Quite interesting: a modest boast. Not “extremely”, or even “very”, but a quintessentially British “quite”. That’s the motto of BBC Two’s panel show QI, a feast of obscure factoids now in its 15th series.
Since 2003, it’s provided fuel for countless pub discussions: did you know that the Dalai Lama is afraid of caterpillars? That cows moo in regional accents? That diamonds can be made from peanut butter?
Behind the scenes, the show’s researchers – known as “QI elves” – scour newspapers, museums and dark corners of the internet for trivia. But in the early years they had a problem: there were simply too many facts.
“It was really frustrating,” says Anna Ptaszynski, a long-serving elf. “Just 1 per cent makes it into the show. We were constantly having these chats about amazing things we’d discovered but they weren’t going anywhere. So, we thought, let’s just sit around a microphone and chat about it.”
These chats became weekly podcast No Such Thing as a Fish, in which four elves share their favourite discoveries. They each have their own specialism.
Dan Schreiber, QI’s cheeky librarian, is obsessed with the hunt for Bigfoot; while James Harkin, an ex-accountant, has a head for numbers; on the back of an envelope, he worked out that the dish of the world’s largest telescope could hold enough cornflakes to give Earth’s population a bowl for breakfast every day for a year; Andrew Hunter Murray, a deadpan comedian who writes for Private Eye, specialises in odd history. (“And parachuting animals”, he tells me. “Such as the parachuting dogs in the Normandy landings. They were British Army German shepherds. A bit ironic.”) Meanwhile, Ptaszynski, mock-serious and keeping the others in line, loves anthropology and 19th-century news.
It’s fair to say the podcast has been “quite” successful. Its episodes have been listened to more than 100 million times, with 1.5 million new streams every month – although, as Harkin modestly points out, “It might just be one person listening 1.5 million times.”
Murray remembers the “eureka” moment in 2014 that started it all. “Dan and James were talking, and one of them said that there are 600 men in the world with two penises – which is true! It’s ridiculously interesting. We realised we had to start a podcast just to get this information out. And that, I’m afraid, is the smutty cornerstone on which the whole of No Such Thing as a Fish has been built.”
In 2016, it made the leap to TV, and today the team publish The Book of the Year, a compendium of topical facts in 365 categories. It’s laced with their dry wit, and likely to end up in many a pub-quizzer’s Christmas stocking. Ahead of its release, the elves told The Daily Telegraph 10 of their top facts...
1. Manuel Noriega, Panama’s dictator, would dress his teddy-bears up as paratroopers and display them on his shelves.
Anna: Noriega died in May, and when someone interesting dies, that’s the best time to research them. Obituary writers dig out the weirdest stuff.
2. A Canadian man named Daniel Boria was fined this year for tying 100 balloons to a lawn chair and floating four kilometres into the air.
Anna: He was inspired by the Pixar film Up. He got into trouble and had to bail out – luckily, he had a parachute on. The judge said he was “unconscionably stupid”, but I can’t judge him as anything but a hero.
3. A US hot dog company has invented a sausage‑drone.
Andrew: Sadly, it was just a PR stunt, because it can only deliver one hot dog at a time, which is much less efficient than land-based sausage-delivery systems.
4. North Korea has so much spare nuclear material they’ve started advertising it online.
Andrew: And they’re giving out their ambassador’s phone number, just in case you’d like to go and collect it up from him.
There was also a small ad in the back of a magazine, which as good as said: “Would you like any uranium?” We find little amusing crumbs of comfort about ostensibly grim stories in the news.
5. This year, 2,000 bees were stolen in Beeston.
James: It’s a silly fact, but it tells you there’s a big bee-stealing problem that’s going on around the world; there were 400 beehive thefts in just six months. Bees are going extinct. There’s been quite a bit about it in the news, about how they’ve got diseases and aren’t reproducing as much as they should be. That’s why they’re being stolen; it’s supply and demand.
6. Donald Trump spent more days golfing in his first 100 days as president than Rory McIlroy, a professional golfer.
James: I’m a keen golfer myself, but haven’t had enough time to play this year – maybe I should become the leader of the free world.
In February, McIlroy played a round of golf with Trump, just to see what it would be like to play with the president. Trump has secret service agents in his little golf buggy, and keeps high-powered rifles in his golf bag on the course. He probably is the best golfer to become president; Kennedy was supposed to be talented, but didn’t really have any lessons.
Trump apparently is shooting in the high 70s, but he doesn’t release his scorecards (much like his taxes) so we can’t say exactly how good he is. We also don’t know about Kim Jong-un, though according to South Korean press, North Korean propaganda claims Kim Jong-il got 13 holes-in-one on his first-ever round of golf.
7. The first recorded use of the word “sponge cake” was by Jane Austen.
Andrew: It was in a letter to her sister. I’m not sure we have her response, but it was presumably complete bafflement.
8. A scientist called Neil Gemmell is going to look for the Loch Ness Monster’s dandruff.
Dan: It’s all to do with environmental DNA, a new way of monitoring animals in water. The idea is that skin-flakes come off, so testing a jar of water from a lake can tell you how many species there are in it. He was asked by a Loch Ness Monster “expert” whether it could be applied to the Loch. Jokingly, he said it could, and news outlets leapt on it. It worked out so well in publicity terms that now he’s actually going to do it. It sounds ridiculous, but there’s a lot of serious science underneath it.
9. Crystal Palace FC fans accidentally vandalised their own team’s bus.
Andrew: They’d been playing a game against Middlesbrough, found what they thought was the opposing team’s bus, and wrote “Crystal Palace” on it in massive letters. They did £40,000 of damage, and Crystal Palace now have an extremely well-labelled bus.
10. The world’s leading fortune-cookie writer has retired after 30 years – because of writer’s block.
Dan: Donald Lau worked for Wonton Food Inc, which makes 4.5 million fortune cookies a day. He got the job because he had the best English, and has finally stopped because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
In 2005, the company was investigated over a cookie he’d written. It said “All the preparation you’ve done will finally be paying off” and on the back was a set of lottery numbers.
Five out of six were correct, which led to 110 people winning the lottery that week.
The Book of the Year is published by Penguin Random House at £12.99
No Such Thing As A Fish is on tour: visit mickperrin. com/tours/thing-fish-2017/ for information and tickets