Sandi Toksvig’s assumption of the QI chair seems to have taken place with minimal fuss, despite the fact that until now Stephen Fry had hosted the show, uninterrupted, for thirteen series. It has never been a particularly flashy show but its popularity has sustained for a long time, which is impressive when you think about it. QI is one of those shows that doesn’t fit easily into prescribed genres; it’s a comedy show that doesn’t really set out to do comedy, a panel show based on facts about bees and historical headache cures (among a million other things). Given that the creator of the show, John Lloyd, describes the main aim of the show as ‘interestingness’, QI doesn’t sound like a recipe for hysterical laughter. Yet each new episode somehow delivers just that, and now, with Toksvig in the chair, the show appears to be going from strength to strength.
Stephen Fry had a very particular style of hosting, a mixture of affable intelligence, extremely articulate rambling and the occasional sharp (but always very clever) put down. He often held the role of straight man to Alan Davies’ token ‘idiot’, while also generating many laughs in his own right. More than anything, though, there was an enduring sense of his sheer knowledgeability: something the guests and the audience were all aware of. Toksvig could never have attempted to directly replace Fry’s unmistakeable persona, and of course she hasn’t set out to do so. Instead she has brought her own identity to the role which, though not radically different, is different enough to provide just the right level of change for the show.
Toksvig as host is business-like, yet warm and accessible. She is wryly funny, and her quips hit the mark just as well as when she was a guest on the show. Her intelligence is evident, but somehow more reserved, and her wealth of knowledge appears at exactly the right moments. In her first episode as host her comments on the origin of the word ‘quiz’ cause Alan Davies to declare ‘yeah you’re good – you’ve got it – you’re in the right chair’. Indeed Toksvig and Davies work extremely well together as host and regular panellist, a dynamic which might have been overshadowed by the genius of Davies and Fry’s rapport. Rather than continuing to ‘play the idiot’, or deliberately set off the infamous klaxon, Davies’ new role seems to be that of the QI veteran, which he must surely have earned after thirteen years. In an amusing and somehow fitting contrast to Fry, Toksvig encourages Davies, leading to his insistence that the only reason he used to lose all the time was because he was afraid of Stephen.
The most heartening thing about the new series of QI is the fact that an older woman working in television (and they are few and far between), has taken over the helm of a very popular BBC show with virtually no fuss or controversy. Which is exactly how it should be. Anyone who has watched QI even semi-regularly could have seen that Toksvig was the natural successor to Stephen Fry and, three episodes in, she is proving this beyond all doubt. QI is a strange show, in that it manages to find hilarity in interesting factual information that itself isn’t necessarily funny. It also succeeds in doing this without ever quite mocking intelligence or intelligent people. In fact it welcomes cleverness in its guests, its audience, and of course its host. The format has changed very little over the years, which makes it even more unusual in the world of television; shows that have lasted this long are usually axed or altered beyond all recognition. Instead the BBC have chosen to more or less leave it be and allow it to continue to delight its fans. And in the capable hands of Sandi Toksvig, QI will hopefully run for thirteen more brilliant years to come.