John Lloyd talks to Jane Clark and Hilary Papworth about the motivation behind the QI project
John Lloyd is a television producer and presenter who has been responsible for some of the most innovative and influential UK comedies of the last thirty years, in honour of which he received, in 2011, a CBE for services to broadcasting. In the 1970s and ’80s, he worked on programmes such as ‘The News Quiz’, ‘The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’, ‘Not the Nine O’Clock News’, ‘Spitting Image’ and ‘Blackadder’, and went on to direct a series of award-winning adverts, including the Barclaycard series featuring Rowan Atkinson. But in the 1990s his career was interrupted by a bout of deep depression which lasted for several years. In 2002, he returned to television, making the pilot of ‘QI’ (standing for ‘quite interesting’), the popular comedy panel game which is now in its 15th series on the BBC.
But QI is more than a television programme; it is a different way of engaging with knowledge which has its own philosophy and manifesto. As an independent research company, it produces radio shows, podcasts, live theatre, DVDs and books (the latest of which, ‘1,423 QI Facts to Bowl You Over’, appeared this October). Now it is poised to enter the realm of education: at the 2017 Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in Belfast, John revealed that a new QI approach to learning, based upon inspiring pupils with quite interesting facts, will be piloted at a number of UK schools in the coming year. We met him at the QI offices in London’s Covent Garden, where he and his tiny army of ‘elves’ beaver away at uncovering the extraordinary bits of information which power the QI enterprise, to ask him about the insights behind the project and the experiences which led him to them.
Jane: You have said that, in its own quiet way, QI is as revolutionary as Spitting Image was for the 1980’s generation. You have also intimated that the principles behind it came out of the great life change that you underwent during your forties, when you had what you yourself have described as a breakdown. Can you say something about what happened to you?
John: During the ’70s and ’80s I was an almost improbably successful television and radio producer, with a string of hit comedies to my name. This was particularly so during the 1980s, when I produced Not the Nine O’clock News, Blackadder and Spitting Image, all in the same ten-year period. It was fantastically hard work, and I am amazed that I survived it. But it was so exciting that we were repaid in other ways.
At the BAFTA’s in 1989 we got two awards for Blackadder – one for best comedy and one for Rowan Atkinson as best comedy performer – and I won a special lifetime award, which I was not expecting. I thought then: I am the happiest man in the world. I had fallen in love and married my wife Sarah, and felt that I had come home; I was thrilled when (against all my expectations) she became pregnant. We had a flat in town, a cottage in the country, lots of money in the bank, and I had been offered all the jobs that you could possibly be given in my line of work – head of this and presenter of that. But I turned them all down because I just wanted to have a nice life and be happy. I had discovered that by directing commercials I could earn much more for much less work.
Three years later I was sitting under my desk weeping, drinking too much whisky, consumed with anger and bitterness. The crisis literally came out of the blue. I had been fired from a couple of things very unfairly, which is a bit of a pattern in my life. Then I entered into a state where I just could not see the point of carrying on. I remember looking around my study, where I kept all the awards I’d won – the walls were absolutely covered with them – and thinking: “Is this my life? It’s just framed cardboard.” I felt as though I was being punished for something that I had not done.
And this initiated a period of about ten years when everything I did was a complete failure. I never won a single award; I spent a year trying to set up a radio station – but they wouldn’t give us a licence; I was hired (and fired) by Hollywood to direct a big movie: I rewrote the script and the head of the studio threw it in her swimming pool because the producer had delivered it late. I felt as if I was being attacked by a giant bear, and every time I tried to get up it would knock me back to the ground with a huge thwack.
Jane: Have you come to any conclusion about what brought this crisis on? Do you think it was because of long-standing problems which suddenly surfaced? Or was it a spiritual crisis of some sort?
John: I’m not sure I’d call it a spiritual crisis, but perhaps it was. It was as if I was going along a track and the points changed, so I suddenly went off in a completely different direction. I spent my time until I was 40-odd learning things like persistence, courage, patience, working with people – learning how to encourage them and get the best out of them – and I was very well rewarded for all those things. But my view is that life is like a video game: if you master Level 1, you find yourself at Level 2. But you don’t necessarily feel that you signed up for Level 2; you may have been happy at Level 1.
