Has there ever been a figure so associated with a TV panel show than Stephen Fry is with QI? I don’t think so.
While panel show hosts may be popular, long-running or well-suited to the format – Sandi Toksvig on The News Quiz, Dara O’Briain on Mock the Week, Rob Brydon on Would I Lie to You – I can’t think of anyone who so embodies the values of the programme they helm.
Witty without being ruthless, informative without being prosaic, and respectable without being out-of-touch, QI seems tailor-made for Fry – so when the news came a few months ago that the comedian and writer was stepping down from hosting duties after this year’s ‘M’ series, it was a big shock.
“What? Stephen Fry is QI,” I thought – but as of this evening (when his last episode airs on BBC2 at 10pm) he won’t be any more. After 180-plus episodes, an awful lot of letter-themed questioning and 13 years rolling his eyes at Alan Davies, he’s stepping back from the show that we all assumed he’d be part of forever – or at least until we reached series ‘Z’.
There will be two more specials this series, where Fry will present his favourite QI moments, but after that, his time is over. I don’t think it’s too hyperbolic to say this is the end of an era.
Fry has been hosting QI since 2003, and in that time panel shows have changed a great deal, becoming both more anarchic and more numerous (there seem to be dozens more than there were 10 years ago). But QI was always the same – gentle, informative fun with a group of comedians at the top of their game. Lovely stuff.
But then again, maybe that was becoming a bit of a problem. In recent series QI had started to become a bit repetitive, and like all panel shows was engulfed in the row over the lack of female contestants appearing per episode.
These sort of programmes seemed to be stuck in the old mindset of male-dominated comedy clubs, and even the introduction of a quota by then-BBC director of television Danny Cohen in 2014 (where at least one woman had to be on every episode of a panel show) didn’t feel like a significant improvement.
Despite Fry’s capable leadership the show seemed to be drifting towards lethargy, at risk of becoming a staid relic that didn’t reflect its viewers.
But now, that probably won’t happen – because Fry’s replacement is the eminent Sandi Toksvig, the former host of Radio 4’s The News Quiz and the first female host of a major TV panel show in history once she takes the QI reins.
It’s a bittersweet change for me. Fry, the man who so embodies QI and has done such a good job, is leaving – but he’s being replaced by someone just as talented and erudite, who also represents a big step forward for the representation of women in the entertainment industry (even if such a development is long overdue). If I had to describe my mood right now, it would be sadcited.
New QI host Sandi Toksvig
And considering Sandi has the entire second half of the alphabet to work with – 13 letters, just like Fry – who’s to say she won’t make just as big a mark on the show? I’ll certainly be watching to find out.
Yes, Stephen Fry was QI – but in this day and age, maybe QI needs to try being someone else.