As broadcaster and comedian Sandi Toksvig gears up for a new series of BBC’s QI, she talks to Tom Browne about comedy, politics—and the surprising joys of Angel Delight.

Down a small side street in London’s Covent Garden, QI headquarters is everything you expect it to be: cosy, welcoming and brimming with knowledge. As I settle into a comfy sofa, I notice that the walls are lined with books containing facts and trivia (including, I’m pleased to report, the Reader’s Digest Library of Modern Knowledge). It’s like someone has tried to cram all the world’s wisdom into a single room.

After a few moments Sandi Toksvig comes bustling in, chatting to the staff about potential lunch venues, and we immediately fall into a discussion about favourite restaurants. There’s a refreshing lack of formality about Sandi, and her conversation is full of anecdotes and amusing asides (when I remark on her Fitbit exercise tracker, she replies, “I’m going to invent something called a Witbit—every 100 steps you get a laugh”).

Read the outtakes from our interview with Sandi Toksvig

This, of course, makes her the perfect new host of QI, the BBC’s addictive general knowledge quiz, which is back on our screens this month. Sandi has previously taken over from the late Simon Hoggart on Radio 4’s The News Quiz and from William G Stewart on Channel 4’s 15 to 1, and charmingly describes herself as “the takeover queen”.

Was this good preparation for stepping into Stephen Fry’s shoes after 13 years? “I don’t know, darling,” she says, using a term of endearment that comes very naturally. “You can’t worry about what’s gone before. It’s not like the BBC are now paying by the inch, so they got a shorter host. You can only be yourself.” There’s no doubt, however, that Sandi feels entirely at home in the QI universe.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” she says, grinning broadly. “It’s like somebody crafted a show featuring all the things I’ve been working towards. I’ve hosted lots of things, I’ve been a guest on lots of things, I like arcane knowledge, I like doing fast banter, and somebody decided to put it all in one show for me. Very kind of them.”

 

 

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had” 

 

 

Sandi certainly gives the polymathic Stephen Fry a run for his money, and she has a similar bubbling enthusiasm. Her musical selections in a recent episode of Desert Island Discs were described as “chock-full of joy”, and she’s confessed in the past to not understanding the concept of boredom. “Look at this room, darling, look at this room!” she exclaims when I raise the subject.

“Have you read all these books? How could anybody get bored when all this is available? Then there are the people I haven’t met, the places I haven’t been, the food I haven’t tried. I was in the greengrocers earlier and they had these little miniature pears called bambinella. They’re like pears but baby ones, like doll’s house pears. They’re absolutely delicious and I’d never even heard of them.”

It’s easy to be seduced by Sandi’s good humour and sense of fun, but it goes hand-in-hand with an intensely serious side. Having originally studied to be a human-rights lawyer, she’s the patron of several charities and has campaigned for numerous issues down the years, culminating in the setting up of the Women’s Equality Party last year with journalist Catherine Mayer. “Every year I host a concert at the Royal Festival Hall on International Women’s Day,” she says, discussing the origins of the party.

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“On this occasion, I was giving a lecture on one of the suffragettes and there was a big picture of her looking down on me. As I looked up, I suddenly thought, Oh, the job’s not done. You’d be ashamed of me. I feel that really strongly. Forty-six years after the Equal Pay Act, we still don’t have equal pay. The representation of women in the Brexit debate—whatever side you were on—was a disgrace. It was a conversation between white men, debating what was going to happen. And then, the minute it happened, the white men in charge ran away and left the woman in charge!”

Branding the level of debate within the two main parties “childish and disgraceful”, it’s clear that Sandi wants a more imaginative, engaged and consensual politics. “The House of Commons itself is a very interesting metaphor at the moment. The building is riddled with rot and asbestos and needs closing down. It would be very interesting if the move was made into a round chamber, so things were no longer entirely oppositional and partisan. I’d like us to look at many more disparate views, rather than this constant ‘me against you’. Denmark is a good example,” she continues, harking back to her country of birth.

“We have a long history of coalition politics, and I think it brings forward more reasoned debate. I’d love a politician in this country to say, ‘The person on the opposition bench makes a very good point.’ Why not say that? Why not have a moment of co-operation?” The Women’s Equality Party has made the running on this by urging other political parties to steal its policies and incorporate them into their own manifestos.

“Absolutely, help yourself,” says Sandi, smiling again. “Jeremy Corbyn has started talking about the gender pay gap, and we’ve also challenged Theresa May to do something about it in her first 100 days in office. So crack on.”

Of course, the issue of gender is just as relevant in broadcasting and particularly the male dominance of TV panel shows, with which Sandi is all too familiar. “It’s a tough game,” she agrees. “It’s testosterone-fuelled and combative, and you have to be a particular kind of woman to stand up to it. It makes a lot of them feel anxious. Women generally have a different style.

 

“The training for stand-up comedy is late-night clubs in front of drunks. Most women would rather be at home"
 

 

If there’s somebody telling a joke at a dinner party, it’ll nearly always be a bloke. Woman don’t tend to occupy those places socially. “You have to remember that the training for stand-up comedy is late-night clubs in front of drunks, and most women would frankly rather be at home. In the early years, I’d be stood on stage and immediately some bloke would shout, ‘Show us your tits!’

When I did [Channel 4 comedy-improv show] Who’s Line Is It Anyway?, you’d ask the audience to shout out an unusual occupation and always, without fail, some guy would shout back, ‘Gynaecologist!’ and think it was really hilarious. You need to be a certain sort of woman to come through that.” Sandi’s own life experiences have given her a thick skin too.

Married to psychotherapist Debbie and with three children in their twenties, her current life is a model of happiness—so it’s easy to forget that she feared for her career when she came out as gay in 1994. Now that same-sex couples are able to get married, does she think that society is more tolerant? “Yes and no."

"One of the wonderful things about being in the public eye is that people feel as if they know me, so they will confide in me very quickly or write to me. So I’m totally aware of the continuing existence of huge amounts of homophobia. It’d be nice to say, ‘Got married, job done, love triumphs,’ but there are people who have real issues within their family or in their workplace, and homophobic bullying in schools is still a real problem."

"But it’s much better now, no question. I get far fewer death threats than I used to.” I ask her how serious these death threats were, which immediately prompts speculation as to what an “unserious death threat” might sound like. “Probably something like, ‘I’m going to kill you, but I’m going to do it with blancmange’ ”, suggests Sandi, laughing uproariously. “Death by blancmange—I like that. Nobody has blancmange anymore.”

Amusingly, this segues straight into a chat about the joys of old-fashioned puddings. “Do you know that you can make Angel Delight explode,” says Sandi with glee, as we’re wrapping up. “It’s brilliant fun, but maybe do it in the garden. Get some Angel Delight and a tealight. Light the tealight, stand on a chair and sprinkle the Angel Delight from above. Boom!” A chat with Sandi Toksvig, it seems, has something for everyone.

 

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