Charles Nevin meets the man behind some of the best television shows of the past 30 years, from “Blackadder” to “QI”, as he reinvents himself as a novelist ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011
South Oxfordshire is splendidly at peace this fine morning. The village church stands as it has for eight centuries, the cows are only marginally more mobile, and some light mowing is muttering away in the background. But the tranquillity of the English countryside has a long tradition of provoking bracing thought from sensitive vicars and eccentric squires; and, although his is a more contemporary calling, John Lloyd is cut from that cloth.
The name might not be familiar, but the output will be. Lloyd is Britain’s foremost provider of intelligent popular broadcast entertainment. “The News Quiz” on radio, “Not the Nine O’Clock News”, “Spitting Image”, “Blackadder”, “QI” on television: each in its own way novel, each, in the broadcasting way, daring, and very funny. You will know, too, the names Lloyd has made and abetted along the way: Rowan Atkinson, Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Richard Curtis, Griff Rhys Jones, Pamela Stephenson, Ben Elton, Douglas Adams. As a producer, Lloyd has been headmaster, nurse, analyst, butler, conductor, interpreter, flatterer, complement and chivvier of such talents, many of whom fit that common complaint concerning the talented: “difficult”. So you might reasonably expect to meet, up at the manor’s old farm house, a master of emollience and small talk, happy to beguile away the time in his anecdotage on a country morning. But Lloyd is not like that: more vicar than squire, intense, in thrall to ideas, the bigger the better, impatient with the complacent.
Lloyd has turned 60 this year, and is pleased to have some spare time, he says, sitting in his garden, because he is about to write a novel: “I’ve been sitting on it for about 20 years. Actually, it’s a trilogy, well maybe five books, I don’t know. It’s a big subject: everything.” Indeed.
“John is one of the most intelligent, intense people I’ve ever known,” says John Mitchinson, a publisher living serendipitously in the same village, who has been in on “QI” from the start. “Not exactly an easy person, but incredibly stimulating.”
Stephen Fry sends a message putting it his own way: “Impossible, improbable, impish, impious and unimpeachably peachy...John Lloyd stands alone.”
“QI” itself is an equally rare, possibly very odd, thing: a friendly parlour-panel game purveying quantum mechanics, philosophy, anthropology and “everything” under the cloak of comedy. It’s so detached from the instant simplicities of our twittering times that even the title is an understatement: as well as being a reversal of IQ, it stands for Quite Interesting.
“QI” is the broadcast expression of Lloyd’s manically insatiable curiosity, another unfashionable quality in a world where sophistication often involves ennui. “ ‘QI’ is a kind of search for meaning, for what the heck is going on,” says Lloyd. “The universe is the most extraordinary thing...even if you just look round this garden and think about the profusion of plants. There are a ridiculous number of plants and every one has got a story. Just in sight of what we can see could be the subject of a lifetime’s learning. It’s terrifying and marvellous at the same time. ‘QI’ is a successful television programme and people like it, but I don’t understand why it hasn’t become a kind of world obsession, like it is with me. We have a load of little mantras at ‘QI’, one of which is ‘Man is born curious but everywhere is bored stiff.’ ”
He is not a fan of the average dinner party. “There’s all this what I call ‘moasting’, a combination of moaning and boasting, which is what middle-class people do at dinner parties: they complain about the mortgage and the school fees and the trains and the traffic and the government, and then they show off about their holiday in Bali and their new car. It’s an absurdly small canvas given that the human brain is the most complex object in the universe, more complicated than a planet.
“Seeing the universe and the world and being alive as odd and wondering about it is something all children do all the time and almost no adults do, locked inside their own personalities worrying about what might happen and regretting what’s just happened. And yet inside the back of your head is this massive space, full of thoughts and dreams and fantasies and adventures and tons and tons of information. Look at the skeleton of a gorilla: it’s almost indistinguishable from that of a person, and yet we have this mysterious thing, the human brain, with which there’s no comparison. But we do have these three animal drives: food, sex and shelter. When we were pitching ‘QI’, we pointed out that the television was packed with cookery and property programmes, and the internet was awash with sex. But there’s a fourth drive. Curiosity. That’s what makes us different from bats, porcupines and squirrels. They’re curious, but only in ways that affect their survival, looking for nuts or following up interesting smells. As far as we know, only people look up at the sky and think, ‘what are all those sparkly things?’. If you don’t feed that curiosity, people will die inside...
