QI. Image shows from L to R: Alan Davies, Sandi Toksvig. Copyright: TalkbackThames


  • TV panel show
  • BBC Two / BBC One / BBC Four
  • 2003 - 2022
  • 279 episodes (19 series)

Panel game that contains lots of difficult questions and a large amount of quite interesting facts. Stars Sandi Toksvig, Stephen Fry and Alan Davies.

Episode menu

Series S, Episode 11 - Saints And Sinners

QI. Johnny Vegas

Further details


- The question about whether beards are good or evil is one that has been debated in every major religion over many centuries. In the 1160s, the French monk Bouchard complicated things by talking about the "inner beard". Bouchard and his fellow monks were all clean shaven, all the lay people had beards, and Bouchard inadvertently offended them by writing a letter in which was misinterpreted as an anti-beard comment, to the point some people thought he was threatening to burn off people's beards. Thus, Bouchard wrote an entire treatise called In Defence of Beards, the Apologia de barbis, writing of the great strength and wisdom beards denoted. However, this treatise risked offending the clean shaven monks, so Bouchard claimed the monks had an inner beard. However, Bouchard said that moustaches were monstrous signs and should be avoided.

- Tangent: St. Wilgefortis was a woman whose father wanted to marry her off to a king, but she was not interested. Thus, she prayed to be made repulsive, and as a result she immediately sprouted a beard. Because of this, her father crucified her. There was also St. Paula the Bearded, who also grew a beard to avoid men.

- Tangent: There was a pride of lions were a lioness grew a mane and became the leader.

- Tangent: When Sandi played the storyteller in Cinderella at the Old Vic, she wore a false moustache because it was a male part. She got used to the moustache really fast, stroking it on the second night.

- Tangent: In April 1907, all the waiters in Paris' top restaurants went on strike over the right to grow moustaches. The strike cost the industry 25,000 francs a day, and there were assaults on clean shaven waiters who still working. The reason moustaches were banned was because around the time modern restaurants came to Paris they wanted to recreate the experience of dining in an upscale home, and domestic servants were not allowed to grow facial hair.

- Tangent: In 1749, a satirical print was created for a horse-drawn mass shaving machine, in which multiple people put their face in a hole while razors whirr around and shave 60 men in a minute, and also oil, comb and powder wigs.

- Tangent: The old method of teaching people how to use a cutthroat razor was to shave a balloon.

- Several people have tried to weigh our souls. In 1901, Dr. Duncan MacDougall from Massachusetts fitted a bed with weighing scales, and got six dying patients to line in it during their final moments, then recorded their exact weight just before and just after they died. MacDougall chose patients with illness that caused physical exhaustion such as TB, because he wanted the patients to remain still, so he go get good measurements. Not all the experiments worked, with one patient dying as the scales were calibrated. He measured one subject losing 21.3 grams when they died, and thus he concluded this was how much the soul weighed. As a result, many people afterwards thought the soul weighed 21 grams. Also, another physician at the time, Augustus P. Clarke, noted that there is often a sudden rise in body temperature when people die because the lungs stop cooling the blood, which also causes a rise in sweating which would account for the 21 grams. However, two of his other subjects didn't give any measurements at all. MacDougall later carried out experiments on 15 dying dogs, believing they had no souls and indeed they experienced no weight loss after death.

- Tangent: In the 13th century, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II took a condemned man, sealed him a barrel and waited for him to die, reasoning when the man did die his soul would not be able to get out of the barrel. Thus, he could open the barrel up afterwards and see the soul. Obviously all was left was the corpse.

- Tangent: In Latin America, there is the belief in "susto" ("fright" in Spanish), a folk illness in which sufferers believe that their soul has left their body while they are still alive. The idea is that something so awful has happened to you that your soul has actually left you. Johnny claims to have had this when he has been offered gym membership. Meanwhile, in Denmark and some other Scandinavian countries, when someone dies you open the window to allow the soul to escape, and you cover the mirrors to prevent the soul being trapped in them.

- Tangent: Mark remember the first time he has a pet which died, a hamster, and his mum tried to cheer him up by turning to Mark's dad, Chris, and saying: "I expect that pets can go to heaven, wouldn't you Chris?" Chris replied: "I wouldn't have thought so." Mark says this response may have been to do with the fact that Chris was a science teacher.

- You should never envy sloth lust because sex among the animals known as sloths is very brief. Sloth sex begins with the female screaming at the top of her lungs that she is available, then the male slowly comes, and the actual sex itself last as little as five seconds, including the foreplay. Both pronunciations of "sloth" and "sloath" are considered perfectly correct. The animal is named after the sin. Sloths can also poo one-third of their body weight in a single go.

- Tangent: While there are now seven deadly sins (envy, sloth, lust, wrath, greed, gluttony and pride), the original Greek list had an eighth, acedia, meaning melancholy or listlessness. On the first Christian list, one of the sins was tristitia, meaning despondency. Pope Gregory I (who Bridget mishears as "Pope Pourri") decided to fold a lot of things in together, hence why the list was shortened. However, Pope Francis is about to add a new sin to the Catechism: ecological sin, which cover things ranging from littering to permanently destroying parts of the environment.

