Victoria Coren: “We should respect Christopher Biggins more than Daniel Day-Lewis”

The Heresy host talks about slaying sacred cows - and being a woman in a man's world of quiz shows...

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Catching Victoria on the phone in a small gap in her busy schedule – though I thought I heard the faint tapping of a keyboard, suggesting she was busier than she let on – she proved as charming and witty in person as in her radio and TV appearances. To open, I asked her to explain BBC Radio 4 series Heresy in her own words to anyone not familiar with the show. She decided to use one of her opening monologue jokes.

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“The idea of Heresy is to take received opinions and challenge them, and the three guests and I argue against them. For example, the world says, without thinking, that money can’t buy you love. And we say, actually that’s not true. If it were true, I wouldn’t be wearing this watch and have such terrible cystitis.”


So, out of all the challenges to kneejerk thinking that have been on the show, which would you count as your favourite?

“I think my favourite statement for us to argue against was: Daniel Day-Lewis is a better actor than Christopher Biggins. People would just take that for granted, of course he is. But then you address it and you think, why? You look at the wealth of fantastic light comedy Christopher Biggins has done over the years — the man’s never put a foot wrong — and you suddenly realise, wait a minute, I’m just being snobbish about genre.

“And I was particularly delighted this series that in the first episode, Christopher Biggins has come on as a guest. He was absolutely fantastic, just hilarious and clever and his jokes were very good. And I feel that it retrospectively gave even more weight to the argument that we should respect Biggins more than Day-Lewis.”

And are there any sacred cows that you desperately want to see slain on the series?

“We’re in the middle of making a series and we’ve got 18 sacred cows in there, so at the moment my mind is rather exhausted of them. Right now I think we’re attacking everything that needs to be attacked.”

So, you’re getting your way. You’re feeling generally happy with the world?

“[Pause] Well, that’s a very broad statement. [laughter] I mean, I generally choose the topics. So I haven’t yet had to argue anything that I think shouldn’t be argued against. I mean, I don’t think we’d do something like: Josef Fritzl shouldn’t have kept his children in the cellar. There are certain opinions that everyone holds that there’s no disagreeing with.”

As host of Heresy and also BBC4’s Only Connect, you’re a prominent woman in the predominantly male world of panel shows and quiz shows. Do you ever feel like a figurehead or role model?

“I don’t think about it in that way at all. I don’t think about gender when I’m doing something with an audience. Just like I don’t when I’m playing poker. Other people say, ‘that’s very unusual, a female poker player’, but I don’t really think about it.

“I guess the only thing I’d think about Heresy in relation to that is one of the reasons people give for male dominance on panel shows is that you could just about argue it’s a more masculine form of comedy to do one-liners and bang-bang jokes, whereas women’s humour is more discursive and observational.

“One of the things I try to do with Heresy is not have one-liners. I’m always aiming to have the laugh come out of a genuine argument and things that people really believe. You could argue that Heresy is quite a welcoming space for women because it doesn’t ask them to perform pre-scripted jokes, it just asks them to chat and hope the conversation gets funny.”

How do you feel about people referring to you as the ‘thinking man’s crumpet’?

“Yes, but that’s Joan Bakewell. It’s certainly not what I put on my business card. I think what they mean by that is that I present a very difficult quiz show with a lot of make-up on. As soon as you’ve got lipstick on and are asking a difficult question people call you ‘thinking man’s crumpet’.

“I think it’s a lovely compliment. If we dealt with it on Heresy my argument would be: Is there a possibility that if you put a wig and mascara on a giraffe and got a ventriloquist to get it to say something about the canals of Venice, would it be called ‘thinking man’s crumpet’?”

A new series of Heresy starts tonight at 6:30pm on BBC Radio 4.

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The Only Connect final airs on BBC4 on Monday 5 December at 8:30pm and a special tournament takes place in Only Connect Wall Night on Monday 12 December from 8:30pm on BBC4