Kangaroos have three vaginas. The House of Lords has a rifle range in the basement. There are 600 men with two penises in the world.
It’s not exactly the information most people come across in their nine to five, but for the researchers of BBC’s QI – or, to give them their proper title, the QI Elves – life revolves around such little-known knowledge.
Since 2003, the Elves have unearthed countless weird and wonderful truths and gems of general ignorance for QI, their 100-million-times-downloaded weekly podcast No Such Thing as A Fish, topical TV spin-off No Such Thing as the News and their many books, such as their newly released Book of the Year.
However, there’s one fascinating area the Elves rarely talk about: themselves. Granted, they don’t have a rifle range in their basement or sport two penises (as far as we know), but there are still a lot of questions we have about them. What exactly do they do in the QI offices? Are they always on the lookout for weird facts? Essentially: just how interesting are they?
We spoke to Andrew Hunter Murray– veteran QI Elf and the man who challenged us to put that vagina fact on our site – to discover some fascinating facts about the QI Elves.
They don’t work as QI Elves all the time
We hate to break the illusion, but rather than solely running rampant in the QI grotto/offices in London’s Covent garden, the many many Elves have spread their curiosities over a myriad of interests.
For instance, ‘Theoretical Elf’ Dr Will Bowen is a freelance stage designer, while ‘Ideas Elf’ Dan Schreiber is a stand-up who’s also hosted a C4 show about UFO conspiracies. Andy Murray himself moonlights on shows such as The Mash Report, as well as performing in a Jane Austen-esque improv comedy troupe and writing for Private Eye magazine (not at the same time).
“Normally, I’m at QI for four days of the week and Private Eye for one, where I spend the day writing jokes and reading the papers, which occasionally comes in handy for QI if I spot something interesting,” he says. “It doesn’t really work the other way round though – Private Eye hasn’t found much use in my current research on pollen.”
Even more interesting, head Elf James Harkin briefly worked as an accountant for QI after joining the team.
“[The show] used to run competitions to find unusual facts and James took to them in his lunchtime when he was an accountant elsewhere. He kept on winning so much that eventually it was just cheaper to offer him a job than to give him all the prize money,” says Murray. “But he was reluctant to come aboard and only joined on the condition that he could do the QI books. He still refuses to do my taxes though!”
This isn’t to say QI leaves the Elves with plenty of time for other ventures: they spend five full days in QI HQ, albeit not in a nine to five capacity. “The hours are completely erratic,” says Murray. It’s also a job that requires the Elves 12 months a year, either researching or helping on the main QI recording. Then there’s their podcast touring, podcast edits (yes, they do that themselves), as well as researching and writing the QI books
Although the Elves spend all year sculpting the most fiendish questions for Alan Davies and co, quizzing isn’t the most popular pastime at QI towers. Even though they once reached the semi-final of Only Connect, Murray says the Elves have never quizzed each other – “There’s not even a quiz at our Christmas party.”
Why? Well, Murray thinks they’re not actually that good at them.
Although some of the QI team (ie accountant James Harkin) know their periodic tables and Booker Prize winners, their fact-finding mission doesn’t exactly lead them through the realm of general knowledge.
“I find that they never ask about the part of the Orthodox Church you’ve been reading about that afternoon. Never comes up!” says Murray.
Even if an obscure topic makes its way into a pub quiz, Murray says he might not be much help. Although a curiosity for the peculiar is a key trait of a QI Elf, remembering facts isn’t. “You really don’t have to have a good memory [to be a QI Elf] – it’s all written down. I sometimes find old facts posted in the QI forums under my name that I don’t remember finding,” explains Murray.
“As long as you find an interesting fact between writing one down and then forgetting it then you should be able to get by.”
They find facts from absolutely everywhere
“Books, magazines, newspaper archives, the internet: we stumble into facts from all over the place,” says Murray. “We go to all the weird little museums we can find and sometimes we’ll write to an expert in that field to get an answer to a question we’re really wondering about. That’s really satisfying.”
And here’s news that’ll give hope to the students told to keep off Wikipedia: the Elves love it. “Why avoid Wikipedia? It’s is a fantastic site! I bung them a tenner every so often and I think everyone should,” says Murray. “But we do have one rule about using it: you can start reading about your topic on Wikipedia, but you can’t finish it there.”
So, although Wikipedia might shine a light on a topic, it’s up to Elves to follow it through to the darker parts of the internet (no, not those bits): document archives. “It’s all about following the chain of interest. You might be trying to disprove something – say, about a flood in the Netherlands from 1953 – before coming across a report revealing that there was an entire flood held up by men’s shoulders. If that fact hasn’t been found by anyone else then that’s really satisfying.”
They spend a long time fact-checking
Sometimes it’s not finding the facts themselves that’s the problem, but making sure they’re right. The Elves aim for each fact to be found in two first-hand sources, which, if you’re dealing with the obscure, isn’t the easiest.
Take that flood fact from above: that information comes from one very unique report, and as Murray soon found out, “any other source ended up referring back to that. Sometimes you can’t 100 per cent confirm it, but it’s the best we could do.”
But although the human dam story was used without being double-sourced, it’s one of the few exceptions to the rule. “We check and check and check and check to minimise mistakes and we really do get bees in our bonnets about it sometimes. We have to cut our losses and move on,” says Murray.
