John Lloyd: the brain behind QI
You probably haven’t heard of John Lloyd – but this self-described Stoic, whose career was derailed by depression, has probably made you laugh more times than anyone else.
John Lloyd, photographed by Lydia Goldblatt for the New Statesman.
It’s a humid evening at the Shaw Theatre in Euston, London, and the audience gathered for the live recording of Radio 4’s series The Museum of Curiosity is still taking off jackets and constructing makeshift fans as two nervous producers come on stage. Their warm-up suffers because the audience is, in one way, too warm already.
“Laugh for us,” says one producer. “The kind of laugh you do when you want people to know you got the joke.”
Then the host of the programme strides on stage, in a grey suit with a purple tie, plus brown boots that suggest he’s gesturing to smart-casual without daring to go there.
This is John Lloyd, the only person in the world who has won more Baftas than Judi Dench. He is the television producer responsible for, among other shows, To the Manor Born, The News Quiz, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Spitting Image, Blackadder and QI. He was the original host of Have I Got News for You – it was going to be called John Lloyd’s Newsround – and he helped Douglas Adams write the last two episodes of the radio version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. (Adams then sacked him from the book version of the show by letter, even though they shared a house at the time. Their friendship never recovered.)
Tonight, Lloyd is much more formally dressed than the rest of the panel, even the former Sony boss Howard Stringer, who seems positively demob-happy after a career in the corporate world. I’ve seen Lloyd giving a TED talk in a leather jacket, so I don’t think he’s one of those men who treats a suit as a uniform, or camouflage. Perhaps he feels that a Radio 4 show demands a certain gravitas.
By the time the recording ends, at 9.38pm, the panel has covered subjects as various as Liberian warlords, why the BBC originally rejected Fawlty Towers (“We’ve already got a show with a hotel – and Ronnie Corbett”) and how the scoop on the Wright brothers’ first flight was broken in a journal called Gleanings in Bee Culture.
This is all typical John Lloyd territory: a whirlwind tour through disparate subjects, linked only by being surprising or thoughtprovoking. “Recently I’ve started to think that I’ve only ever had one idea,” he tells me when I meet him at QI’s offices in Covent Garden a few days later. “That is to take things that look ordinary and dull and a bit tedious and make them look interesting and hopefully a bit funny.
“Blackadder is history made funny and interesting; Spitting Image is politics made funny and interesting. The News Quiz is the news, and so is Not the Nine O’Clock News, I suppose. QI is the combination of all those things – that everything can be made interesting. It took me 35 years to get that idea.”
Looking back at Lloyd’s career, you see the string of hits and think it must have been easy. It wasn’t. He created Not the Nine O’Clock News only after To the Manor Born transferred from radio to TV without him. Finally losing his temper after a series of similar slights (and still smarting over his removal from the Hitchhiker book project), he turned up at the office of the BBC’s then head of light entertainment, Jimmy Gilbert, and demanded his own TV show.
To his surprise, he got one. Yet even then, NTNON was not destined for a smooth ride: the first episode was scheduled for 2 April 1979, then pulled for being “too political” during an election year. By the time it made it to air, half the cast had been dismissed, Mel Smith had been brought in and Victoria Wood had turned down the female role (which was claimed by Pamela Stephenson).
Similarly, the first series of Blackadder was beset by problems: it cost far too much, involved far too many guest stars spending hours freezing and bewildered in Northumberland, and, worst of all, it wasn’t all that funny. The talented cast, used to a live audience, found it impossible to pace the delivery on a set without any feedback.
“It was ridiculous. We took on far too much,” Lloyd says now. “Rowan [Atkinson] is a stage comedian, and we had no idea how to time laughs on a film without an audience. As Jimmy Carr says, the audience is a genius: they know what’s funny. What all stand-ups do is use the audience as the editor. The audience is never wrong – whereas the commissioning editor is usually wrong, almost by definition.”
