John Lloyd: In conversation
Those of you who remember ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ (BBC 1979 -83), ‘Spitting Image’ (ITV 1984 -96) and the ‘The Blackadder’ sitcom series (BBC 1983-89) may not realise what these shows had in common. Well, all of them were originally produced by John Lloyd who went on to make some of the most important comedy shows in the decade. More recently he was the inventor of ‘QI’ (BBC 2003 to present) starring Stephen Fry and Alan Davies. Lloyd made some interesting insights while sitting down in front of a keen audience to discuss these programmes and his career, as a guest of the Royal Television Society.
Despite the success, Lloyd insists he ‘does not know how comedy works’, therefore refuses to be honoured by Universities as a Professor of Comedy and prefers the title Professor of Ignorance, which he refers to himself in his current BBC radio show ‘Museum of Curiosity’ (2008 – present)
In conversation, he said ‘It’s hard to define what laughter actually is and how to come by it’. Some of Lloyd’s contemporaries and seasoned comedy writers feel the same way. While working for the BBC in the sixties writers Denis Norden & Frank Muir once introduced themselves to Mel Brookes as comedy consultants. Brookes turned to them and said ‘You mean you know?’
It was once said of Impresario and TV mogul Lew Grade (1906 -1998), he was a great recogniser of talent and to some extent so is Lloyd who put together unknowns such as Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith for ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ and had the idea for ‘QI’. On seeing the ‘Spitting Image’ puppets for the first time he admitted ‘I really wanted to do the show’. He would have done anything to become the producer of the series such was the recognition in his mind, with what comedically could be achieved. To that extent, Lloyd having his own writing career, had a reputation of being very demanding and hard on writers, knowing in his mind where the programme needed to go.
He insists on ‘not being arrogant’ but having ‘faith in his own judgement. I know what I like and want to make it’. The first series of ‘‘Blackadder’ and ‘Spitting Image’ were not successful. Lloyd needed to fight internally within the organisations to make changes and get a second series, he confirmed ‘If you’re doing something different it takes time’. One of the things he was most proud of was the final ending of ‘Blackadder’ and how it all came together leaving the audience and the cast rather emotional with the now famous poppy scene.
In his interview, John Lloyd is remarkably honest and that’s how he likes his comedy ‘truthful’. With that ingredient comedy stands a chance. In sit-com, he advocates that character is the greatest factor, then the situation, where are they, then come the jokes. Lloyd displays another quality, may be the most important which is persistence and drive. Attributes very much needed for a successful career in the media.
He recalled pitching ‘QI’ to TV executive Lorraine Heggessey as ‘Mastermind’ meets ‘Have I Got news for you’. She struggled to get the concept and so did his best friend Clive Anderson. One would feel the towel might be thrown in at this point, but not Lloyd. So, through more TV struggle and hell he eventually got a pilot, the rest is TV history. ‘QI’ has now been successfully running for 14 years’. John believes the programme is made for ordinary people. ’13 year olds love it as it tells them things they don’t learn in class’. Although doing well, the show like many others is struggling with the ridiculous production schedules now being asked in modern day TV. This was one of the reasons Stephen Fry left the show. Alan Davies recently revealed such budget cuts made Fry feel “overworked”. Stephen was having to do “three shows in 24 hours”. Sometimes he’d go upstairs and have a vodka and tonic and a lie down then come back and say: “I don’t want to do this:”‘ His replacement Sandi Tosvig who has presented the ‘The News Quiz’ (BBC Radio) has all the career qualifications to take over Fry’s mantle. These heavy TV schedules didn’t exist when Lloyd was at his creative peak. There was more freedom. In that context, he felt Netflix are probably the only people currently giving money to make programmes. ‘The BBC try to control everything’ he added.
Lloyd went to Cambridge University to become a Lawyer, but then discovered the ‘Footlights’, which is a famous theatre & revue group which has produced performers such as John Cleese, Eric Idle, Peter Cook, Clive Anderson, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Sue Perkins among many others. The ‘Cambridge Footlights’ had regular sell out shows at the Edinburgh Festival. It was there he met Douglas Adams (1952-2001) who went on to create and write ‘Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy’ first produced on radio (1978-1980), then a TV series (1981), book(1979) and a film (2005). John wrote the first radio series with him until he was ‘sacked by my best friend Adams’. But this got him started in Radio where he cut his teeth making over 500 radio shows. ‘It’s a brilliant way to train for TV’ he insists, making the point with radio, you ‘can’t get away without content. In TV, you can use visuals, fancy shots and pyrotechnics. But in radio it is the material that completely drives the show’.
John thought TV would offer him something but nothing was forthcoming. So, he plucked up the courage to go and see the BBC Head of Light Entertainment He was greeted with the line ‘What kept you?’ In other words, they knew his work but were not going to chase him, but they did have a project, which in time turned into one of the most successful sketch shows.
Lloyd’s creative premise in developing ‘‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ was to try and get away from what was being already done sketch wise on the screen. This was being dominated by ‘The Two Ronnies’ and impressionist shows such as ‘Mike Yarwood in Persons’ which he wanted to get away from. He asked himself a question ‘What’s not on telly .. that I would like to see ?’ Then through a long collaborative process ‘Not the Nine’ was developed which ‘brought things up to date, made it real’, something he felt other sketch shows at the time did not have. He went on ‘when I first saw ‘The Young Ones’ it was a revelation to see a flat just like the one I lived in’.
The impact of ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ was massive winning the Silver Rose of Montreux, gaining a regular 17 million viewers with a cult following. Three vinyl albums were released the first two making the top ten of the UK Album charts a rare feat for a spoken word album. John recalls ‘Abba was number one, then ‘Not the Nine’ followed by ‘The Police’ (Sting)’.
John Lloyd is in demand for corporate speaking and does sessions on creative thinking working with leading organisations through private sessions, workshops and speeches.
Matthew Willetts MA is the Director of Comicus who has over 35 years experience in television, film, theatre, and comedy club/cabaret entertainment, working as a performer, screenwriter, producer and agent. He lectured at Southampton Solent University in Comedy, Screenwriting, Television, Theatre & Radio. Matthew can sometimes be seen and heard on TV & Radio and often quoted in the national press and media publications. As well as speaking regularly at festivals and industry conferences, he has been a judge at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Montreux Television Festival.