QI is the most commonly played word in Tournament Scrabble.
But even the double-sourced facts that do make it through aren’t completely infallible – an occasional slip-up is inevitable if you’re teetering on the edge of human knowledge.
Yet, QI Elves being QI Elves, they find this fascinating too. They’ve documented all their known mistakes in a lengthy blog and even dedicated a QI episode (series K’s Knowledge) that delved into the shifting nature of facts and how most are proved to be untrue eventually.
In that show, the Elves predicted that 7 per cent of all facts mentioned in that episode would be untrue in a year’s time, and that perhaps 60 per cent of facts in Series A were now no longer true.
So, aren’t the Elves just wasting their time? Is it not crushing to find out there’s no such thing as a fact? Murray’s infectiously optimistic answer: “Oh no, I find it’s great to go back and correct something that you got wrong in the past – you learn something new all over again!”
They’d love to be panellists on QI
In fact, what about this for a QI special: get half of the Elves to sculpt a quiz for the other half, who will appear alongside Sandi Toksvig? “That’ll be great! I’d love to do that!” says Murray, before adding modestly, “Although, I don’t think the people at BBC2 are interested in seeing a load of nobodies on the show.”
But the QI Elves are far from nobodies. They’ve proved more than entertaining (not to mention downright popular) on the NSTAAF podcast and NSTATN show. Murray himself has even been tipped as a “rising comedy star”.
Given that, wouldn’t it be quite interesting to see how they’d do on the main QI stage? We’re looking at you, BBC2.
The podcast started by accident
There should have been no such thing as a QI Elves podcast. Encouraged to share their growing stockpile of unbroadcast facts (4 in 5 of them go unused), the Elves created a pilot podcast – “actually, a ‘Frankenpodcast’ stitched together from three different recordings,” says Murray – only meant for the ears of the QI bosses. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.
“Dan uploaded the episode to the web and accidentally ticked the ‘public’ box instead of the ‘private’ one. Everyone could now hear it,” recalls Murray. “However, then it got about 10,000 listeners within the first day and we thought, ‘Hello, we might be on to something here!’”
However, there was another problem: at the end of the first podcast the Elves told the audience – which should have only consisted of the QI bosses – they’d be back next week.
“We accidentally promised everyone another episode, so we had to deliver it,” says Murray. “The first one was a lot of work and took a fair bit of time. And then we had to do another in a few days! We were delighted to do it, but it made us very busy!”
There are some topics they avoid
Yet this isn’t because they’re not curious about them. Anything is interesting if you’re an Elf, even trade regulations (did you know there are more trade restrictions on bananas than guns?). But some subjects don’t lend themselves well to quick-fire facts.
“I’m staying away from the philosophy script if we ever write one for the P series. It’ll be impossible,” says Murray. “However interesting the topic, it’ll be very hard for Alan Davies to do an impression of utilitarianism – but give him a caterpillar and he’ll do great.”
So, if you find yourself in the QI office, where should you start your research? Murray recommends kicking off with a concrete noun: ‘pipeline’ or ‘pumpkin’, for instance. As well as being Google/index page-friendly, such simple words can lead to some mind-boggling ideas.
“My favourite example is this question we did for a QI episode: what travels from South to North at the speed of a third of a mile an hour? We first thought it could be traffic or a weird kind of animal, but it’s ‘spring’, as in the season,” says Murray. “That came from a simple concept – spring – and has what all great facts should: an element of surprise and something that makes you think about the subject in a new way. It takes what you’re familiar with and turns that upside down.”
They work closely with Sandi Toksvig
Just like her predecessor Stephen Fry, host Toksvig is a regular face in QI HQ in the run-up to filming. “She’ll come in and she’ll go through scripts with us and often she’ll think of things to add from her own experience,” explains Murray. “She’s really extraordinary.”
This relationship doesn’t end when filming starts. “Throughout filming – normally a few episodes a week for around five weeks – they’ll be several Elves in each recording session checking all facts go out correctly. If a panellist pipes up with a question that we didn’t include in the notes then we’ll immediately confirm it through Sandi’s earpiece to keep the host omnipotent,” says Murray.
But what happens when a panellist gets it wrong? Of course, the Elves trigger the Klaxon, as David Mitchell knows all too well…
They feel VERY lucky
The average day in the QI office is pretty much what you’d expect. According to Murray, it starts with the Elves grabbing all the books and magazines they can find, or reading online. And then they’ll sit there, for hours, completely transfixed by their own subject. Well, until somebody else’s work is even more interesting.
“Every now and then one of us will occasionally prod a colleague and say something like, ‘You won’t believe what I’ve just found out about pineapples!’”
The hours are long, with the Elves now researching for the podcast, spin-off books and main QI TV show (“weekends and evenings have become particularly useful,” admits Murray), but it’s a lifestyle they far from loathe. “We’re aware how lucky we are to have this job that doesn’t really sound like a job at all,” says Murray. “The really wonderful thing is that we have the freedom to follow our research wherever it leaves us. There’s no set time for how long we have to research a topic for. We just have to be curious.”
Even the podcast live tours appear to have few downsides. “The vibe of the [podcast] is sitting down and telling your friends funny facts, which is sort of what everyone likes doing anyway,” says Murray. “Our trips down the pub are basically like what’s on the podcast. Well, except nobody’s recording and editing it. I hope, anyway.”