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


  • TV panel show
  • BBC Two / BBC One / BBC Four
  • 2003 - 2021
  • 283 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.

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Series S, Episode 7 - Spooky

QI. Zoe Lyons

Further details


- The thing that smells like ripe gorgonzola, doesn't show up well in photos and should not be touched under any circumstances is fake ectoplasm. After WWI and the Spanish flu epidemic, many people tried to get into touch with dead relatives leading to a rise in spiritualism. By 1930, about 250,000 Britons were members of spiritualist churches. Then Arthur Conan Doyle used a séance to get in touch which his son Kingsley, who died in the war. As a result, many mediums became famous, some of whom claims to produce ectoplasm. Conveniently for the mediums, ectoplasm is supposedly very sensitive to light and touch causing serious and undefined damage to the toucher. The ectoplasm was actually made out of either cheesecloth or muslin, with gelatine, egg white, soap and other substances. One investigator, Harry Price, claimed the ectoplasm smelled of ripe gorgonzola. Danish medium Einer Nielsen was investigated by a team from a Norwegian university, and they claimed Nielsen hid ectoplasm in his bottom, which he fed up a hole in his outfit to his mouth, before pretending to vomit. (Forfeit: Boris Johnson)

- Tangent: French medium Eva Carriere used to chew paper and faces cut out of magazines. She got caught when a photo of her with a supposed dead person was clearly a photo of the then king of Bulgaria. In 1944, Helen Duncan, famous for her production of yards of ectoplasm from her mouth, nostrils, nipples and between her legs, was the last woman in Britain to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735, for falsely claiming to procure spirits. Harry Price stole a sample of Duncan's ectoplasm and found it was made out of wood pulp and egg white. In November 1941, Duncan held a séance in Portsmouth in which she claims a spirit of a sailor told her that HMS Barham had sunk, which was not public knowledge at the time. After she announced this, the Navy were worried that Duncan could actually announce things to people that they should not know about. Winston Churchill was furious that people were wasting their time on Duncan.

- Tangent: A spirit trumpet was a device that was supposed to amplify abnormal, paranormal noises. This fact is illustrated with a photo of a séance with Harry Houdini's wife. Standing next to her is a man with a pair of handcuffs that he can't open, because the only person who could open them was Harry Houdini. Thus, the séance was an attempt to get in touch with Houdini to get him to unlock the cuffs. These séances to contact Houdini happen annually. Alan went to one, and he says that Houdini was interested in the spirit world because he wanted to contact his mother, whom he was very close to. Houdini constantly uncovered charlatans and frauds who claimed they were mediums. Houdini said: "If I can communicate with you, I will open a pair of handcuffs." Thus the séance in New York was conducted with the handcuffs on the table, which failed to open.

- The thing that was so scary it made sailors soil themselves was scurvy. Before it was discovered that scurvy was caused by a lack of Vitamin C, they thought it was caused by being away from land. Thus, in the 18th century a common treatment for scurvy was burying sufferers in soil, a practice called "earth bathing". Home soil was thought to be best, so ship owners took boxes of English earth on voyages. Thomas Melville, captain of a convict ship, would bury scurvy sufferers up to their necks and make them patient eat vegetables. The vegetables probably helped more than the earth. James Lind, the man who discovered that citrus fruits were the real cure, also thought earth bathing was good, so it became common on land too. 18th century quack James Graham recommended his patients buried themselves up to their lips to cure not just scurvy, but also venereal disease, rheumatism, leprosy and cancer, and he earth bathed dozens of times, often in public.

- Tangent: David originally suggests that scary thing is dysentery. Zoe once went scuba diving in Mexico, and she says that, "there's nothing more horrifying than discovered 20 metres underwater that you are going to suffer from what can only be described as catastrophic shits in a wet suit."

- Tangent: During the Age of Sail (1570s-1860s), scurvy killed over two million sailors. This was more than storms, shipwrecks, battles and all other diseases combined. For long voyages, ship owners would assume that about 50% of the crew would die of scurvy. Without Vitamin C, the body cannot carry out the reactions that produce collagen, which is like the glue that holds tissues together. Thus your body literally falls apart: you feel weak, get ulcers, bruise at the gentlest touch, your gums putrefy, your teeth loosen, old wounds reopen, and you bleed internally.

- The panel are shown Edvard Munch's The Scream and are asked what his problem is. The problem is other people. Visitors to the Munch Museum in Oslo are damaging the picture by breathing too close to it, who cause excess humidity. There are four versions of the picture, all drawn on cardboard, two with pastels and two painted. Another problem is that people keep stealing the pictures. In 1994, the first version was stolen from Norway's National Gallery in a robbery lasting just 50 seconds: two men pulled up in a van, propped a ladder against a wall, climbed into the museum and stole the picture leaving a note saying: "Thanks for the poor security." When the 1910 version of the picture was stolen in 2004, the robbers had to ask where the picture was.