- The panel are shown a drawing of a man and are asked why he got so many column inches. The man in question is kneeling on top of a pillar in the desert. The man was a monk called Simeon from near what is now Aleppo, Syria, in 423 AD. Simeon wanted to live as simple a life as possible, so decided to live on top of a 60ft high pillar, 2ft square. Before doing so he entered a monastery living an existence so austere that even other monks thought it was extreme. Simeon then dug a waist-deep hole in a garden, which he stayed in for two years. The monks then threw him out, so he then moved into an empty cistern. Then, at the age of 20 he chained himself into a two-square-yard roofless enclosure. Finally, he moved to the column, became known as Simeon Stylite, and stayed there for 40 years. Simeon was fed with parcels of flatbread and goat's milk, but no-one knows whether it was delivered by bucket or if small boys climbed the pillar to give it to him. Unfortunately for Simeon, all of this had the opposite effect from what he had intended. He wanted to get away from people, but in fact it drew people to him. Simeon tended to either stand with his arms extended or he would repeatedly touch his toes with his forehead as many as 1,200 times while the audience shouted the count from below. Simeon gave sermon from his pillar, and the Emperor would ask him for advice. Lots of people then imitated Simeon, becoming known as Stylites ("pillar-dweller" in Greek). One, St. Simeon Stylite the Younger, spent 69 of his 76 years up a pillar. The original column used by the first Simeon Stylite was destroyed by a missile in 2016 during the Syrian civil war.

- Tangent: A spiritual descendent of pillar-sitting was the flagpole sitting craze in 1920s-1930s USA. One Irishman, Alvin "Shipwreck" Kelly, who claimed to have been in 62 shipwrecks, used to do this. He also did headstands on a overhanging plank of wood on the roof of the Chanin Building, while having doughnuts and coffee. Over two decades, he spent 20,613 hours in total sitting on flagpoles. Kelly met his wife, Frances, while sitting on a flagpole. Frances worked as a elevator operator, and she climbed a flagpole Frances was sitting on to shake his hand.

- The thing that is transparent, consistently thick, a bit of a pain and comes from St. Helens is glass. Float glass is when you float sheets of glass on molten tin so you don't need to polish the other side of the glass, reducing costs. It was invented by Alastair Pilkington in the 1950s. St. Helens is also the home of fibre optics; the first photos clearly showing a human face were taken by John William Draper and his sister Dorothy of St. Helens, and John William was also the first person to take a picture of the Moon; and the world's largest bug hotel, measuring 80 cubic metres in size, is in Johnny Vegas' old school.

- Tangent: There are two main theatres in St. Helens; the Theatre Royal and the Citadel, the latter of which is where Johnny cut his teeth in comedy. He went to it, heckled, and was invited back to be a compere. There was a verbal agreement where the venue could not afford to pay Johnny, but the drinks were free. By the second gig, they were paying Johnny £30 because he started drinking at 6am. Sandi was paid beer at the first gigs she did at the Comedy Store.

- Nobody respects the Spanish Inquisition because they were not as violent as everyone makes them out to be. The Catholic Church has looked into it and has said while they were happy to say sorry of all thing bad things that were done during the Inquisition, many of things that people claimed they did the Church did not do. Torture was only used as a last resort, and even then you could only do it for 15 minutes, a doctor had to be present, you could give no permanent injuries or draw blood. Most sentences were prayers and fasts, while many of the punishments were commuted. Life sentences, known as "perpetual imprisonment", only lasted for three years. The only people the Inquisition executed were "relapsers", who people who apologised for their crimes and then repeated the offence. Secular prisoners sometimes blasphemed in prison in order to get themselves transferred to an Inquisition prison because they thought they would get a fairer trial. One inquisitor, Salazar Frias, investigated the Basque Witch Panic, and determined it was all made up by the accusers. The actual conviction rate was about 6% on average. Between 1560 to 1700, they put 3,687 people on trial for witchcraft, and only 101 were found guilty. Inquisitors also realised people were using them to settle local scores, with the accused being released if they just provided a list of anybody who had a grudge against them. One judge was released by producing a list of people he had sentenced.

- The person who was younger than James the Younger was his own relic. One of the Disciples, also known as St. James the Less, for over 1,500 years the Saint Apostoli Church in Rome had fragments of what they believed to be his thigh bone. However, in 2020, it was radiocarbon dated by the University of Southern Denmark, and they revealed the bone blonged to the body of someone born between 214-340AD. Thus, the bone was younger than James. (Forfeit: James the Even Younger)

[i]- Tangent: James the Younger should not be confused with James the Great, who was the son of Zebedee. One of his hands was the star relic at Reading Abbey, founded in 1121 by Henry I. Other relics they had included pieces of the true cross and one of Christ's sandals. The hand disappeared at the dissolution of the monasteries, but was rediscovered in 1786. It is now in the Roman Catholic Church in Marlow, Buckinghamshire. However, this hand has also been carbon dated, and the band is 900 years too young.

