How interesting: 'QI' is surprise Christmas hit

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The Independent Culture

Not all the critics were convinced when Stephen Fry began hosting QI, a kind of posh and severely eccentric pub quiz on BBC2.

A TV executive even telephoned the producers to request the removal of a question on the painter Caravaggio from the first programme four years ago, fearing it was too difficult.

But despite criticisms that QI ("Quite Interesting") was a radio show masquerading as television and was too clever for its own good, ratings have risen with every series and some recent editions have attracted more than 3 million viewers - 4 million if Saturday's repeat is taken into account. Research has shown that 16-34-year-olds thought it the best show on BBC2.

And now The Book of General Ignorance, written by the show's creator, John Lloyd, with John Mitchinson on the back of the TV hit looks set to be one of this Christmas's favourite stocking fillers with publisher Faber and Faber having already reprinted eight times.

It is in second place on Amazon UK's bestseller list, behind the scientific trivia tome Why Don't Penguins' Feet Freeze?, and has been tipped by The Bookseller magazine for success.

Lloyd, who has produced shows such as Blackadder and Spitting Image, hailed the public enthusiasm for the esoteric trivia of QI as deeply heartening.

"The educated classes have suffered a terrible loss of nerve, that it's somehow not democratic to know stuff and that somehow it's not done to say Beethoven is a more interesting musician than Oasis," he said.

"But my stance in life is that the average person is a great deal more intelligent and has a much more acute sense of humour and knows a lot more stuff than the media gives them credit for."

The defining feature of QI is that Fry sets his unruly guests, led by the comedian Alan Davies, almost impossible questions on anything from koala bears' fingerprints to Pliny the Elder and rewards answers according to how interesting they are.

In particular, the show debunks commonly accepted "facts" - such as that Nelson wore an eye-patch (He didn't).

The show stemmed from Lloyd's mid-life crisis. "As a result of being underemployed and overpaid shooting commercials, I had too much time to think and started reading and almost everything I thought I knew wasn't true," he said.

Faber is already working with Lloyd and Mitchinson on a follow-up, The Book of Animal Ignorance, which will include facts on creatures from aardvarks to zebras.

The Book of General Ignorance has been sold in a two-book, six-figure deal to the US. Julian Loose, the editorial director at Faber, saw off competition from four other publishers to win the rights. "I am thrilled we are now spreading ignorance around the world," he said.

Mitchinson, who runs the QI bookshop in Oxford, said the "halo effect" of Fry and television success was helping the business.

"But we do feel that we're hooking on to something that's a little deeper than the usual story - that everyone loves trivia. Interestingness is what we try to do. There are few programmes on television, albeit lighthearted, about sub-atomic particles or the universe or the sex life of the barnacle," he added.

Joel Rickett, deputy editor of The Bookseller, said: "There has been a lot of copycat publishing since Ben Schott but what is nice about QI is it's an intelligent riposte to some of the stuff that is swilling around the charts."