“We’ve got aeroplanes and iPhones and we can make intelligent cruise missiles and so forth, but the one thing that hasn’t altered in 150,000 years is human nature. Not a jot. You can read the same stuff, with different uniforms and modes of transport, in Homer and Plato that we’re still going on about: the things that keep us from becoming supermen—the jealousy and the anger, the things that trap us in the mundane.”
This is how it goes on, at pace. Lloyd, being Lloyd, has an insight into the problem of our high promise and consistent failure to deliver it: “I have this theory that if Jung had been born when Newton was born , and Newton had been born when Jung was born , we’d have a much better society, we’d be better at understanding ourselves and our motivations for things. We’d have had 400 years of psychiatry and psychology and only 100 years of technology, so we’d all be these sorted, centred, easy-going, emotionally intelligent people who’d still be wandering around with horses and carts.’’
Which is a fine thought, in an Oxfordshire garden on a sunny morning. Other thoughts and facts come at will and random. A potato has two more chromosomes than a person and the same number as a gorilla. Why do all plants start off green? The number of people in the history of the world supposed to have achieved the enlightenment prescribed in Eastern philosophy is 14. And isn’t it remarkable that the big management consultants have higher profit margins than the companies they are advising?
Thus the guiding philosophy of “QI”: that everything is interesting if examined in the right way. Even dinner parties? “Yes, once you get away from repeating the same old stuff. It’s not that difficult, finding out something interesting. You’ve just got to use your curiosity, stimulate it.” And then he’s off again, talking about a recent holiday, in Scotland, fishing. “There was a copy of the Field in the house. It had a fantastically interesting piece on blackcurrants, which I’ve never considered before. Do you know that 90% of all the blackcurrants grown in Britain go into Ribena? Isn’t that an absolutely marvellous piece of information? And they contain four times more vitamin C than oranges.”
“I wasn’t always like this, you know,” says Lloyd. “I was just a normal ambitious television producer trying to win more BAFTA awards than anybody else.” Normally ambitious, perhaps, but not otherwise. “Sometimes people imagine that really clever chaps are two a penny in broadcasting,” says Alan Yentob, the BBC’s creative director. “In fact, there are only a very few you can point to who have made a difference. John is one. It’s catalytic, too: he has enabled a whole tier of talent to emerge. With ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, he mentored great writing and performing talent. ‘Blackadder’ was historical but relevant to how we live today, playful with the form as well as full of ideas. Not since ‘That Was the Week That Was’ had a satire show been as popular as ‘Spitting Image’, and there hasn’t been one since. He was the enabler of all this, able to work with talented and quite difficult people—in a good sense—able to see their potential and move them on.”
Lloyd is from an Anglo-Irish family; his father was in the Royal Navy, his great-uncle was an international polo player and a decorated brigadier-general. He went to an ancient English private school, King’s, Canterbury, and on to Cambridge, and followed the traditional if casual career path (met a man in a pub) from the Footlights into BBC light entertainment. He started with radio, where he worked with the always challenging Douglas Adams (another Footlights man) on “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” before moving to television with “Not the Nine O’Clock News”, the BBC’s return to satire, in 1979, which happily coincided with the arrival of the most relishable, cherishable satirical butt of the century, Margaret Thatcher, and made stars out of Griff Rhys Jones, Mel Smith, Pamela Stephenson and Rowan Atkinson.
“The sort of person who you want to work with when you’re doing comedy is someone who pisses himself laughing, and that’s John,” says Stephenson. “We knew it was good because John loved it and was jumping up and down...he sparked and sparked off everybody.” It was while searching for fresh ideas for them that he came across the puppet caricatures of Peter Fluck and Roger Law; and so was born “Spitting Image”, an artful combination of 18th-century grotesque and 20th-century wit. To both programmes, Lloyd brought comic perfectionism and the ability to achieve it with charm and stamina: what Roger Law calls his “whim of iron”.
“He knows his comedy,” Law says, “he’s interested in ideas, and he was never one to allow his imagination to be limited by practicalities. He rang up one Friday demanding ten camel puppets for the Sunday. I told him I hadn’t any, so he said, ‘Well, haven’t you got a horse or two, or cows? Just put humps on them.’ But if you’d got a problem, Lloydie would be there. He’d still be at the end of the phone at two in the morning.”
Jon Plowman, former BBC head of comedy and executive producer of “The Office”, says: “What’s John’s secret? He never does anything that he doesn’t believe in, and he is a brilliant writer and then re-writer of jokes, verbal and visual... ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Spitting Image’ were great not just because of what was in them but because of what had been thrown out by John. They revolutionised comedy... It could be said that it was John who made comedy the ‘new rock’n’roll’, not those who came later.”
