films, knew I'd done a few things for them. He asked if I'd care for lunch and, as the desire for a free lunch never leaves an archaeologist, I immediately agreed. John explained in the way that only he really can what QI was, why it was different and why it mattered and I pretty much decided on the spot that it was something I'd rather be doing than just about anything else. Thank God he then offered me a chance to work on the series otherwise I would have cried in my coffee, which would have been awkward.
Piers Fletcher (pictured, left): Ah yes, the lost decades. I spent twenty-two years in the City, constructing an elaborate set of financial time bombs which were primed to bring the system to its knees after I left. The scary thing is, they haven't gone off yet.
The format behind QI is obviously very reliant on research - without it, the show almost certainly wouldn't work. How long does it take to compile the research needed for a series of QI?
Piers: I did a fundraising quiz for my son's school, because this committee of scary mums said "We love QI, we watch it all the time, so you have to do this quiz, or else..." I thought the smart play would be to give these scary mums a round of easy scary-mum-style questions to keep them happy, so I set a round of ten classic QI General Ignorance questions, figuring that they were bound to get them all right seeing as they watched the show all the time. In fact, they got them all wrong. I mean, seriously, every one of them got every single question wrong, even though they were all obviously trick questions. Afterwards, I plucked up the courage to ask one of them why this was, and she said "Oh, we don't listen to the questions. We just like the jokes."... So, I guess what I'm saying is that it seems that there are actually lots of people to whom the research matters not at all.
Oh dear! If it's any consolation, we're pretty sure there would be no jokes without the interesting questions though. Justin, is the research a big task?
Justin: Last year we started work in late December and finished the research early May, so around four-and-a-half months I suppose it takes to research 16 shows. Having said that, we keep files going all year round when interesting things turn up so we can hit the ground running, or at least moving. Piers keeps us reasonably disciplined in making sure we reach certain landmarks for question numbers and themes by certain dates. It's easy to persuade yourself when you see a board full of questions that we've got enough and can relax but you have to be more ruthless than that. A lot of questions that look OK the first time round, look a lot worse the second and some that are good simply don't fit into the shape of a show so can't be used. We try out each question on the rest of the team at our Monday meetings and then they receive a grading from 1 (ready to go - definitely in the show) to 5 (bucket of despair - only for emergencies).
So what sources do you use to find such interesting facts?
Piers: At the time of writing, a Google search for the phrase "Contrary to popular belief" returns 2.37 million hits, so that's me sorted. The rest of the team works a bit harder, though: Will Bowen attends all the lectures at the Royal Institution and many of those at the Royal Geographical Society, James Harkin is currently visiting everywhere in the world that starts with an H, Arron Ferster camps on the roof of the Royal Society and listens down the chimney, etc. We have very good sources in the Freemasons and of course a lot of our more polemical moments are included on the instructions of the Illuminati. I think Justin may be one of them, actually.
Justin: The great thing about QI research is that it has no subject per se. I usually start a line of research with something I've read in a book (I own a lot of books), or newspaper, or some of the more interesting blogs on the internet, like The Institute for Figuring. I also use serendipitous services like StumbleUpon to find what I wasn't looking for. Magazines like Cabinet are also rare troves of interestingness. Once I'm going, the research could really lead anywhere. The whole point is to look for those things which interest us and which we hope will interest and amuse others, so just because I've started researching magnetic bacteriophages doesn't mean I'll finish researching them. I might come across an interesting character en-route, or a strange place or just a different story and head off in that direction.
Usually in research you're encouraged not to get distracted. In QI research distraction is encouraged because whatever has distracted you must be quite interesting. Once on this strange journey I use a lot more of the standard references to get the details I need. I have subscriptions to the OED, DNB and the full Oxford reference series. Once something looks promising it is important to try to get the facts right so these reference collections are invaluable. You'll probably want to know if I use the Wikipedia, and the answer is yes, of course. Whilst there are quality control issues with some pages and there is always a danger of bias, this is also frankly true of a lot of other sources. There's nothing wrong with starting with the wiki but like with every other source, you should double-check their facts.
Ha ha. Stephen seems to have a fact for everything. How much of that is his knowledge, and how much of it is your research?
Justin: Stephen does already know an inordinate amount about the subjects we come up with for QI, but of course even he can't know everything - particularly the gritty details like when people were born and died etc. To help with that we provide him with a series of cards (the ones you see on his desk) which contain information about each question and answer, with background on the people and places involved and some interesting bits that might be useful if the discussion goes off in a direction we can predict. We also have a screen where we can type messages to Stephen, which we sometimes use if one of the panellists queries a fact and he'd like it checked. However, as the show is recorded 'as live' there's no real time for us to write or him to read much extra material. Stephen also has an earpiece so he can hear the gallery (where we are) although this is generally just used to give directions about the technical progress of the show - i.e. asking Stephen to stop whilst we change tapes.
