Before QI had started on our screens, creator and producer of QI John Lloyd did the usual interview circuit, explaining what QI was about, and how it would be hugely popular. We had huge misgivings at that point, as to our ears it sounded like just another panel show, a genre which has been pretty much all over the schedules throughout the decade, largely due to the fact they’re the cheapest and easiest way of making a comedy show. And for John Lloyd, who had been behind programmes such as Not The Nine O’Clock News, The Htich Hikers Guide To The Galaxy, Blackadder and Spitting Image (not to mention him having written two episodes of early 1980s cartoon Doctor Snuggles, which we bloody loved when we were tiny) to be putting his weight behind it? Absolute folly. Even more foolish, Lloyd was proclaiming that each series would be based on a letter of the alphabet, meaning it could last for twenty-six series – hah! We’ll give it two, if he’s lucky.
Of course, as so often happens, we were comprehensively wrong, and had the internet been fitted with a QI-style klaxon, it would have been hooting away as the words “IT’LL NEVER BE POPULAR” appeared on the wall behind our computer desk. Since series A (numbering your series’? Pah!) landed on BBC Two during Thursday nights in late 2003, with many episodes premiering on BBC Four a week beforehand, it has grown to be a bit of a sleeper hit. The first episode attracted 3.2 million viewers to BBC Two, possibly due to the prospect of seeing Hugh Laurie reuniting with Stephen Fry. While the first episode proved to be a little disappointing (it was still finding its feet, and had reportedly been edited down from a sprawling three-hour recording session), the programme stumbled in the BBC Two ratings, with many episodes for the first series not even reaching the weekly Top Thirty BARB-ranked shows for the channel. On BBC Four it was a different story, with almost every premiere episode sitting atop the channel’s weekly ratings, if on more modest viewer tallies around the quarter-million mark.
As the show progressed, it became something of a phenomenon for BBC Four, topping the ratings by greater and greater margins, attracting record-breaking audience figures for a comedy series on the digital channel. As QI is a show based entirely on the majesty of fact, here’s a chart proving what we’ve just said:
QI’s ratings on BBC Two remained largely constant, save for the odd blip, but that’s probably to be expected – as the programme grew in popularity, those who really liked the programme would be more likely to catch it going out originally, on BBC Four. As the overall popularity of the show grew, more people migrated to the BBC Four broadcasts, with new casual viewers filling in their place for the BBC Two showings (or possibly the most ardent fans of the show were watching last week’s new episode for the second time). Even so, at a time where fragmentation of viewers was seeing each of the traditional channel’s audience share drop, QI’s steady audience saw the show clamber up the weekly top thirties for BBC Two, with the show often appearing in the weekly BARB top ten. Here’s another chart, this time of the BBC Two viewing figures.
See? Largely constant. No idea what was so special about series E episode nine to account for that spike, but there you go. Anyway, by this point the programme was proving to be hugely popular with its viewership, leading to spin-off books (both ‘normal’ and Fleetway-style ‘annuals’), interactive DVD games (groo), newspaper columns and even a QI building. That’s right, a building, which housed a bookshop and “a bar selling quite interesting food and drink”. Has 8 Out Of 10 Cats got it’s own building? Has A Question Of Sport got one? Is there a place called Would I Lie To You Towers? We don’t think so.
Since the start of series F proper (not counting the Children In Need special that was meant to be slotted in partway through the series, and which aired on BBC Two), QI has been a BBC One show, where it seems to have been picking up a solid four-to-five million viewers per week. A nice thing to see. Indeed, in this age of Balls Of Steel, Bo! Selecta, Most Haunted, The Kevin Bishop Show and Justin Lee Collins Fronts A Gameshow Where People Guess If A Coin Will Land On Heads Or Tails And They’re Allowed To Seek Advice On Which They Should Choose Beforehand For Fuck’s Sake, it’s refreshing to see a programme about being clever and witty and that. We can even forgive it all the times Alan Davies interrupts another contestant by loudly miming out the punchline to the previous joke.
POP FACT! We’d have loved there to have been at least one pilot show recorded of the original premise for QI – to be hosted by Michael Palin, with Stephen Fry captaining a ‘Clever’ team, and Alan Davies fronting a ‘Stupid’ team. Admittedly, that original premise might not have had the same longevity, and would probably have gone the way of Gag Tag (remember that? Thought not), but still. It’s also worth checking out the non-broadcast pilot that was made and which is included on the ‘series A’ DVD, with Fry as host, and which rattled along at a much faster pace, resulting in three figure scores for everyone at the end. It seems kind of ‘other-worldly’, as if it had been recorded in about 1995.