What I’ve come to believe is that the world is a teaching machine; it is a mechanism by which you can learn, if you so choose and if you are lucky enough to be able to see it like this – even from the most difficult things. During my crisis I used to have occasional mini-epiphanies, sudden insight-trips, and I remember the day when I came upon the idea that ‘cheerfulness’ is a really admirable thing. I had never valued cheerfulness before: I had valued things like intelligence. But intelligence is something you are born with, like being tall. You can’t take credit for being tall. And intelligence is just a tool; it can be used for good or ill, whereas cheerfulness is always good. But, especially if you’re by nature a bit of a gloomy person like me, it takes effort.
Jane: I understand that you went through this very difficult period without seeking any form of help. You did not enter into therapy, for instance.
John: I did see a couple of therapists later on, one for three days and one for six months. But during the first three years, which were very, very painful, I certainly took the ‘walk it off’ approach. My father was in the Navy and I went to a tough public school where the attitude towards these things was basically: Get a grip. I was very lucky in many ways: even at the very worst of times I was able to work, so I suppose you could say that I was always a high-functioning depressive. And the nature of my work – this was the period when I was making commercials – meant that I was able to find time to read and think in my spare time. Because they could see I was in a crisis, friends would sometimes recommend people to me. One of them, for example, said: ‘You may not know this but I am actually a Catholic, and you need to go and see this fantastic priest.’ So I would go and meet various people, but it never came to anything. Those who claimed to have – or whom one might have expected to have – the answers didn’t seem to me to have them.
So for the first three years I was really by myself, looking for meaning through reading. I read everything I could lay my hands on, mostly philosophy, religion and science, and slowly I felt that I found what I was looking for. Then the next seven years were spent trying to put that into practice, learning to live in the right kind of way – as in the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path; right thought, right action, right livelihood and so on. I got some of these right – although I came to feel that I was in the wrong livelihood, as advertising had become toxic for me by this time. And the ‘monkey in my head’, as my son Harry and I call it, was still very powerful, and it would continue to break out in fits of fantastic rage and self-pity, and then I would realise how dreadful a person I really was.
The Process of Self-knowledge
Jane: You have obviously come to see something that many people would regard as a negative experience, as a positive one in many ways.
John: Now I see it as a gradual process of coming to some sort of self-knowledge. This is of course a core principle of all philosophical systems. Socrates says: “When I am gone, forget not my dying words: ‘Know thyself.’” There is wonderful book by an Indian master, Nisargadatta, titled I Am That. He did not write it himself: it is a collection of talks that his disciples wrote down. He was a tobacconist in Mumbai, whose job was to roll cigarettes for people. One day he visited a guru who advised him that, as often as he possibly could, he should simply contemplate the question, “Who am I?” So he did that for ten years, and at the end of that time he had one of those sudden awakenings when he came to understand. And he really did. When you read something by someone who has really ‘got it’, it is somehow unmistakeable. And what all these people are saying is: it may look as if there are many things in the world, but there is really only one thing. So the answer to the question: “Who am I?” is that you are really that; you are both uniquely yourself and also everything and everyone else.
One of the conclusions I have come to is that the universe is a conscious entity. Everything is a paradox, and so reality is both one thing – one, eternal, undivided consciousness – and at the same time it is many things. We need to be able to hold in our mind the idea that there is the one, and there is also the many. The cell is one thing, but when you look inside it there are many things; the sea is one ocean, but at the same time it is made of many droplets – and the droplets are made of atoms, quarks and leptons and such like. I choose to see it like this – and I don’t know whether it is correct or not, but I just have never found a better way of viewing the world that makes sense to me.
Jane: Were there books or people that particularly helped you come to these conclusions?
John: Sufism influenced me a great deal. I read a lot of it, particularly the works of Idries Shah, and remember in particular a saying of the Sufi master ʿAbd Allāh ʿAnsārī:
Can you walk on water? Then you have done no better than a straw. Can you fly through the air? You have done no better than a bluebottle. Conquer your Heart, and then you may become someone.
