May 17th, 2006

Medusa Roman Painting

Fry's Impish Delight

The strangest thing about going to the recording of QI was getting into the studio. There was something slightly surreal about queueing by a wall which was like a kind of Kwik-Save No Frills version of Grauman's Chinese Theatre. Brass moulds of the hands of various TV 'celebrities' thrust beseechingly out of the kind of wall plaques that normally sport the words "Dunroamin'. The only ones I'd heard of were Ant & Dec and Graham Norton. Who or what is Fiona Philips? The internal staircase was lined with framed technicolour posters of the likes of Des O'Connor, orange-skinned and leering trippily.

The surreality of the experience was intensified by the presence of some poor benighted Equity card holder dressed as Pudsey Bear, who was obliged to be recorded in various poses because the episode we watched will be broadcast on Children in Need night (17th November). There was an oddness about these bits of filming, and the recording of some of the factual corrections at the end. The floor manager - and Fry himself, charmingly, - gave the impression that it was rather tiresome and beneath us all but had to be done for the benefits of the TV audience. Of course, if we hadn't been part of that TV audience we wouldn't have been there in the first place. It was entirely unlike the willing suspension of disbelief in the theatre, at once alienating and strangely inclusive, because we were being allowed access to in-jokes that are usually concealed from us.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the scathing references to Children in Need. Of course it is almost a cliche now to refer to it as a means of allowing B and C listers to revive their flatlined careers in the name of charidee, but Phil Jupitus and Alan Davies were particularly - and wittily - sarcastic about it. The American Rich Hall wasn't; he spent much of the show in a state of incomprehension, having no idea who Pudsey, the Clangers or Terry Wogan actually were. His interventions were consequently rare, but always hilarious - and original.

I have to confess I was terribly disappointed that the fourth contenstant was Jonathan Dross. I used him to find him quite funny, endearing even, but as his salary and profile have increased he has become ever more smug and lazy, lapsing into a tired parody of his former persona. Even his reference to himself being 'dressed like a cunt' seemed rehearsed and formulaic - 'this is me in self-mocking mode' - made evident in the way he checked the audience's reaction to the line. Also, unlike the other contestants, he pitched comments directly to camera. Perhaps I am being unfair and this was merely evidence of that he is a consummate professional and not a self-important wanker.

Dross tended to dominate the discussions, sometimes because he knew a great deal about the topic - e.g. Marvel Comics - which he expounded on at such self-indulgent length that I could only just restrain myself from heckling by concentrating on Rich Hall's face glazing over in a pantomime of near-despair. Listening to the comments of a couple of other audience members on the way out I wasn't the only one who felt like this. He also made a series of ever more smutty asides and interventions, many of which were merely vulgar and crass rather than funny. It was really not a good idea on the part of the producers to put him on the same stage as Stephen Fry. Fry made one or two outrageously rude jokes - including repeating a 70s classic about Bonnie Langford - but the completely unaffected bashfulness with which he delivered them was what made them so very funny. Fry was always witty, urbane, insightful. He was charmingly apologetic when he misapprehended something or made a mistake, as though he believed he had somehow let his audience down. He always seems to be utterly himself; I imagine if I happened to meet him on a train or get stuck in a lift with him he would be just as he on TV or in his books because he is so completely genuine. That sincerity and modesty is why he is held in such deep public affection. This is why he proved such an unfortunate foil to Dross, whose carefully manfufactured post-modern Jack-the-Lad persona didn't stand up to sustained and uncensored scrutiny; as a comedian he reveals himself to be the natural heir to Jim Davidson or Frank Carson.

Many of the most enjoyable jokes, especially the mockery of Children in Need, will be lost to the cutting room floor. I will definitely make a point of watching the programme when it is broadcast to see how much is lost - and to examine how different Dross may seem when the worst of his wankerishness is edited out.