Still, as Lloyd told Desert Island Discs in 2012, “One of my little mantras is ‘disaster is a gift’. Because when you look back on your life, the disaster – being sacked by your girlfriend, or head of department, or best friend – you think, ‘Thank goodness that happened, because if I hadn’t been sacked, I would still be there.’”
Over tea in his book-lined office, I tell him that not many people would take being thrown off projects in which they had invested so much with such equanimity. Why didn’t he cling on to hosting Have I Got News for You? He looks straight at me with his very blue eyes. “But why? Do you want to be famous? Perhaps you do?”
No, but . . . “I don’t regret it. I don’t regret being fired from Hitchhiker, or Johnny English, or any of the other dozen things I’ve been sacked from. You think, ‘Would I want to be Angus Deayton, would I want his life?’ I think it suited Angus down to the ground. He loves going to Manchester United, hanging out with rock stars. I met the Rolling Stones once. Great, fantastic, done that. But would you want to always hang out with famous people?”
Despite this attitude, Lloyd is one of the best-connected people in British comedy – even if he would, by his own admission, rather spend time reading or walking near his cottage in Oxfordshire. He has worked with pretty much anyone who has made you laugh in the past 30 years: Rowan Atkinson, Ian Hislop, Bill Bailey, Jo Brand, Richard Curtis, Stephen Fry.
“Lloydy is not without ego,” says a friend. “But he can cope with famous people because the work always comes first.”
John Lloyd was born in Dover in 1951 but his father was in the navy, so the family lived abroad and moved often. This had two interesting consequences. First, he did not attend school consistently until he was nearly ten; and second, he did not watch many of the comedy shows that someone of his generation and background might be expected to have seen. (Perhaps it was for the best that he discovered Peter Cook and Jonathan Miller after he’d gone past the childish heroworshipping phase. It meant he felt less in their shadow than his contemporaries when creating a satirical programme of his own.)
His family was Anglo-Irish with a strong military tradition; his middle name is Hardress, from his great-uncle, who was both a brigadier general and an Olympic polo player. Those very blue eyes of his are inherited from his father; Lloyd says there was something in the colour of his pupils that made him seem far away, “always at sea”. He was eventually sent to a boarding prep school and then to the King’s School, Canterbury.
He was unhappy at both, concurring with Evelyn Waugh’s and Stephen Fry’s assessment that an English boarding school is the ideal preparation for prison, except that parole is unlikely to be an option. He couldn’t even complain to his parents: all letters out of the school were censored by the teachers.
He studied law at Cambridge, where he joined the Footlights. He defends the revue against the inevitable charge of elitism. “The thing about Footlights is that it’s often put down as an upper-class club which you get put down for at birth and you sort of buy your way in. But there were 10,000 undergraduates at Cambridge University, and eight people in the Footlights. It’s a very competitive system, like getting into the civil service.”
The 1980s generation of rising stars drew its comic energy, in part, from an appropriately Thatcherite clash of public with state schools, Oxbridge v the rest. That said, the boundaries were never as clear-cut as they appeared in the press, or even in the Scumbag College v Footlights College division satirised in the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones. Yes, Ben Elton might have gone to Godalming Grammar and Manchester University, and Hugh Laurie to Eton and Cambridge, but many of the rest of the group fell somewhere in between. Richard Curtis attended Harrow on a scholarship, while Rik Mayall and Adrian Edmondson – despite their professional oik personas – were both privately educated. Fry, for all his polish, had spent three months at Pucklechurch Remand Centre for credit-card fraud before he arrived at university.
The smudging together of the Cambridge and Manchester groups dismayed those who considered themselves authentically radical and working class. Alexei Sayle hated the Bambi episode of The Young Ones –“I thought these people were the enemy!” he said to one of the writers on set –while Keith Allen heckled Lloyd when he visited the Comedy Store club in London, calling him a “f***ing bourgeois c***” and wedging him into the lift by jamming a radiator into the door.
