Who are the QI Elves?

Smarter than Stephen Fry, but we know almost nothing about them – well not any more

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Victoria Coren Mitchell got to know the QI Elves on BBC2’s Only Connect – but how much do we really know about them?

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You’d expect the researchers behind BBC2’s brainbox panel game QI to succeed at everything they set their brilliant minds to. However, that wasn’t initially the case when three of them qualified for the new series of Only Connect.

“It started off as a bit of a disaster,” admits Anne Miller, who teamed up with colleagues James Harkin and Andrew Hunter Murray to tackle the show’s complex word games and lateral-thinking puzzles. “It was pretty tough.”

Surely Only Connect wouldn’t stump a trio of brainiacs responsible for some of TV’s most bafflingly obscure questions?

“We have weird knowledge,” says Miller. “We’re good at eclectic things. Everyone has their go-to fact and mine is that a baby puffin is called a ‘puffling’. But when people ask you regular things, it can be a challenge.”

The decision to apply for Only Connect was prompted by watercooler conversation at Elf HQ. “It’s our favourite show, apart from our own. You don’t get anything right for ages and then you get one thing and you’re so pleased with yourself that it doesn’t matter that you spent 40 minutes getting it all wrong. Someone suggested that we give it a go, so we trotted off to the auditions.”

It wasn’t the first time the quiz shows have crossed paths. Victoria Coren Mitchell has twice sat on the QI panel, despite being “terrified” of “looking like an idiot… on the BBC’s cleverest mainstream show”. She will appear again when the programme’s “L” series (its 12th) gets under way soon. Were the Elves worried Coren Mitchell would exact revenge?

“Actually the opposite. We went on Only Connect knowing she was coming on our show. so we knew that if things went terribly, we might have a good opportunity for revenge. But we love her. She’s one of our favourites.”

You can’t apply to be an Elf. Instead, potential candidates are approached, MI5-style. “It’s more of a tap on the shoulder,” explains Miller, who joined QI aged 23 after impressing as an intern. “We all came in through different routes. James has been on the show for about ten years. He posted loads on the online talkboards and won all the competitions, so they brought him in to join the team.” 

Perhaps most surprising is how diverse a bunch they are in age and background. The youngest recruit is a 19-year-old gap student, Jack Burke; the oldest is in his 60s. “I see Jack on the internet,” says Miller, “whereas Molly [Oldfield, the longest-serving Elf] likes to go to museums and talk to curators.” 

Five full-time Elves work all year round compiling books, recording podcasts and ensuring QI’s Twitter feed (@qikipedia) provides a steady stream of facts to keep its 597,000 followers amused. As filming approaches, a cast of reinforcement Elves is enlisted.

“We have big meetings,” says Miller, “where all the Elves have tea and biscuits and say, ‘I’ve found this fact.’ Then someone will say, ‘We did that in series B.’ Gradually all the stuff gets grouped into topics like people or literature.”

At one time the Elves had something of a reputation at the London Library: “We got told off for talking. We used to play the Only Connect connecting walls in our lunch breaks.”

Surely all those hours spent devising fiendish questions gave the Elves an advantage on OC?

“We’re better at talking out loud than thinking silently,” Miller concedes. “And we’d been in a TV studio before, so that was less intimidating for us.” But she still found the competition element terrifying, particularly given the team’s shaky start. “We were definitely aware it was a risk, because QI prides itself on knowledge. If we’d come back having got everything wrong, there might have been strong words.” 

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Only Connect is on BBC2 tonight at 8:30pm