There are batons and there are batons. And as passing the baton goes, Stephen Fry handing over QI after 13 years in charge is a big, chunky baton with splinters sticking out for whoever grabs it.
Fry was QI. The show is so steeped in his love of obscure knowledge and naughty humour that when it was announced last year he was stepping down after 13 series, it felt like one of those wrong-answer klaxon-blaring moments.
But it was fine, because Sandi Toksvig was taking over and that made perfect sense. Toksvig has appeared on the show as a guest (16 times) and knows its foibles. What’s more, she is also large of brain and naughty of humour.
So the good news is that in tonight’s first episode, Toksvig takes over the reins just as deftly and seamlessly as you would expect of someone with her experience (she chaired The News Quiz for nearly a decade on Radio 4.)
It’s true, the show feels the tiniest bit strained to begin with, not surprisingly. But with the help of some comedy bird-whistles they soon break the ice, and Phill Jupitus, Cariad Lloyd and Romesh Ranganathan get into their stride talking about ‘chimney-sweep’s scrotum’ (a genuine disease, apparently) the origins of the word ‘quiz’ and who exactly it was who sold seashells on the seashore.
Toksvig has something else in common with Fry: he could sometimes project the air of a schoolmaster – benign but occasionally disappointed in his unruly pupils – and Toksvig is much the same.
In the second episode of this series, things start to get out of hand between Rhod Gilbert and Alan Davies and Toksvig gets very slightly stern and headmistressy. (It doesn’t help that Gilbert keeps getting Denmark and Norway mixed up: Toksvig is Danish) A panel show presenter can’t let a show run away from them and she knows when to give her charges a comic clip round the ear.
The trouble is, if pushed, I would say – and this is not sacrilege, bear with me – that in recent series, even under Fry’s tutelage, QI has gone very slightly off the boil, as long-running panel games will. A slight shake-up to the format might be just what it needs.
Bear in mind the current format wasn’t the first idea anyway. Originally it was pitched as a show with Fry and Davies as captains of rival teams (the Cleverclogs and the Dunderheads) with Michael Palin as the chairman. What a different show that might have been.