Brief thoughts on Q.I.: XL (broadcast 6 April 2012) – or why educated British people despise thinking, working class people

Blogpost, Film education, Television

For those who do not know, Q.I. is a television celebrity panel quiz show in the UK hosted by Stephen Fry. It involves Fry asking questions about all manner of topics, the answers to which often seem obvious – because mythology offers us falsehoods as truths – but which always are not.

So Fry will ask something like “What was Gandhi’s first name?” and if one of the panelists (typically a man called Alan Davies) say “Mahatma” (in a specific episode, Alan Davies in fact proposes “Randy” as Gandhi’s first name), then he is docked some points (there may be a formula for how many, but it is not important; Davies was docked 150 points for saying “Randy”). Fry then corrects Davies and the others, and explains that “Mohandas” was Gandhi’s first name (depending on which Gandhi you wish to talk about, of course), and that “Mahatma” is the Sanskrit term for “Great soul”.

In this way, a popular error (that reveals specifically British ignorance, perhaps) is revealed and an educational element is delivered in comic form, because Q.I. typically features several of a group of British comedians that endlessly wander from one celebrity panel show to the next (Bill Bailey, Sean Lock, Dara Ó Briain, Jimmy Carr, Sandi Toksvig, John Sessions, Jo Brand, Phill Jupitus, Rich Hall, Rob Brydon, Clive Anderson, David Mitchell, Danny Baker, etc). It has two permanent cast members: Stephen Fry and Alan Davies, the former as MC, the latter as the sightly buffoonish one who always gets the questions wrong, but in a charming amd mildly amusing fashion.

Now, last night, Fry and Davies hosted Sandi Toksvig, Jimmy Carr and Lee Mack. At one point, Fry posed a question along the lines of “how is it that the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you around the room when you see it in the Louvre?” This we can oppose to the way in which a human’s eyes do not follow the observer of that human around the room – if the human continues to look at the same spot while the observer moves…

For whatever reason, it fell to Lee Mack to answer this question – and whether right or wrong, answer it he did with some ingenuity. Mack proposed that the reason the Mona Lisa’s eyes always follow us around the room is because we are never looking at the woman in the Mona Lisa painting, but at Leonardo’s vision of her. Since in the painting she is looking directly at the painter, and since we can only see the painter’s perspective of her (she is not a sculpture around which we can walk – although Mack did also sharply say that the Mona Lisa’s eyes do not follow you if you walk behind her), then it stands to reason that from any/all angles, it will seem as though she, the Mona Lisa, is looking at the painting’s spectator.

There is something ingenious about Mack’s explanation – which Fry himself was beginning to praise at one point, before Jimmy Carr and Sandi Toksvig basically railroaded Mack’s explanation into the ground as rubbish and irrelevant.

Q.I. is a funny show and so I am ‘killing’ the comedy a bit here, for which apologies. But something important seemed to happen at this moment that I think merits comment.

Lee Mack’s comedy persona is more or less “northern” humour, which translates in the UK into “working class” humour – although of a sophistication significantly greater than the “classic” (code for racist) “northern humour” that is associated with the likes of Bernard Manning.

Alan Davies, meanwhile, plays the show as a charming and well spoken buffoon. He is the “ninny” of the series, but a relatively middle to upper middle class ninny – not quite the same as, but somewhere approximate to the kind of well-meaning toff/quasi-toff that Harry Enfield satirised at length with his Tim Nice-but-Dim character, and which more recently has been revitalised by Matt Lacey with his viral Orlando character (“And then I chundered… everywhaaah…”).

This leaves Fry, Toksvig and Carr. It is perhaps not so well known that Carr is highly educated, because his humour tends to be cruel and scatological – while Fry and Toksvig are, latterly at least, known for their sophistication, not least linguistically. Nonetheless, all three of Fry, Toksvig and Carr received their higher education at the University of Cambridge, attending Queen’s, Girton and Gonville and Caius respectively (the show’s creator, John Lloyd, also attended Cambridge, going to Trinity College).

Now, let’s be clear. Lee Mack is very well educated, too. He attended Brunel University, while Alan Davies was at the University of Kent. But Mack’s persona is much more mainstream than this would belie (as, arguably, is Jimmy Carr’s, but with significantly less warmth than Mack’s).