Reminiscences of this time can make the BBC sound as though commissioning programmes involved one chap wandering into another chap’s office and asking for a shot at the big time – like Mad Men, perhaps, but with worse teeth and cheaper suits.
But Lloyd says the advantage of working in a smaller, less bureaucratic system was that there was, paradoxically, more “diversity” of taste than there is now. “The old system was that responsibility and creativity devolved on to the producer. They had a great deal of autonomy; you were left to do the casting, the music, the set design. You weren’t bothered by your head of department, now commissioning editor. The controller was like a king with a lot of regional baronies who had a great deal of power.”
As an ambitious young producer, Lloyd flourished in this environment. By 35, he had The News Quiz, Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image to his credit.
“I think he’s the cleverest person I know,” says John Mitchinson, who has worked with him for 12 years as co-producer of QI. “He has a proper philosophy, and he thinks about things in an astonishing amount of depth. Get him talking about the theory of comedy.” The day after we speak, he sends me Lloyd’s 1997 review of Howard Jacobson’s non-fiction book Seriously Funny. It is extremely rude, in both senses of the word.
He claims that “The entire experience of theatre-going, for the Greeks, was phalluscentred . . . Ken Dodd’s tickling stick is clearly in the ithyphallic tradition.” I love that “clearly”. Clear is what it is not: less than one reader in cent mille knows what ithyphallic means. Patronising it is, bien sûr, and also cojones . . . Now, it was I who once convinced the controller of BBC2 to broadcast the Cunnilingus Song. Genitals tickle me as much as the next man. But this is commitment of a different order. After 85 pages of knobs and arses, Hopi Indians lobbing shit at each other, satyrs balancing amphorae on stiffies and Scandinavian deities plaiting their pubic regions to goats’ beards, I thought: “Is this guy getting enough?”
Later in the same review he writes: “It is not animality, or mortality or all that stuff we feel when offered a good joke. It is delight: delight at the unexpectedness, the neatness, the logic of the uncoupling of the mind from one train of thought to another.”
When we meet, Lloyd tells me that the funniest person he knew was Peter Cook, who would keep him in stitches for hours, although it was always impossible to remember any of his jokes. The same was true, he says, of Kenneth Williams, with whom he worked on Just a Minute. “He was this very unprepossessing, tiny little grey man in his grey raincoat, anonymous in the street, and he’d come into my office to prepare. He’d be there for two hours and he would just put on voices and I would be just weeping with laughter. And then he’d leave, go back to being a little grey guy in the raincoat, and I could never remember one thing that he said. Not one thing. There is something very pure about people who are that funny.”
But apart from talent-spotting, what exactly does a TV producer do? “Stephen Fry once said to me, ‘The great thing about you, Lloyd, as a producer is at least you don’t make things worse.’ Great, thanks,” he says. “But thinking back on things, that’s a really high compliment, because a lot of producers do.”
“Stephen Fry once said to me, ‘The great thing about you, Lloyd, as a producer is at least you don’t make things worse.’
Lloyd believes that the first series of everything he’s made has been crap, because he has always been trying to do something new rather than replicate a formula. He argues that one of the roles of the producer is to be a drill sergeant: “to act as the conscience of people and not allow them to do substandard work”. This, he thinks, is where his reputation as a “perfectionist” (read “pain in the arse”) comes from. “They think, ‘Yeah, well, I would’ve won the Bafta anyway if you hadn’t been here.’ No, you wouldn’t, it would have been shit.”
In Lloyd’s early career, his two nicknames were Mad Jack, because of his obsession with getting things right, and Mr Grumpy. He says now that he has only two positions, “correct and not good enough. I don’t have a ‘that’s fine’ button.”