The word jihad in Islam means ‘struggle’ – in Islamic theology, the lesser jihadis the conquering of your enemies, but the greater jihad is the overcoming of the Self.
These things give you a great jolt if you have not come across them before. Aldous Huxley in his book The Perennial Philosophy makes the point that if you are brought up within a religion such as Christianity, you hear the things in the Bible read out in church or at weddings, etc., and they become so familiar that the underlying meaning is no longer clear. But if you come across Sufism or Taoism, or you read the Bhagavad Gita, it is difficult at first to understand them, but if you make the effort the sudden onrush of meaning can be really, really powerful. For example, I remember struggling to read the Tao Te Ching. Ancient Chinese is extremely difficult to understand and to translate accurately, so you sometimes need to compare several versions. One day I suddenly grasped the meaning of a particular passage and realised it was exactly the same thing Jesus was going on about in the New Testament.
My dark periods, which many people would think of as a crisis, or madness, were really just intense examples of things that everyone experiences. Everyone has periods of feeling low, and a breakdown is just a time when that state of mind is pushed to the boundaries. One thing I can definitely say after fifteen years of QI research is that nothing is as it appears; nothing is as simple or obvious as it seems. Everything has an underside – an engine room as it were – something hidden deep inside it which is completely astonishing.
Jane: But you were never tempted to formally enter a spiritual or religious path? – to return to Christianity, for instance, as your friend urged you to.
John: No, not really. I found I couldn’t buy into any of the conventional faiths wholesale. I just sort of gathered up bits and pieces that inspired me from all over the place. I think one has to be careful about going from one set of ossified values to another. I was brought up to believe that it is good to be top; it is good to be successful, to have a fancy car, to go to the proper school. It is ridiculous to go from one set of socially conventional beliefs like that to another set which are still just someone else’s values – like the belief that if you don’t acknowledge that Jesus is Lord you are going to Hell. The pain and the struggle and the joy of trying to overcome the ‘monkey’ of the self is to become someone who thinks for themselves, wears their opinions lightly and doesn’t take offence if someone disagrees.
This again is in all the great teachings. Buddha used to say: “Don’t believe what you’re told; don’t take anyone’s word for it, not even mine.” Matsuo Basho, the Japanese haiku master, said: “Do not follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought.” In my old life as a Cambridge smart-ass, if you could quote Plato or Einstein then it was job done; but so what that Einstein said it: is it true? That you must judge for yourself.
The Third Way
Jane: If you reject the conventional alternatives, how do you see the way forward?
John: What I think is missing in our times is something I call ‘the third way’. The first way is the modern atheist approach of people like Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins, which says: if it is not scientific, it is not valid. Homeopathy is rubbish, religion is rubbish, astrology is rubbish – anything that has not had a study done on it is just wrong. I actually think that the jury is out on some of these things, but what about sit-com? What about music? What about painting? None of these are susceptible to science. No AI robot has ever written a decent song or come up with a single funny joke – not one, to my certain knowledge. These things come from a different kind of thinking; they are intuitive, thinking from the gut – and literally that – because there are as many brain cells in the gut as there are in the head. Did you know that?
The second way is to sign up to an ancient set of traditional values that are mediated through a guru, a caliph or an archbishop. The worst case of this is the people who believe that the Bible is literally true. I discovered the other day that, until the 15th century, no serious Christian theologian believed the Bible was literally true. They saw it as a series of stories, or metaphors, and the task was to work out what these actually meant.
But the third way, which the world really badly needs, is a working, logical – and probably non-theistic – philosophy that people can sign up to, that makes sense and does not contradict science in any way, but rather, adds to it. Because I think science is great; medicine, travel, iPhones – they are all wonderful, but they don’t help me get through a Thursday. Psychology – if it is a science – is a science in its infancy, and is equally unhelpful to most of us most of the time.