Piers: I can't add much to that - Stephen does know a lot to start with, and he's very quick to assimilate anything we throw at him that he doesn't already know.
So, as Justin just touched upon, it sounds like you have to research lots of additional 'spin-off' facts, just on the off-chance that one of the panelists goes off on a tangent?
Justin: Yes, we try to guess - sometimes accurately, sometimes not at all - where a conversation might lead and put in germane material on those subjects. Equally if it's a subject we know a panelist has talked about before, or is particularly fond of, we might put in a note to that effect. We also provide the usual background material, so if we, say, did a question on the Banach-Tarski paradox, we'd put in biographical info on who Banach and Tarski were and perhaps add some details on Banach's habit of writing on tables and so on. Then I might add something on other people who write on tables, just in case the conversation goes that way.
Piers: This is my favourite bit of the preparation - trying to guess what tangent the guests might follow and having the research for that tangent already on the card. When we pull it off, it looks truly miraculous - like a conjuring trick.
Piers, you took over as Producer from John Lloyd at the start of Series F... what was it like taking the reins of such a high-profile show?
John Lloyd is often described as a "legendary" producer, but the truth is odder than that - he's actually mythical. We used to sit in pre-production meetings trying to channel him through the aether in various ways with varying degrees of success. Molly Oldfield [another researcher on the show] would go into a trance and hang prayer flags around the room, Justin Pollard applied a red-hot poker to a tortoise shell and then interpreted the cracks, and John Mitchinson went down to the pub. But after a while it was vouchsafed to me in a vision that if I promoted myself to Producer I could go onto Schedule D for tax purposes. The rest is mystery.
Justin, having written several entertaining history books - most recently Secret Britain - we're guessing you're now the show's appointed history expert. Are you the only 'QI Elf' to cover the history research?
Justin: We all do a bit of everything really. The key to it is finding things that we find quite interesting, so our initial researches are often not in subjects we know. What's great is that when I get interested in a bit of maths or physics I can check with another 'elf' who really understands that subject to see if I've understood it correctly and if my material is right. Likewise the other elves repeatedly ask me if there was ever a female Pope.
Piers: Can I say something about this as well? Thanks. We actually find that people are more likely to find good material in areas that are not their speciality. If you say to a botanist "Did you know that a loofah doesn't come from the sea - it's a vegetable and it grows on a vine?" he's says "Well, duhh... of course." He can't see that that's an unexpected fact to many people. So, while it is true that Justin does much of our historical research, that's only because we've discovered that he knows nothing whatsoever about history.
Ha ha. Here's something we're curious about: We've seen on Twitter some of the guests mentioning they're going into "QI Rehearsals". Does that mean the show is scripted?
Justin: The show has a script but isn't scripted in a drama sense. We have to have a running order so that everyone knows what's happening when - otherwise the pictures would come in the wrong order and the lights would be pointing in the wrong places. Fundamentally the script contains the theme of the show with intros and outros for Stephen (which he may or may not chose to use and/or adapt), the questions and the linking pieces between questions. These written links help us to cleanly end one question, remind the audience of the answer and move on to the next. I also try to choose a running order for questions that I think flows well, covers the theme and provides an interesting series of contrasts and options for the panelists. Obviously the show as cut-and-screened misses out whole chunks of this, but I think for the panelists and the audience on the night it's good to make it as coherent a 'live show' as possible.
As for rehearsals there are three. In the first, stand-ins (that is actors playing the role of the panelists) go through the real questions and answers with the floor manager standing in as Stephen. This run-through allows the technical folk to make sure everything is right. Then we have another rehearsal with the stand-ins and the real Stephen. This gives Stephen a chance to become more familiar with the material (particularly the pictures which he won't have seen before) and ask any questions he has, suggest changes, query notes etc. The third rehearsal has the real panelists and the real Stephen BUT we give them dummy questions. This rehearsal is for any new panelists to get an idea of the show and how it works and for final decisions to be made on costume etc.
Piers: This is one of the problems about working with an archaeologist. They sieve through everything so minutely that there's nothing left for anyone else to add. Let's move on, shall we?
QI tends to attract some the cleverest and wittiest comedians as guests, so this is probably going to be a hard question to answer... but do you have any particular favourite guests?