In 1983 Lloyd moved on to “Blackadder”, a novel and changing sitcom which followed the fortunes through history of various reincarnations of Edmund Blackadder, leading member of a noble line of scoundrels. Largely written by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, it was made for Rowan Atkinson, whose famous features vividly relayed the fawning, disdain, irritation, cowardice and cunning demanded by Elizabethan courts and Flanders trenches. It was also triumphant proof that comic history didn’t automatically require Kenneth Williams mugging, Sid James sniggering and more than one entendre. Tony Robinson, eternally Baldrick, Blackadder’s Sancho and stooge, remembers hours and hours of Lloyd worrying away at scripts and scenes, of seeming anarchy in rehearsal and no idea of what the next scene would be except “a lot of people saying very funny things”, until another Lloyd quality, a businesslike discipline, kicked in at the last minute: “That’s the price you pay for working with someone who’s a genius.”
But perhaps the best way to demonstrate Lloyd’s ability to take comedy beyond comedy is to look at two of his finest moments, both readily available online: “Spitting Image” greeting the Thatcher election victory in 1987 with a young blond chap carrying a bowler and umbrella singing Kander and Ebb’s Hitler-Jugend parody from “Cabaret”, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”, while senior Conservatives drink foaming steins of lager in the Bastardgarten; and the final scene of “Blackadder”, in which the cast both do and don’t go over the top with a poignancy only comedy can lend.
By 1990, although not quite 40, Lloyd had received a Lifetime Achievement Award from BAFTA. He had been asked by successive BBC director-generals to run their entertainment department. And he had become Britain’s leading television ad director, winning six more BAFTAs for his commercial work, including Barclaycard ads with Rowan Atkinson, and Abbey National with a coming comedian, Alan Davies.
And then it all started to go wrong. “I got very stuck in my early 40s because I’d won all the prizes. I had money and children and the house in the country. I had everything the material world could throw at me, and I woke up one Christmas Eve and I couldn’t see the point of anything. I used to have all my awards on the wall of my office—‘Look at me! I’ve won these!—and I just suddenly thought: ‘This is insane: it’s a hundred pieces of cardboard in frames: what’s the point of that? And what am I supposed to do with the rest of my life?’ I was desperate. I got fantastically depressed...I used to get depressed before: it’s like getting a migraine, you can feel that fuzz coming along. But this was like being hit by a shovel. I literally used to sit under the desk, crying, just desperate.”
His career began to stutter: “It was a very odd thing, until 1991, I’d had this 15 years of flawless work...and then, for about ten years, nothing worked. Absolutely nothing. I was fired from ads I’d created. I wrote a movie for Hollywood and the head of the studio threw it in the swimming pool because it was late: everything went wrong. I had a powerful sense of being bullied by a giant bear, and every time I tried to pick myself up, I was smacked down again. It was really uncanny and it wasn’t just being depressed.”
You can see that Lloyd is prone to neither self-protection nor false modesty. The way he dealt with his crisis reinforces the view, supported by both Mitchinson and Yentob, that despite working in a modern medium, he is an old-fashioned figure, from the 18th century or earlier, a time before knowledge was put into compartments, when wanting to know everything was admired as natural philosophy. There was no rush to outside analysis; rather, there were long walks, a good deal of whisky, and the start of a quest. “What was ridiculous was that I didn’t have anything to be depressed about, and that maddened me. There are not many qualities I admit to, but I am very, very determined. And I really don’t like to be in a position where there isn’t an answer. So I set out to look for the meaning of life. I started reading about physics, which I didn’t know anything about...from physics I got into maths and Pythagoras and so into Greek and Roman philosophy, Chinese philosophy, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christian mysticism...”
His appetite for winning awards was replaced by an abiding passion for fact-collecting. He began, too, to enjoy rather than be irked by the incorrigible questioning of his three young children. From all this was born both succour and “QI”, together with the realisation that the questions are more interesting than the answers, particularly as we don’t have any to most of them. “You have to let go, to realise you can’t know everything. Another of the mantras at ‘QI’ is ‘embrace your ignorance’: once you know how really ignorant you are, you can relax.” The relaxation is relative, of course: Lloyd is the only person I’ve interviewed who has a cigarette break and paces around worrying about how well it’s going, out loud.
Some don’t buy into “QI” entirely, warming less than others to the classroom ethos, the cosy guying of teacher Fry’s apparent omniscience, and his coy reaction to it; there is, they say, an over-confidence in the uniqueness of the exercise, a little too much conceit at the conceit. But they are a minority; and Fry, after all, is much loved, what the British like to dub, almost completely seriously, a “national treasure”, along with such as Dame Judi Dench and Sir David Attenborough. There is no doubting, either, the entertaining cleverness of the show, the ease with which the viewer is drawn in. Trivia leads to something more testing; the Everyman, common man, jester, Alan Davies, plays oik to Fry’s toff chairman, licensing our ignorance and excusing his own with curiosity and humour.