For anyone who has been through the kind of experience that I had, these principles we have been talking about are not at all weird; they are obvious. Now I look back at my old self and think: well, no wonder I was so unhappy. This is because the values that I was brought up with are really a disguised form of selfishness. It seems to me that selfishness and love are the two poles of human life. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and the whole purpose of our lives is to move ourselves a little further along the scale to the love pole. People don’t see that most problems – within a marriage for instance – could be solved by just being a bit less “me, me, me” and more “you, you, you”.
Hilary: My friend, Bulent Rauf, once told me: “People say that in marriage, there has to be give and take. But I say, they have to
give in, both, all the time.”
John: Yes. At the beginning of my flight out of misery, this was one of the first ‘original’ thoughts that I had – that you cannot change another person, the only person you can change is yourself. And every tiny change that you make in yourself has a ridiculously strong effect on everybody else. It’s like the butterfly effect.
Jane: It is interesting that you emphasise the logic of this ‘third way’, rather than, say, its ethical or spiritual aspects.
John: Well yes. One writer I found very valuable is William Woollard. He used to be a TV presenter who worked on Tomorrow’s World and Top Gear. He had been a fighter pilot, and also he was a scientist. He married a woman who, after a couple of years, informed him that she had become a Buddhist. He was at the time a convinced atheist, but as he was madly in love with her he decided he would read up all he could about Buddhism in order to find the flaw in it; then he could explain to her logically that she had made a horrible mistake. So he spent two years reading everything he could about Buddhism, but he couldn’t find the flaw anywhere, so he became a Buddhist as well. Now he goes round the country giving talks about Buddhism. There are some brilliant ones online.
I very much relate to this, because I also come from a rationalist position. I have had some other kinds of experiences, but everything I do comes from a position of fierce rationality. I don’t believe in ghosts or aliens, I think that everything is rationally explicable, even if it often doesn’t appear like that. One of the things that William Woollard says is that the point about religion and philosophy is not whether they are correct, but whether they work. In Buddhism, if you learn to meditate or to chant, whatever your thing is, you will be happier – as long as you stick to the rules and as long as you do it often enough. My philosophy is that I don’t care what other people think about it: if it works for me, then I do it; but it is from a standpoint of logic and learned experience, not because anyone told me how to behave, or how I should behave.
Most of the religions, at a practical level, are actually about things like kindness and seeing the other person’s point of view. The Golden Rule, if you like. The Dalai Lama says: My true religion is kindness. And Jesus said: Love thy neighbour as thyself. He used to say that there are only two commandments that matter: Love thy God and love thy neighbour. This is actually very difficult to do, especially if your neighbours are appalling. In the end, all religion comes down to a few simple principles: be kind, be grateful, do your job properly, never be mean to children, etc.
The QI Project
Jane: You began QI in 2002, after you had been out in the cold, so to speak, for more than a decade. It is clear how the huge amount of reading that you did during your crisis feeds into this. The ‘facts’ are extraordinarily diverse in their subject matter. For today, October 5th, you have on your daily list:
In 2011, Australia minted a giant ‘A$1 million’ gold coin. It weighed over a ton and used gold worth A$52 million.
Queen Victoria had an irrational fear of bishops.
Lenin owned nine Rolls-Royces.
Borneo has the world’s largest number of species of mango but not the largest number of mango trees.
Bananas are used to make kimonos
John: When I started QI, only about five per cent of people that I talked to understood what it was really getting at. They said: “Oh, it’s a game”, but I would say: “No, it’s a principle”. The principle at the core of QI is that literally everything in the universe without exception is interesting, if looked at long enough or closely enough or from the right angle. This is a philosophy that really works. Over and over again we have proved that something that looks dull is not dull. It works for anything – any country, any fruit, any town, any house, any person.
Hilary: Is this a kind of meditative practice, do you think?
John: Actually, I think you might be right about that. The effect of it is extraordinarily similar. I would say that meditation is a technique for getting ‘into the zone’ – what Mihály Csíkszentmihályi called ‘flow’, as when a cricketer goes out onto the crease and just knows that he cannot miss a stroke. It is very striking that even the most sceptical people have had some kind of experience like this. Did you know that Sebastian Coe, when he won the Olympics, had an out-of-body experience, where he found himself up in the top of the stand watching himself crossing the finishing line?
