John Lloyd: much, much more than Quite Interesting

31st July 2013

John Lloyd, the man behind QI, talks about his old comedy collaborator Mel Smith and why he’s finally going on stage himself at Edinburgh. First published in the Daily Telegraph, July 31, 2013.

Within minutes of talking to QI creator and legendary comedy producer John Lloyd, he is on to fractals. “Do you know what they are?” he asks. I busk, I flannel, I nod. “It’s a new form of non-Euclidean geometry. Until fractals came along there was no way of describing a tree mathematically – it was too complicated.” He tells me to picture equilateral triangles being placed either side of a square, to which another set of triangles are added, this time half the size – and so on. “Are you keeping up? It gets very complicated. The universe is fractal. The closer you look at it the more interesting it becomes.”

Amid the hundreds of stars at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Lloyd, at the age of 61, looks set to burn brightest of all; the equivalent, you might say, of R136a1, the recently discovered star that’s eight million times more luminous than our sun. The brains behind QI, television’s most consistently entertaining and informative show, has decided to step out from the shadows and take to the stage.

He has contributed vastly to British comedy: among his radio credits there’s The News Quiz, Quote Unquote and The Museum of Curiosity, which he presents, while on TV he has given us Not the Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder and Spitting Image. His record is so astonishing, he’d be forgiven for being full of himself. But while he’s manifestly intelligent and rigorous – his blue eyes piercing, his speech keenly articulate – he’s also, to my relief, and I suspect that of those who will be attending his show, Liff of QI, affability itself; a family man and all-round good egg.

The “Liff” bit of the title refers to his zany mission to assign a place name and definition to those aspects of life that have remained previously formally unrecognised. It began as a means of passing the time while on holiday in Corfu in 1978 with his pal Douglas Adams, who had fired him after their collaboration on the first radio series of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but who had been fairly swiftly forgiven. It bore publishing fruit 30 years ago with The Meaning of Liff, a slim tome that sold plenty. The latest edition – co-written with long-standing comedy mucker Jon Canter and drawing on public suggestions too – is called AfterLiff and will be published during the festival run.

Lloyd reckons he will use a number of these “liffs” to kick-start mind-expanding observations during his show. Having got close to being famous “on five or six occasions”, most notably as the host of the pilot for what became Have I Got News For You, this foray into the limelight feels natural, he suggests.

“Finally I’m going to have a go. I wouldn’t mind being listened to because I think I have some useful, interesting and entertaining things to say. I’m willing to take the risk that I can do it on my own.”

He can’t say exactly what he’ll discuss, though, because just days before the first performance, he has yet to finalise the script or structure. “I’m really stressed,” he concedes, matter-of-factly, frazzled from a trip to Salford to appear on BBC Breakfast. He was feeling the pressure so much he did 20 minutes of meditation on the train: “sitting still, not thinking – I felt the better for it.” I jokingly suggest he could sit on the stage and say “umm” for an hour and people would still lap it up but there’s a serious reason why he has fallen behind. Aside from the toll of supervising QI – the new series of which is in the pipeline – the recent sudden death of his old pal Mel Smith from a heart-attack has understandably knocked him sideways.

“I’ve been thinking about him a lot,” he says. “It’s been hard to concentrate. He was such a loved guy. He had been in poor shape for a while and he didn’t really want to see anyone so people like me and Griff [Rhys Jones] didn’t get to say goodbye, which is a terrible shame.” He pauses. “A lot of us thought ‘Mel is a survivor, he will be OK’ – so it was a bolt from the blue. I was very taken aback.”

He’s bound to remember Smith at the Fringe this year. If he hadn’t seen him do a hilarious gobbledegook mickey-take of Gilbert and Sullivan for the Oxford Revue, he would never have thought to cast him in Not the Nine O’Clock News years later. And he will remember Adams too: they appeared together in a hit 1976 sketch show “The Unpleasantness at Brodie’s Place”, which part-derived its parody title from the venue, a masonic hall, and proved the first and last time Lloyd starred on the Fringe.

He had made his first pilgrimage to the festival three years earlier as an ejected member of the Cambridge Footlights who landed on his feet by supervising the radio version of the 1973 revue. Swiftly spotted by the BBC, within no time at all he was working as a writer-producer. He has been back to the Fringe many times since: “for 15 years I got liver damage seeing everything and doing everything”.

A bit like the universe, the closer you look at John Lloyd, the more interesting he becomes. Not only a mine of information, he’s a rich source of biographical curiosities.
His father was in the Royal Navy and he spent his early years travelling the world, learning Maltese in the process, before being catapulted into the hostile terrain of boarding school. At prep school, “we used to grow cress on our flannels because we were starving”. A smuggled-in potato, which he will genially remind you has two more chromosomes than a human, “was a luxury”.

One quite interesting fact about Lloyd is that he had a protracted breakdown and midlife crisis in his early forties, without which the programme wouldn’t have emerged 10 years ago. From whistling on his way to work during Blackadder recordings he went to weeping under his desk, unable to see the sense of life. Rather than let himself be pumped full of antidepressants, though, he treated it like a “production problem: there’s a technical engineering fault with me and I have to solve this. I need to find out how does a human being operate?” He read voraciously and started to build up a personal credo that has become the benign QI philosophy of embracing “the way of ignorance”.

He realises many of those coming to see Liff of QI will be eager young pups on the scent of showbusiness success, but he won’t have the answers: “I can help you shape your sitcom, I can help you think about what could make your sketch show better but it won’t help you get you a commission.” What he might help provide, though, are some big questions. “Questions are always better than answers.”

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About Me
Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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