Justin: Now that's just unfair, but, other than Alan, I think David Mitchell always does brilliantly. He grapples with even the really esoteric questions and is always generous in setting up ideas and trains of thought that the whole panel can then follow. The same is true of Sean Lock, and I always love having Johnny Vegas on because the discussion could go anywhere. I'd never imagined what it was like to jet-ski down the International Dateline until I met Johnny. No idea why. But then Rob Bryon never lets us down or, well, I could just end up naming all our regulars! It's not easy extemporising on obviously stand-up themes - how much harder to do it on non-Euclidean geometry and the Liber Regalis? I think they really are the best in the business.
Piers: Who's Liber Regalis? Does she work for scale?
Ha ha. So is there anyone you'd love to appear on the show who hasn't yet?
Justin: I've never worked with Sooty, which was always a childhood ambition. He might be very expensive though. Other than that I think Tim Minchin is magnificent and The Mighty Boosh might take us on a quite interesting journey through time and space...
Piers: Dolly Parton, obviously. Effie from Skins, too.
Right, er... OK. Dolly Parton and Sooty? Perhaps you'd be best sticking to using the current regulars! The show has of course recently moved to BBC One, and is going out in an earlier time slot. Some of the show's fans are worrying that QI might 'dumb-down' for a more mainstream audience. What direction do you see the show taking?
Piers: The real trick would be to dumb it up. Actually, that's not a bad mission statement: "QI - dumbing things up since 2003".
Justin: I don't think we've dumbed down - in this latest series there's a whole show on the obscure areas of geometry for a start - but we do certainly want to be popular. That means being accessible and open to as wide an audience as possible. Being post-watershed did allow for some more freedom with language, which could be funny but was problematic for families watching with younger kids - and lots of kids do watch the show. We have the best comedians in the business, so not the sort who have to swear to get a laugh, and I think they've taken to the pre-watershed slot without a problem. Personally, I think the point of QI, from the research and writing perspective, is to show that everything can be interesting, if put the right way. If that's true, then kids are a very important audience so being pre-watershed can only help. Of course we equally don't want to be too proscriptive with the panelists or patronise an adult audience so I think a post watershed QI XL cut gives us the opportunity to have a go at pleasing both constituencies.
Each series of QI is based on a letter; do you think you'll get all the way to Series Z? If so, what topics are you going to cover... surely there's not going to be enough 'Z' words to base a series on?
Piers: We'll encounter problematic letters way before Z, by the way. The letter thing started as an in-joke - a senior executive at the BBC didn't want to commission the show because they thought it would be impossible to find enough material for more than one series, so we set ourselves an arbitrary constraint of using only material which started with "A" (I say "we", although this was actually before my time). If you watch the first series, you'll see that it never refers to the fact that it is "Series A", and I'm sure most people didn't notice it at the time.
Justin: I hope we get to Z - you can't really leave an alphabet unfinished can you? After that I'd like to do numbers - there are a lot of those. Incidently, I think we can easily find enough Z words - we are allowed proper nouns too. I think the show on Zinc might be a little thin, although up to 15% of a Thames estuary barnacle can be zinc (by bodyweight), which is quite interesting, but what can't you say about Zurich? The first pencil was described by a man from Zurich in 1565. You see - the show's writing itself already!
Cool. Hopefully lots more QI to look forward to then! Your show ends with Stephen reading out an interesting fact or quote. Do you have a quite interesting fact you could share with us?
Justin: "Will you hob or nob with me? It's been a bit of a horse's meal so far and I'm keen to mop up. Come on, sluice your gob, unless you think the rag water's wibble?" is just an 18th century way of asking someone if they'd like a drink.
Piers: There's a quote by Enrico Caruso which I have tried to smuggle in a couple of times, but Stephen doesn't think it's funny so I don't think it'll ever be used. It helps to tell it in an Italian accent: Caruso was praising the water melon. "It ees a good fruit," he said. "You eat, you drink - an' you wash your face"... Actually, Stephen's right. Can you cut this bit from the interview?
Ha ha - they're good! Finally, our own tradition is to end by asking our interviewees what their favourite comedy shows are, past and present...
Piers: From the past: the American sketch show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. In the present, it's Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Justin: In the present I'm a great fan of Peep Show, The Armstrong & Miller Show and The Mighty Boosh. Going back a bit, I always liked my comedy a shade surreal and perhaps a tad sinister, so Chris Morris was always a favourite - Blue Jam and The Day Today in particular. Now I think about it, why did they cancel Big Train? - that was fantastic as well. Before that it'd have to be The Fast Show, I think the most acutely observed sketch show of all time. Even further back I loved The Young Ones because you weren't at that time allowed to say or do on TV the things they did. You still might not be allowed to. And when I was very young Monty Python because my dad would let me hide behind the curtains to watch it as my mother didn't approve. Have I missed any?
Great. Thanks guys. All the best with the future series!