He applies this critical eye to his own work, and can, without rancour, tell you exactly what is wrong with it. When I ask him what in his 30-year career makes him most proud, I’m expecting to hear about the final episode of the fourth series of Blackadder, set during the First World War, with its heartbreaking slow-dissolve into a Flanders poppy field. Or the achievement of getting discussions of the laws of thermodynamics on to the BBC at 8.30 in the evening.
Instead, he names the adverts he directed, mostly during the 1990s: Rowan Atkinson for Barclaycard, Harry Enfield’s “Armadillos!” spot for Dime Bar. I must look surprised, because he explains, quickly: “At 30 seconds or a minute, every frame can be as good as they can be. But there are no perfect editions of Blackadder or QI.”
In 1990, having just won his Lifetime Achievement Bafta, with a happy family, and a country cottage to go with his house in London, Lloyd felt a black fog descend. On Christmas Eve he began to wonder what the point of it was: all those years spent demanding perfection. By his own admission, he then spent three years crying under his desk.
“I’d always been a bit melancholic, but the heavyweight depression came like a safety curtain descending; it went clunk, just completely blotting everything out.”
At the same time, his career – until then almost charmed – foundered. A film script was rejected for being late; he was fired from projects he started. He has previously described it as “like being bullied by a giant bear, and every time I tried to pick myself up, I was smacked down again”. In fact, nothing had changed except him; look back to the creation of Not the Nine O’Clock News, and you can see how it was born out of rejection and frustration. The difference this time was that the pre-depression Lloyd had been able to shrug that off as an inevitable part of the creative process. Now his resilience was gone.
For him, the cure was knowledge. He took to walking around Oxfordshire and reading everything he could lay his hands on.
“I think I increasingly piss off people who are depressed. It’s a lot to do with you,” he says now. “The only thing you actually control is your attitude.” He tells the story of a friend of his wife who saw a therapist for 35 years – ending only when the therapist retired. “What are you going for?” he asks rhetorically. “It’s impossible to go anywhere for 35 years and not get better. You could learn to do anything in 35 years: you could play 17 instruments, you could be the world’s best ski instructor, you could cook any dish in the world. But somehow you’ve managed to go through all of these lessons and not managed to change yourself one inch. That is wilful, isn’t it?”
I tell him that many people with depression find any kind of “snap out of it” rhetoric offensive. “After 35 years it’s hardly a snap, is it?” he counters. “A snail could have got out of it with a broken leg that’s been stapled to the floor . . . People want to wallow.”
Along the path to his recovery, he says, he discovered “that cheerfulness was a virtue”. He smiles. “It never occurred to me. I thought the virtues were things like intelligence – but that’s not a virtue, it’s a gift. You can’t make yourself more intelligent.”
Somewhat improbably for the greatnephew of a brigadier who went to boarding school, he is now a devotee of yoga. (“Ten years ago I would have rather cut off my head than be seen on a yoga mat.”) Once a year for the past five years, he has gone on a yoga retreat with his wife. And, having read his Marcus Aurelius, he is also a Stoic. “I feel really sorry for people who have no working philosophy. People don’t know what to do when they get depressed, or unhappy, when they feel they are belittled at work, when they feel their life is pointless. Where do they go? Unless you’re a happyclappy Alpha course person . . . That’s why it’s so easy to get mullah’ed into fundamentalism: because of the certainty.”
His own working philosophy applies to his shows for television: he believes in democratising knowledge, turning the pain of learning into the pleasure of discovery. That is the essence of a Lloydean television programme. And even though it is tempting to think that the brand of humour he champions appeals only to white, middle-class, middle-aged people who also like The Archers, recycling and couscous, that’s not true.
“We get very good demographics 16 to 30 and younger, but people my age don’t watch QI – they’ve barely heard of it,” he says. “It’s counterintuitive. Well, they don’t watch television at all, really . . .
“I know an awful lot of 13-year-olds who know our books off by heart. A lot of kids in their early teens, this will be the show that they remember in their forties.”
