QI gives us a glimpse at TV panel shows’ strange future

Audience-free episodes of the hit trivia show filmed in March offer a hint at what to expect in the “new normal” – but would we be better off leaving the format behind for now?

Sandi Toksvig

If you’ve recently tuned into QI on BBC One on a Thursday, you will have been offered a strange glimpse into the past – as well as the future.

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While regulars Sandi Toksvig and Alan Davies have been present and correct alongside guest panellists, the R-themed nuggets of trivia and off-the-cuff jokes have been delivered to an empty auditorium over the past few weeks, the only laughter and applause for the gags and question breaks coming from (presumably) the crew off-camera.

Screenshot 2020-07-08 at 18.38.49
Sandi Toksvig in a recent episode of QI (BBC)

The reason for this was simple. As Toksvig explained at the start of every half-hour in front of a sea of empty red chairs, the episodes had been filmed in March when the sheer scale of the coronavirus pandemic was becoming known, and like other studio TV shows (including Question Time and Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway) around the same time, QI had dispensed with an audience to avoid possible transmission of COVID-19.

Of course, plenty of other shows that usually have an audience – Have I Got News For You, The Graham Norton Show, The Mash Report, The Last Leg to name but a few – have created stopgap versions of their shows from home over the last few months of lockdown, and we’ve more or less got used to the slightly creepy lack of laughter and unusually quiet banter as they chat over webcam sans appreciative chuckles from the crowd.

But QI is unlike those other shows in some key respects. While plenty of topical formats found some way to keep calm and carry on over the last few months, QI is the first of the panel shows or game shows filmed way in advance that’s been forced to deal with the consequences of the pandemic on air – and it’s probably a lot closer to what we can expect from the genre going forward.

Have I Got News For You's lockdown edition
Have I Got News For You’s lockdown edition
BBC

The future of panel shows probably isn’t the home studio, webcam-only approach that was necessary in full lockdown, but it’s not back to business as usual either. Looking ahead, it’s likely that social distancing rules will remain in effect, limiting the potential for in-studio audiences for some time to come.

In other words, the strange QI episodes currently airing on the BBC could themselves become the new normal for panel shows, cut off from the usual uproarious laughter for an undetermined amount of time.

Just look at Loose Women. While ITV’s daily discussion show has returned to the airwaves after a few weeks offscreen, they’ve still had to drop their regular studio audience, socially distance their panellists and resign guests to (occasionally laggy) videocalls rather than the usual in-person chats.

On a show like Loose Women or a game show like Pointless, the lack of an audience is felt – but not as much as it would be for something like QI, Would I Lie To You or even The Graham Norton Show (which may also struggle to find a sofa long enough to house all its guests). Production companies can now at least get their talent into a studio, but without an audience is it even worth it?

Josh Widdicombe, Alan Davies, Sandi Toksvig, Shazia Mirza, Joe Lycett -
Josh Widdicombe, Alan Davies, Sandi Toksvig, Shazia Mirza and Joe Lycett in a “Radioactive” episode coming soon to BBC Two

I’d argue it’s not. While obviously born out of necessity, the audience-less episodes of QI just don’t have the sense of fun or the atmosphere that the regular show has – after all, there’s a reason the format evolved to have hundreds of people watching live in the first place.

And while viewers at home might be sympathetic to this change at first (as they were with the home-filmed HIGNFY), as time goes on there’s no getting away from the fact that all you’re doing is watching an inferior version of the usual show. Who wouldn’t rather catch a rerun on Dave?

Of course, there are a few possible solutions. Reportedly, Strictly Come Dancing is considering swapping its packed auditorium seating for an audience spread out among a series of small tables (a distribution used in its earlier series anyway), meaning they can maintain a safe viewing environment without sacrificing the ballroom atmosphere.

Elsewhere, Romesh Ranganathan’s garage-filmed The Ranganation managed to maintain a little of its usual vibe by sheer force of format, which sees 25 guests join the comedian to discuss the week’s top stories. Just by dint of having a large number of guests dialled in to react to and laugh at the gags, a little of that studio audience aura was preserved.

Hopefully, TV production maestros have been watching with a keen eye to work out how they can use innovative techniques to recreate the ineffable feel of a live crowd, laughing and enjoying the fun. Personally, I worry we’ll just be seeing comedians laughing awkwardly in a huge, echoey space for months to come when these long-lead panel shows return.

If rumours of a new Would I Lie to You? series are true, I sincerely hope they do more than rely on some uproarious chuckling from Lee Mack, David Mitchell and Rob Brydon to mask the deathly quiet surrounding the set. No one can laugh hard enough to drown out the silence 600 people leave behind.

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QI airs on BBC Two on Thursdays at 9pm – check out what else is on with our TV Guide