- Tangent: It is believed the figure in The Scream was inspired by a Peruvian mummy that Munch came across at the Ethnographic Exchange Museum in Paris. The mummy is of a Chachapoya warrior who lived in the Amazon around 1,000 years ago. Another artist inspired by it was Paul Gauguin, with a similar figure in his painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

- You can make a scary movie even scarier using many of the tricks of B-movie director William Castle, aka the Abominable Showman. He made films such as House on the Haunted Hill and The Tingler, and employed many gimmicks to make things scarier. For his 1958 film Macabre, every member of the audience was given a life insurance policy to sign, and if you died of fright in your seat your family got $1,000. No-one did die. He kept nurses on stand-by in case something terrible happened, had hearses lining the street outside special showings, arrived at premieres in a coffin, and he employed women to sit in the audience to scream at particular moments. For example, in The Tingler when a character breaks the fourth wall and says a deadly parasite has escape into the cinema, the women he paid would then scream. Castle also hid machines to give vibrations at key moments in the film. In Castle's 1961 film Homicidal had a "fright break" in it, where people were allowed to leave and get a full refund before the terrifying denouement. To get the break you had to leave your seat and follow a yellow streak before the entire audience to a special booth called Coward's Corner, where a light shone on your with a recording intoning: "Watch the chicken. Watch him shiver in Coward's Corner."

- Tangent: When Alan's daughter was two they went to a pantomime of Jack and the Beanstalk. It started in black-out, so she was very scared and Alan could feel her grabbing his arm. Then over the tannoy you could hear the giant shouting: "Fee Fi Fo Fum!" All the children cried in terror. Alan had to take her home she was so scared. Sandi took her godson Joe to a panto when he was three, and a character in the play turned to the audience saying: "I'm going to eat all the children!" Joe shouted: "He's just kidding, but let's go home anyway!"

- The UK's largest collection of spirits is in the National History Museum. 23 million exhibits are picked in ethanol and formaldehyde in a collection that takes over 27km of shelving. There is an alcohol supply system that runs all the way through the museum's walls, which is linked to two 1,000 litre tanks of ethanol that is pumped around the museum with compressed air and every lab has a tap that you can draw the solution from. This alcohol however is highly toxic. (Forfeit: My house)

- Tangent: The Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn, London contains a jar of moles and the Bishop of Durham's rectum. It is the rectum of Thomas Thurlow, who died of bowel cancer in 1791, and it was preserved by Dr. John Hunter, after whom the Hunterian Museum is named.

General Ignorance

- The world's fastest mammal is the Mexican free-tailed bat. Cheetahs can travel from 0mph to 60mph in three seconds, and reach a maximum of 75mph, but researchers in Tennessee strapped backpacks to these bats, monitored the bats from a low-flying plane, and showed the bats routinely reach 100mph on wing-power alone. There are some birds that can travel faster than these bats, but only when diving. Peregrine falcons can exceed 180mph when diving, with one measured in 2005 at 242mph. (Forfeit: Cheetah)

- Tangent: Bats form the largest mammal colony in the world. Bracken Cave, Texas, is home to over 15 million bats Every night, they leave the cave in a "batnado". The bats swarm so much that nearby planes have been instructed to avoid them. This colony eats over 80,000 tonnes of insects a year (which is 500 blue whales worth of insects). These bats are also called guano bats as the manure they produce is also a good fertiliser. They drop about 50 tonnes of guano on the cave floor every year. In the 19th century, they tried to dig down to see how much there was, and they stopped digging after they went down 60ft.

- Tangent: Blue whales can travel at 30mph, but only in short bursts. Normally they travel at just 5mph.

- The panel have to identify a beast that is a carved statue near the Great Pyramids of Giza. It is not a Sphinx, despite being called the Great Sphinx. Carved in about 2550BC, the word "sphinx" did not appear until 2,000 years after it was made, and we don't know what it was meant to represent. Theories suggest the statue might of the sun god Horus of the Horizon, or Horemakhet, or a particular pharaoh called Khafre, whose father built the Great Pyramid. The sphinx of Greek myth had a lion's body, a woman's head an eagle's wings, and the one in Giza has no wings. It also has a man's head, which we know because it originally had a beard. The British Museum has sphinx stubble in its collection. In 1400BC, the statue was already in a state of disrepair. The statue keeps getting buried in sand, and it was only excavated to look how it does now in the 1920s. (Forfeit: A Sphinx)


- Richard Osman: 1 point
- Zoe Lyons: -5 points
- David Mitchell: -6 points
- Alan Davies: -23 points

Broadcast details

Thursday 21st October 2021
30 minutes

Cast & crew

Sandi Toksvig Host / Presenter
Alan Davies Regular Panellist
Guest cast
David Mitchell Guest
Richard Osman Guest
Zoe Lyons Guest
Writing team
James Harkin Script Editor
Anna Ptaszynski Script Editor
Sandi Toksvig Script Editor
Andrew Hunter Murray 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
Ed Brooke-Hitching Researcher
Mandy Fenton Researcher
Mike Turner Researcher
Jack Chambers Researcher
Emily Jupitus Researcher
James Rawson Researcher
Ethan Ruparelia Researcher
Lydia Mizon Researcher
Sarah Clay Commissioning Editor

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