John Lloyd to play the Fringe
...and he talks QI, Douglas Adams and blinkered TV executies
Top comedy producer John Lloyd is to debut a solo show at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The QI creator, whose other hits include Blackadder, Spitting Image, Not The Nine O'Clock News, To The Manor Born and The News Quiz, will perform Liff Of QI in the relatively modest Underbelly Dairy Room for a full festival run.
Although a regular visitor to Edinburgh as a talent scout and member of the television festival committee, the 'shadowy figure behind the scenes’ says he has long wanted to be a writer-performer, but ‘put it on hold for 37 years’.
His show is partly inspired by The Meaning Of Liff, the classic, 30-year-old comedy dictionary providing words for things that should have a name but don't, which he co-wrote with Douglas Adams.
He was motivated to write it after appearing at Adams's virtual 60th birthday party at the Hammersmith Apollo last year. 'There is nothing to touch 3,500 people laughing their socks off, it's the best feeling you can have while you're still alive,' he reflects.
‘I don't get enough of that fun, I'm usually sat here, worrying about the QI budget, trying to keep celebrities on track, talking to accountants and compliance people. So it's my turn to have a few laughs.'
'I'm going to use the Liffs, which obviously are all about life, little observations we all know about, whether about people or types of things you find in your desk drawer, and use them as a way of hanging stories off them, things that have happened to me in my life'
Lloyd is also appearing at the Edinburgh Book Festival with Afterliff, the new sequel. 'I'm really proud of it,’ he said. ‘It's as good as the first book at least.'
A former Cambridge Footlights member, his previous festival performance was in 1976 as part of a revue, The Unpleasantness At Brodie's Close, with a cast that included One Foot In The Grave writer David Renwick and Adams.
Liff Of QI shares an ethos with QI and its Radio 4 spin-off, The Museum of Curiosity. ‘What I'm interested in doing is sending people away thinking about things,’ he said. ‘The universe is absolutely astonishing in the macro and micro scale but we largely go through life without touching the sides, it's really kind of tragic.'
A multi-award winning director of dozens of television commercials, with more Baftas than anyone except Dame Judy Dench, he promises 'an inside track on what it's like to have worked with some of the most famous people in the world and the funny side of it'.
‘I started out wanting to be a writer-performer but my two best friends were Griff [Rhys Jones], who was obviously ten times the actor I would ever be and Douglas, who was a much better writer. So I thought I'd do the shit producing job nobody wants. A comedy plumber.'
Lloyd recorded a documentary at the Fringe in 1988, The 39,000 Steps, which charted a day in the life of the festival from 6am to 4am, 'about tramping up and down stairs and all the things you see by happy accident' and which featured Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. He confesses: 'I love the down and dirty thing' of putting on a festival show.'
For The Unpleasantness At Brodie's Close, 'we did everything – wrote it, were in it, made the props, stuck up the posters. It was a ridiculous venue, a Masonic hall with a supposed 90-seat capacity but we managed to squeeze in about 115.
'It was fantastic fun, apart from at the beginning. Douglas was sporting an enormous black beard at the time. Everybody else was getting laughs but he wasn't getting any at all, he was in despair for two nights. And somebody said: “You're frightening them Douglas, you're so big and that beard intimidates the first six rows, why don't you shave it off?” So he did. And the next night he was brilliant.'
Meanwhile, Lloyd has all but discounted the possibility of a live QI tour of the UK, despite a successful 2011 run in Australia and tentative plans to host something similar at the Royal Albert Hall.
He maintains it would be economically impractical and difficult to combine with Fry's hectic diary – 'we only have him for this intense ten-day period a series anyway' - and ‘we couldn't afford enough researchers to generate new questions.'
Plans to shoot an Australian version of QI with Fry as the host, and around 30 Australian comedians being flown to London to record it, have also been shelved.
Reiterating what he perceives to be a lack of imaginative commissioning in television, he points out that 'even with a track record as good as mine, I haven't managed to sell another TV series since QI. You tell them you've got another idea and they ask “Is Stephen Fry in it?” “No, it's an animated series about science.” “So is Alan Davies in it?” “No, no, it's nothing ...” “Is it a quiz? ...”
'Unlike modern television, and to a lesser extent, radio, people like me and the many, many amazing producers there were back then, we thought of the next thing. When Monty Python came onto the screen you thought, “Fuck! Where did that come from?” People don't want this retread crap.'
He claims to be paid 'nine pence per episode for the repeats on Dave’, and inspired by the degree to which QI is illegally downloaded in the US, he has been in conversations with Google about delivering content straight to the web, a process that's already begun with a short animated film on the show's website, marketing the latest QI book to American readers.
'It's such a waste of time trying to get television commissions because by the time you come out of the office, everything about the project is slightly worse. It goes up a level and gets even worse.
‘The thrilling thing about going to see Google was it reminded me what television was like in the 80s and radio in the 70s. Full of smart people whose basic attitude is “yes, we can do that, absolutely”. Telly is full of people who say “no” to everything.'
A plan to create QI schools, which was in the show's 2002 original business proposal remains an outside possibility, 'finding out what kids are interested in and filling their heads with interesting stuff', following discussions with Anthony Seldon, master of the independent Wellington College in Berkshire and biographer of Tony Blair and John Major.
'There ought to be a GCSE in general interestingness' he ventures. 'There ought to be a university degree and a professor of interestingness at Oxford.'
Chiefly targeting children 'who are not considered sociable, who don't get normal school' he has suggested in his conversations with facilitators in government that 'even bright kids don't like most of their lessons'. He advocates a 'more child-centred learning QI system', in contrast to the back-to-basics, learning by rote reforms demanded by Education Minister Michael Gove. 'Teachers wouldn't get bored either because they'd be learning something new every day.'
He added that he didn’t have time to pursue the schools plan, but added: ‘QI at its foundation is an idea, not a format, with the idea that everything can be made interesting in any way'.
Eventually, Lloyd also wants to make a QI movie, inspired by Godfrey Reggio's 1982 documentary Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out Of Balance, which featured slow motion and time lapse photography of cities and landscapes across the US, with music composed by Philip Glass.
'It's a trippy film' he enthuses. 'Back in the day you'd drop a tab of acid, though I never did, and I just like the idea of doing something similar with all the material that QI encompasses, everything from potatoes to galaxies.'
But 'that's all on the back-burner, because the new thing for me is this performing lark. If [Afterliff] does well, [co-writer Jon Canter and I] will take that up to Edinburgh too, because it makes us laugh a lot. We were in the same revue in 1973, so I know he can do it.'
There’s also the revival of a science fiction novel saga he abandoned after temporarily falling out with Adams over the lack of credit he received for helping to write Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. He had gifted the 300-page manuscript to his friend to 'unlock his creative juices’ during a bout of writer’s block.
Lloyd won't be the only QI 'elf' at the Fringe. Ministry of Curiosity co-producer Dan Schreiber is bringing the 'fascinating facts and geeky observations' of Schreiberland to the Free Fringe, while QI researcher Andy Murray returns as part of last year's improv hit Austentatious, still free and back in The Counting House.
'Maybe I'm bitterly resentful about all these friends whose stuff I've produced' Lloyd jokes. 'They've all got yachts, helicopters and houses in Barbados. I don’t understand why I live from hand to mouth. I have a nice house and a perfectly nice life so why haven't I got lots of money? But for me it's just interesting.'
- John Lloyd’s show have gone on sale at the Underbelly website
- by Jay Richardson
Posted: 11 Apr 2013