Really? Not obviously youth-oriented (and accordingly garish and hyperactive) comedies such as BBC3’s Lee Nelson’s Well Good Show? “We beat Eight Out of Ten Cats, Mock the Week, all those people, we always have. Young people don’t want to be patronised . . . it’s not even about brainy ones, it’s not Oxbridge kids, it’s all kids who go to school and think, ‘It cannot be this boring. I just saw this thing about the 18th century from Stephen Fry, and now I’m learning the same thing.’ Teenagers understand that QI is, in its very quiet way, a revolutionary act, in the way that Spitting Image was for the 15-year-olds of the early Eighties.”
This thought segues into one of Lloyd’s bugbears – the bureaucratic, managerial nature of television comedy commissioning, particularly at the BBC, and the consequent messing-about with shows because of lack of confidence. As Mark Lawson wrote in a blog for the Guardian this summer: “there’s a case for arguing that a framed set of the reviews and ratings for the 1981 first season of Only Fools and Horses should hang on the walls of all UK television commissioners, as a warning. Receiving an initially mediocre reception from viewers and reviewers, the show did not become a hit until its fourth series, sustained until then only by the comedy department’s faith in it.”
Or take QI. When the show launched in 2003, each episode would premiere on BBC4 and then be broadcast on BBC2 a week later. In 2008, for the sixth series, the show moved to BBC1, with extended repeats on BBC2. In 2011, it moved back to BBC2.
Although QI is now delivering 1.8 million viewers on BBC2, Lloyd is not appeased, remembering that Not the Nine O’ Clock News got 17.5 million in its heyday. “Schedulers now think if you get good ratings, it’s because they’ve scheduled you very cleverly, not because it’s good. They should put us Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, it doesn’t matter what, but 9.30pm on BBC1, and we would be delivering consistently five million.”
But isn’t the era of mass viewing – of Only Fools and Horses topping 20 million on Christmas Day – over? Isn’t everyone watching American dramas on Netflix, or endless repeats on Dave? “I reckon there are about ten million people in this country who want to watch the kind of things that I like,” Lloyd shoots back. “I’m so close to Middle England. I just don’t think that you have to be quite so vicious.” He likes offbeat sitcoms such as Peep Show, and grudgingly admires but dislikes The Office, but his taste is more The Two Ronnies, or Friends. “Everybody can watch Friends. My mum can watch it. I like it, my daughters like it; that’s what the Two Ronnies used to do, what Morecambe and Wise used to do. It’s beyond class, age, gender, demographics; it’s just a great, warm, big, funny comedy.”
This comes back to Lloyd’s own rationale for his success – that he is an ordinary man, with ordinary tastes. He doesn’t have to imagine what some putative audience wants to watch; he is determined to make programmes that hewants to watch. In his view, the commissioners and controllers are not part of the great mass of Middle Britain, and therefore their enthusiasm for programmes is invariably ventriloquised into the mouth of some “average person”, probably created in a focus group, who doesn’t exist.
Of the BBC’s tastemakers, he says: “They care far too much about what people think, and it’s not even what they think, it’s what they think they think.” He expands, lapsing into an uncanny impression of what A A Gill calls a “Tristram”: “That’s how you get the programme where ‘people would probably like that’. Well, do you like it? No, I don’t like it – I live in Notting Hill and I’m very cultured and I go to the opera – but them, they’ll like this. They like cakes, and singing competitions, and skating, apparently.”
He sighs. “We never used to do that. Somebody would say: you think that’s a funny idea? Brilliant. You know, Rowan Atkinson as a prince in the Middle Ages? OK, if you think that’s going to work, go for it.”