However, when we see two Cambridge graduates dismissing Mack’s inventive response to Fry’s question, with Fry later in the episode also joining in by calling Mack “stupid” (even though in a charming and friendly manner), one cannot help but feel that something else is going on beyond simply a display of knowledge.

For, Mack’s explanation is – whether right or wrong – both clear and ingenious. It may well be a piece of typical Q.I. logic. That is, Mack’s explanation for why the Mona Lisa’s eyes follow you around the room might well be spurious if logical-seeming – although he does not stand corrected in the episode (as far as I recall, the show moves on, leaving one with the impression that Mack might have been right – he is not corrected; but that on the whole he is wrong – everyone derides him).

In offering a clear and ingenious answer to the question, Mack has shown not necessarily knowledge, but he has shown intelligence and an ability to think on his feet. What is odd, then, is how intelligence of this kind is here punished by the existing intelligentsia with their Cambridge degrees and their ability to reel off facts as if knowledge were superior to understanding and intelligence.

One cannot help but wonder whether the issue really is about class and/or regionality (which, to generalise, is often and erroneously bound up with class by relatively “posh” “southerners” [Toksvig’s Danish provenance complicating this matter somewhat, except for the fact that her English accent is as Queen’s as one could hope for]), whose poshness and southernness passes for normality and which certainly is imbued with symbolic if not actual power when its disapproval of northern intelligence is implied as/taken as being the definitive framework through which to understand Mack.

One cannot help but recall one of Britain’s favourite comedy sketches – the so-called “Class Sketch” from The Frost Report in 1966, featuring (Cambridge-educated) John Cleese “looking down on” Ronnie Barker (no higher education, but from the relatively prosperous city of Oxford), who in turn “looks down on” Ronnie Corbett (no higher education).

That is, comedy and class seem thoroughly intertwined in the UK, with one’s type of humour playing a role in one’s class consciousness. But where the “Class Sketch” pokes fun at the British class system (personally I don’t find the sketch funny so much as plain scathing), yesterday’s episode of Q.I. seems to reveal the persistence of knowledge and the power of holding knowledge as the preserve of the educated, middle and upper classes (read Oxbrige-educated), while intelligence and the ability to question authority through actual thinking (Lee Mack coming up with an ingenious answer all on his own) being branded as subversive, threatening and to be quashed.

In a sense the entire ideology of Q.I. is herein revealed: the show takes “popular wisdom” (people who think that Gandhi’s first name is Mahatma) and exemplifies that it is often “wrong,” while demonstrating that “real” knowledge – and thus power – lies in the hands of the enlightened few.

There is more to say about the show’s audience and the projection of intelligence and wit that makes it for many viewers a pleasurable and aspirational experience – not least because it all looks so easy for these performers.

(Indeed, in this episode, Mack is also the only comic made to look as though they are working on/at their comedy, when he bungles a “ye olde Second World War” joke, that again he must explain – “brilliantly” according to Fry – as being a failed improvisation; the others would never have to do so much as working – because they are not, by implication, working class, while Lee Mack (in fact highly educated) is.)

If you who is reading this knows me, you might be thinking “pot-kettle-black”, in that I am also highly educated (three degrees from the University of Oxford). But my point here is not simply to cast stones at the Cambridge “toffs” that dominate Q.I., which is a show I enjoy immensely (otherwise why would I watch it from time to time?).

Rather, it is to demonstrate the way in which even highly educated people can – as this episode of Q.I. seems to reveal – succumb to the logic that having answers and holding power are the most important things to possess in life – and that threats to them (Lee Mack’s display of intelligence, so much more threatening than Alan Davies’ otherwise well-meaning ninniness) must be extinguished. It is Mack, in showing thought/intelligence, and in showing that he works and can sometimes fail at his comedy, who demonstrates something beyond power here – thought, intelligence, doubt, and in some respects true comedy in the face of the scientific imperative towards “true” knowledge. It is a pity that the others – supposedly highly educated – dismiss him so quickly – even if in a comic fashion and on nominally friendly terms.

For a short while, UK residents can catch the show on the BBC’s iPlayer here.