- You may come home from a pilgrimage with a vagina, because many of the tokens sold to pilgrims were pornographic. Sandi shows so some replicas of tokens featuring vaginas on horseback, a phallus with someone pushing a wheelbarrow full of phalluses, and a penis on a boat. They were sold partly as protection against the evil eye, and also much like today, people are likely to buy bawdy souvenirs when on holiday.

General Ignorance

- The panel are shown a picture of a never-ending staircase and are asked who designed it. The square, never-ending staircase is called the Penrose stairs figure, and was created by British psychiatrist and mathematician called Lionel Sharples Penrose. His son, Sir Roger Penrose, first published in 1958. The Penroses had been by M. C. Eschers early work on impossible figures, so they sent him a copy of their staircase, which Escher liked so much that he made a staircase of his own, so the Penroses inspired Escher to do his drawing. (Forfeit: M. C. Escher)

- Tangent: Sir Roger Penrose won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on black holes. He is also famous for tiling. He created a mathematically revolutionary way of arranging floor tiles so you could cover an infinite plane without the pattern ever repeating. Over 20 years after he created this pattern, Penrose sued Kleenex for using it on toilet paper, as the pattern would mean the toilet paper would not stick together. The case was settled out of court.

- The largest body of water in Africa is underground in the Sahara Desert. Underneath the eastern end of the desert is about 150,000 cubic kilometres of water, which is three-quarters of the total amount of water held in all the lakes in the world. It consists of a huge mass of wet rock filled with fossil water that is trapped deep underground, rather than being part of the water cycle. The Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System is the largest known fossil water aquifer system in the world. It covers an area of two million square kilometres, lying under much of Egypt, Sudan, Chad and Libya. (Forfeit: River Nile; Lake Victoria)

- Tangent: Africa was once home to the largest freshwater lake in the world, known as Mega Chad, and was larger than the entire British Isles, but it suddenly shrank a thousand years ago.

- Tangent: Alan had an idea for a TV series where people would be asked where would Britain to elsewhere on the globe, and then discuss the consequences, i.e. changes to climate, neighbours, nearest war zones. A quite well-known producer told Alan that it might work as a segment, but not as an entire show.

- Tangent: Lake Chad is tautological, in that "Chad" also means "lake" in the Kanuri language. Other tautological places include the Sahara Desert, Canvey Island, Wookey Hole cave, and Pendle Hill, where both "pen" and "dle" mean hill.

- The panel are shown a picture of a plane with a swastika on it and are asked which country's air force it belonged to. It was part of the Finnish Air Force, as the Germans never used the swastika on planes. While the Nazis adopted it as a party emblem in 1920, then as a national symbol for Germany in 1933, but it had already been in used for two years by the Finns before the Nazis. In 1918, Swedish nobleman Count Eric von Rosen donated a plane decorated with one to the newly formed Finnish Air Force, and they carried on using it until 1945. The Cross of Freedom, a variant of the swastika, still features today in the top left-hand corner of the official flag of the Finnish president. Danish brewer Carlsberg also used the swastika as a logo from the 19th century to the mid-1930s, and you can still see it in the carved stone Indian elephants the stand at the gates of the company's HQ.

- The panel are played a recording of Morse code consisting of three dots, three dashes and three dots, with no gaps, and are asked what it stands for. It stands for the international distress signal. If it stood for SOS, there would be a gap between each letter, but we call it "SOS" as a convenient way of remembering the signal. However, you could put the gaps in different places, and arrange it so it became dot dot dot dash, dash, dash dot dot dot, which would be "VTB", as in "Vacate The Boat". The distress call however is universal, and does not rely on language. Before that, the signal was CQD (dash do dash dot, dash dash dot dash, dash dot dot), but in 1906 it was agreed to make it simpler. However, SOS took a while to catch on, and when the Titanic sank they sent CQD.


- Johnny Vegas: 13 points.
- Bridget Christie: 7 points.
- Mark Watson: -8 points.
- Alan Davies: -22 points.


The XL version of this episode was broadcast first.

Broadcast details

Friday 21st January 2022
30 minutes

Cast & crew

Sandi Toksvig Host / Presenter
Alan Davies Regular Panellist
Guest cast
Johnny Vegas Guest
Bridget Christie Guest
Mark Watson Guest
Writing team
James Harkin Script Editor
Anna Ptaszynski Script Editor
Sandi Toksvig Script Editor
Ed Brooke-Hitching Question Writer
Production team
Diccon Ramsay Director
John Lloyd (as John Lloyd CBE) Series Producer
Piers Fletcher Producer
Justin Pollard Associate Producer
Nick King Editor
Jonathan Paul Green Production Designer
Nick Collier Lighting Designer
Howard Goodall Composer
Mat Coward Researcher
Will Bowen Researcher
Andrew Hunter Murray Researcher
Mandy Fenton Researcher
Mike Turner Researcher
Jack Chambers Researcher
Emily Jupitus Researcher
James Rawson Researcher
Ethan Ruparelia Researcher
Lydia Mizon Researcher
John Lloyd (as John Lloyd CBE) Creator
Sarah Clay Commissioning Editor

Share this page