It is not as easy as it looks to find a QI fact. For one thing, you have to be truly open-minded. Because these things don’t really belong to us, they just arrive. Mozart, for instance, did not attribute any of his music to himself, but he used to go out to dinner and have a few drinks and then ‘listen to God’, as he put it, who would send him music, which he then wrote down. He claimed he never actually composed anything himself.
Secondly, a QI researcher also has to be able to recognise the right fact when it comes along. I think of it as being like a fisherman waiting for a catch: you don’t know what is going to come, but when it does, you have to know the difference between a weed and a whopping great salmon. Some people can’t see the difference and just accept the weed.
Thirdly, you have to allow time for things to emerge. Usually nothing at all happens for about two to three hours. You can find out some easy things you didn’t know, of course – like a plant’s Latin name – but you have to wait for the really interesting things. I remember in particular working on laburnums for the ‘L’ series: you do know that each QI series is based on a different letter of the alphabet? We’ve just done ‘N’, and it’s such a fruitful letter that I’ve toyed with the idea of producing a whole book about it called the N-cyclopaedia.
Anyway, I didn’t know anything about laburnums, and even with the internet, it was jolly difficult to find something interesting. When this happens, you go through a whole process of regretting that you ever started, and the monkey in your head tells you that you are wasting your life – and who cares about laburnums anyway? But if you persist and go through the wall of resistance that the universe has put up, trying to hide itself from you, then eventually it takes the afternoon off and lets you be. Then suddenly you are in laburnum heaven: there are hundred of books about them and you think that they are probably the most interesting plants in existence. Then the universe comes back from its tea break and lets you know that even if you devoted ten lifetimes to laburnums you would never get to the bottom of them, so you might as well go off and do something else.
Jane: Would you relate this to the idea that the universe is a teaching machine as you said earlier?
John: Actually I think it would be foolish to say that the universe is a teaching machine. Rather, I would say that if you behave as if it is, then things will happen. This goes back to the idea of flow – of letting yourself be absorbed by the task. I think that QI research is actually very good for you, because when you are doing it you cannot be thinking about yourself. And if I am right about the whole purpose of life being to move along the scale from selfishness towards love, this has got to be worthwhile. One of the rather unexpected findings at QI is that if you are a ‘bad’ person – by which I mean if you are lazy, cowardly, sloppy or greedy – then you cannot do the research. You just don’t get anywhere. But those people who have what we used to call the ‘Christian’ virtues – who are brave, patient, non-judgemental, diligent – go the distance; they get through the wall. I don’t know whether this is a conscious policy on the part of whoever is running the joint, but it certainly seems to be the case.
Another quality that I have noticed about good QI researchers is that they are not possessive. When they find an interesting fact, they always want to share it, and shout out: “Look what I’ve found!” They haven’t been taught to do this, it just seems to happen naturally.
Jane: It sounds like the experience of discovering something wonderful or beautiful, which we naturally want to share with others.
John: Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. But what does it mean when we say that something is ‘interesting’? Actually we don’t know. The thing about QI is that one question leads to another.
QI in Education
Jane: This takes us on to the way that you are extending these ideas into education. Given what you have just been saying, is the main aim to cultivate curiosity and a sense of wonder at the world?
John: I think the main aim of the project is to stop curiosity being crushed. The QI theory is that everyone is born curious and everyone is born intelligent. The difference between what we might call a clever person and a stupid person in an IQ test is irrelevant; IQ tests don’t measure anything – except perhaps how good you are at doing IQ tests. We have the fiction that the kind of people who become lawyers and investment bankers and so on have to be very intelligent, but those who want to play the guitar or find the sources of the Zambezi are just pursuing a hobby. But this is just an outdated fiction, left over from Victorian times. QI is partly called that because it’s the opposite of IQ.
From what people tell me, primary education in this country is quite good, often exceptionally good. But when people enter secondary school and the hormones start to kick in, a lot of adolescents get bored and disillusioned, and they stop learning. Many schools have not found a way of dealing with this. So the first idea is just to give people at least one lesson in the week that they can really look forward to. Also, we find that if you train people to learn in a QI way, they learn much faster than by conventional methods. And they remember what they have learnt and they understand it. It is not like having to remember lists of names and dates and numbers, or learning to write essays where you get ticks just for using the right jargon. Learning in a QI way, people come to understand why such-and-such a thing is true – at least, as far as anyone can understand anything.