“I’m a conduit for the audience,” says Davies, who recounts—“if I’ve got this right”—Lloyd’s view that comedians share with great thinkers the ability to make original connections. Illumination through humour is the common denominator and unifying principle of Lloyd’s work. “You’re lucky if you have one idea,” he says, “and mine is that by making people laugh you can make all sorts of subjects interesting that don’t appear interesting. Comedy is very good in that way because it’s so difficult to make people laugh aloud that it makes you think very hard about all sorts of things. I tried to do it with news with ‘The News Quiz’, ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’ and ‘Spitting Image’. ‘Blackadder’ is a way of looking at history more interestingly, and ‘QI’ tries to do it about everything.”
“ ‘QI’ is John’s way of making a contribution,” says Alan Yentob. “It’s his big idea of public-service broadcasting, to some extent mirroring his frustration with what was going on in television. He saw the opportunity to marry entertainment with intelligent inquiry. For him, it’s a way of life and a way of thinking, more than just a programme.”
Quite: the QI company employs “four and a half people”, including two full-time researchers, or “elves”, as the QI way has it. Lloyd’s wife, Sarah, a former publishing director of Century Books, is managing editor. Lloyd’s advertising arm, QI Commercials, helps with funding. In the past ten years, “by working like maniacs”, they have produced 125 television shows, 24 radio shows (the Radio 4 equivalent of “QI”, “The Museum of Curiosity”), ten books and annuals, and 200 “QI” columns for the Daily Telegraph. “QI” is repeated round the clock on Dave, a British cable channel; a Swedish version is at the pilot stage; the books have been translated into 32 languages. America continues to resist, but what might appear a far tougher proposition, Australia, has cheerily succumbed, to the extent that Lloyd, Fry and Davies are there this autumn performing the first “QI” stage show.
The QI Club in Oxford, the embodiment of Lloyd’s philosophy, with talks, concerts, stand-up comedy, poker and bridge, didn’t last, “a huge success in every way, except financially”, but he continues to proselytise with talks and presentations, and there are plans and visions for “QI” documentaries, a movie, even a school. “Schools should be like a giant ‘QI’ lesson all the time,” says Lloyd. “We should educate them by astounding them. I know 13-year-old boys who have seen every show twice and know the books off by heart: children know that ‘QI’ is revolutionary. Adults think it’s a bit of fun. The crossest people are the professors—the medievalists, and the chemists who point out that bit about the enzyme isn’t quite so simple—but that’s not what ‘QI’ is for: it’s not an encyclopedia or a university department, it’s there to stimulate. To get people to think for themselves. To wake them up a bit from the torpor of boredom and the passive acceptance of what they are told. If children were taught like this, they would quickly develop the ability to think originally, to question everything, even what they are formally ‘taught’. Great teachers would welcome it, because they too would learn something new every day.”
Yentob is right about Lloyd’s frustration with broadcasting today. “QI” has now returned to a more relaxed late-night slot on BBC2, after three series on BBC1 in the early evening, where it took on the mighty soap “Coronation Street”, and regularly lured a million viewers from it. But his major complaint is the condescending belief that the supposedly inferior tastes of the audience can be satisfied by programmes created from a formula: “It’s the infection in our culture that great ideas are accessible to some sort of measurement, that a focus group would have come up with the general theory of relativity much more quickly.” Which made it all the more satisfying that the first programme back on BBC2 drew more viewers than Channel 5’s launch of “Big Brother”.
Others, on a sunny morning in an Oxfordshire garden, might relax and admire their own aperçus. Lloyd continues to disturb the calm with a consequent and larger argument. “What we’ve got now is ‘he who dies with the most toys wins’. It’s about money and acquisition...you won’t get anywhere until you realise that it’s this negative side of human nature that needs to be addressed in some radical way and educated out of us right from the beginning. We need to educate parents how to be parents...We’ve got an obsession with fixing things, but it’s fixing us that we need to spend some time on. And that’s what ‘QI’ tries to do in its small way: it’s waving this little flag rather futilely in the darkness and saying, ‘Look, if everybody was interested...’ ”
Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street, writing for the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Independent on Sunday. He is the author of "The Book of Jacks". His last piece for Intelligent Life was "Surveillance Over Europe".
Portrait by Emma Hardy