There have been signs that many inside the BBC agree with Lloyd’s analysis. Shortly after he moved to the corporation from Channel 4 early this year, the new head of comedy commissioning, Shane Allen, praised Mrs Brown’s Boys, a knockabout sitcom that got savaged by the critics but has consistently attracted ten million viewers. “Before Mrs Brown’s Boys there was this self-appointed cabal saying what was cool and what was great,” Allen told the Guardian. “I think sometimes people in TV land make TV for people in TV land, and Mrs Brown’s Boys is a perfect example of how to serve an audience.” For his part, Lloyd says that if, by some terrible accident, he were forced to take charge of the BBC comedy department tomorrow, he would pick his five favourite comedians, sit each of them down in a room, and offer them the budget and support staff to do whatever kind of comedy programme they wanted. “You could blow the thing open in three months, you really could.”
He remains unperturbed by the idea that his criticisms of the system might make him unpopular. “I’m probably making a lot of enemies, but fortunately . . .” he trails off. Earlier he had told me: “If you press my commissioning editor management button, I just get so cross, because all I want to say to these people is: ‘Get out of my f***ing way. I have a relationship with an enormous audience that you don’t know anything about . . .’ They are arrogant idiots, really.”
Perhaps all this gives the impression that Lloyd is a grumpy old sod after all. That wouldn’t be fair – first, because I pushed that button and also because those lower down the ladder are inevitably reluctant to speak honestly about how TV channels commission comedy. The BBC dominates the market, with Channel 4 coming in second, and if you blow your relationship with either . . . well, good luck getting your original comedy accepted elsewhere.
Second, Lloyd works hard at being cheerful, having discovered its virtue, and according to John Mitchinson he “laughs, really laughs, like no one else I know. It’s the most open, generous thing.” He also works hard on being interesting; when I let drop early in our conversation that I’ve heard an anecdote before, he looks pained. “You’ll just have to keep plugging away at me, Helen, however long it takes, because I’ve done a lot of things today . . . so if you press me, I’ll get on to something fresh.”
Lloyd the perfectionist-pain-in-the-arse undoubtedly is still driven, but he has relaxed considerably since the 1980s and 1990s. He and his wife, Sarah, both work seven days a week on the QI empire and they have amassed a loyal band of “elves” to help with the research for the show and its ten spin-off books. These include Molly Oldfield, an archaeologist who is an expert on museums; Andrew Hunter Murray, who divides his time between QI and Private Eye; the former accountant James Harkin; and Stevyn Colgan, a policeman-turned-illustrator.
“Why has John had such a good hit rate? Firstly, he does have a real comic instinct,” says Colgan over email. “I’ve sat through script readings with him and if something isn’t quite right, he’s the one who spots it and he nearly always has a better suggestion. I think it helps that he’s not naturally a performer; he doesn’t actually seem to like being the one in front of the cameras or mikes. John is able to bring out the best in performers because there’s no clash of egos – what matters is the show.” Over lunch, I ask Hunter Murray what the secret of Lloyd’s success is. “Hard work,” he says simply.
When I asked Lloyd what he was working on now, he began to reel off an enormous list: building the QI website, presenting The Museum of Curiosity, putting out three QI books this year, editing the K series of the show. He also runs an advertising production company, QI Commercials, which ploughs its profits back into the ever-expanding QI empire. “The Czechs, the Turks, the Canadians and the Portuguese all think they might want to do a version of QI . . . then there are the lawyers and the rights situation with Fremantle, and then there’s the rights situation with the BBC . . .”
Hang on, does he enjoy it? “I enjoy the result of it and I mean . . . look, it’s the most interesting job in the world, isn’t it? It’s not called Quite Interesting for nothing . . . I am not working because I want to win a prize – I grew out of that a while ago – or because I want people to think better of me. Or because I want to be rich. I work because it’s worth doing for its own sake. You do believe me, don’t you?”
As it happens, I do.
Afterliff by John Lloyd and Jon Canter is out now (Faber: £9.99). “John Lloyd: Liff of QI” will be at the Bloomsbury Theatre, London WC1, on Saturday 5 October, booking on 020 3108 1000. For further details visit: thebloomsbury.com