Jane: By the QI way, you mean starting from some fact which engages a student’s attention, and then giving them the space and encouragement to investigate it further?
John: Yes. Because it’s something that they don’t already know but it’s interesting, they want to know more. It is important that the process is truly open-ended, because I think that there are no fixed truths in reality – except perhaps in mathematics. Historical truth? Well, we weren’t there, so how can we know for sure? The causes of war? There are an awful lot of people involved in a war, and an awful lot of factors to consider. Scientific truth? What was definitely a scientific ‘fact’ five years ago may no longer be true this year. We try to be scrupulously accurate at QI, but we are not concerned with being right. If someone finds some brilliant fact and then we discover that it is not true, we are equally pleased; because the cursor always moves on, and knowledge expands. Every question opens up another question, and that opens up another, and so on.
Another way of looking at the project is that it is just a way of making the lives of everyone in the classroom – teachers as well as children – more fun, more open. When things are fun, people engage with them. One of the most unexpected consequences of my work in television is that Blackadder is often shown in schools as an entertaining add-on to the history curriculum, to get the kids interested in the Tudors or the First World War. Similarly, we never set out at Spitting Image to get teenagers interested in politics – I don’t think we even expected any teenagers to watch it. But in fact it educated a whole generation of kids, so that they could name ten members of the cabinet, four members of the shadow cabinet, without even thinking about it. If there had been something like this around before Brexit, perhaps we would have had an intelligent conversation about it, as Spitting Image helped people to do about the miners’ strike in 1984.
Jane: Coming back to how we started this conversation: you said in an interview a couple of years ago in The New Statesmen that it is teenagers who understand that QIis, in its very quiet way, a revolutionary act, in the same way that Spitting Image was for the 15-year-olds of the early ’80s.
John: QI is actually very popular with the much-sought-after demographic 16 to 30 – and even younger; I know an awful lot of 13-year-olds who know our books by heart. It is much less watched by people of my age.
What we are looking to do first in the project is create a group of teenage teachers by setting up QI boot camps. They’ll be volunteers who might like to take part just for the fun of it. But whether or not this approach works depends upon what the schools make of it, because what they probably don’t realise is that the project will involve a reshaping of their point of view. They are obviously going to recommend their best and brightest students, so we are expecting quite a high failure rate, because ‘good students’ are usually obedient. We don’t want obedience; we want the people who are a little rebellious – the awkward customers. The best people to do this may not be the ones who are at the top of the class, but the ones at the bottom because they already know that they don’t know.
The big, madly ambitious idea is to initiate a paradigm shift in the way we educate every child in the country – and eventually on the planet – so that, in a world where robots will soon be doing most of the grunt work for us, the human race has a chance to fulfill its creative birthright and potential. Will it work? Not for nothing am I the Professor of Ignorance at Southampton Solent University. My answer is, I don’t know.
John Lloyd and QI
To watch John’s presentation at the 2017 Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference in Belfast, watch this
John Lloyd, James Harkin and Anne Miller: 1,423 QI Facts to Bowl You Over (Faber & Faber, 2017)
For further information on QI and its numerous activities, including its daily offering of wondrous facts, see QI
The Sufis (1964: ISF reissue 2014)
Tales of the Dervishes (1967: ISF reissue 2016)
The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (1966: ISF reissue 2014)
Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (1945: Harper Perennial, 2009)
Maharaj Sri Nisargadatta
I am That: Talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj (Chetana Private Ltd., 1999)
Addresses I (Beshara Publications, 1986)
Addresses II (Beshara Publications, 2001)
The Reluctant Buddhist (Grosvenor House Publishing, 2007)
The Case for Buddhism (Grosvenor House Publishing, 2013)
Interview by Helen Lewis, John Lloyd: The Brains behind QI (New Statesman, September 2013)