Quite interesting chaps: TV's Qi comes to the Cornbury Festival
PUBLISHED: 19:09 24 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:36 20 February 2013
Kate Jarratt catches up with the founders of TV's 'Qi' and Great Tew residents John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, and finds out what treats they have in store for this year's Cornbury Festival
Quite Interesting chaps
Kate Jarratt catches up with the founders of TVs QI and Great Tew residents John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, and finds out what treats they have in store for this years Cornbury Festival. Photography by Shaun Thompson
The village of Great Tew was originally famous for housing The Great Tew Circle in the 1600s, a group of intellectuals including Ben Jonson who completely re-wrote the political constitution of Britain. Since then it has had a rather eccentric history. Having fallen into epic disrepair and existed in a derelict, Pompeii-style time warp until the 1950s, the village was saved by Major Eustace Robb, a distant ancestor of the original owner. After tireless work he reformed it and turned the village into what it is today - the ultimate countryside idyll - with people falling over themselves to get their hands on the prized real estate. However, Great Tew is not your average Cotswold capital for commuting bankers, part-time smallholders or yummy mummies (although there are some,) but a village for real born-and-bred country folk. This year, it enters a new wave now that The Cornbury Festival has been relocated to the Great Tew Estate, and the village is preparing to put its own stamp on the proceedings. And, quite interestingly, a couple of locals are about to play their part.
John Lloyd and John Mitchinson, the founding fathers of Quite Interesting Ltd - the books, the TV show and at one time, the members club - are inextricably connected with Great Tew, having lived there for over twenty years between them. They formed the concept behind the BAFTA-award nominated BBC programme QI, a decade ago in the village pub, The Falkland Arms. I like to think we are the next Great Tew Circle, says John Mitchinson, with more than a hint of irony, even though were still considered in comers to the village as we havent been around long enough! John Mitchinson grew up as the son of a vicar in Banbury, who went to Oxford University. Despite his glittering career in publishing (he worked in senior management for Waterstones and Orion) he has lived and worked in the village for the last 15 years as the Head of Research for QI, as well as a pig farmer and chair of the Parish Council. This village just inhabits you, he says. Its the sort of place you come to and feel much better for having been here. Holding the title Head of Research for QI doesnt come without high expectations and John doesnt disappoint: I believe that Great Tew was around before the Doomsday Book. Ive found a lot of flint in the fields around here and I think it was a very large settlement - much bigger than it is today and what the history books tell us.
John Lloyd, producer of Blackadder, Not The Nine OClock News and Spitting Image has a rather different story of how he came across the village. Having had a hugely successful media career in London as a BBC Producer in the 1980s, he used Great Tew as the ultimate retreat from the hubbub of life in the city, then moved to the village to bring up his family. John Mitchinson (JM, as he will now be called) currently lives only two doors away from the pub and is sitting, smugly with a pint, on one of the old 15th century benches in The Falkland Arms while locals mill around him. John Lloyd (JL) on the other hand, now lives near Wallingford and is presently careering down the M40, late to our interview because, the night before, the QI show had premiered its I series. He arrives looking ruffled and stressed. Ive just driven two and a half hours from London to get here, he says, but Im so pleased to be back in Great Tew.
As JL unruffles and settles down with a pint of The Falklands finest Lily The Pink ale, the story of how they came to meet and their relationship with the village begins to unfold. I had been going out with Helen Fielding, says JL, and we used to come to Great Tew as an idyllic place at the weekends to escape London and bring our friends, Stephen (Fry), Ben (Elton) and Harry (Enfield.) It was a horrendously funny time. We used to get loads of food in, have big dinner parties, massive Sunday lunches, roll over to the pub for three pints, then roll back and laugh until we were sick, he recalls. Then one Christmas we came here and it was fantastic. But Helen gave me the sack on New Years Eve. Its amazing I overcame that. In reaction, I spontaneously bought Number 44 to impress Helen so she would come back to me - but she never did.
Like all true locals (and the kind of people who put a stamp on an envelope addressed to just a house name and street,) JM and JL have village speak down to a tee. Throughout the interview they refer to Number 44 and Number 24, as if I know what that means. Helen Fielding did come back a few years ago, interjects JM, provocatively, I saw her in the pub when I was living in the house of frustration. The house of frustration, it turns out, is actually Number 24 Great Tew, which is one of the houses both Johns have swapped between them over the years and where they have brought up their extensive families with their wives Rachel Mitchinson and Sarah Lloyd, (the latter who JL met after getting the sack from Helen Fielding.) The frustrating aspect of Number 24, it seems, was the utter inability to get any personal space there when you had a family of six and you were trying to squeeze them all into a two bedroom thatched cottage. We called it the thatched lift, adds JL.
Nevertheless, if youve been here and youve loved it, its in the blood stream, he continues. JM nods in agreement, I came here a lot when I was growing up in Banbury. I remember when the village was derelict and deserted, my friends and I would come and play in the empty houses. Then you would suddenly hear a gruff voice saying What the hell are you doing here? It would be an old man sitting in the corner and youd realise the house was actually occupied. Rachel and I always kept an eye on the houses here while we lived in London and jumped at the chance to move here when a house came up in 1997. Both Johns married in Great Tew. JL in particular recalls his wedding in the village as one of the best days of (his) life: Sarah and I had owned Number 44 for seven years and were very good friends with the village vicar. We could have got married in the crypt at St Pauls but we chose Great Tew instead. It was a magical day: the guy who did the music for Blackadder did the music for the wedding, we came down the aisle to the Blackadder theme and the whole church burst out laughing. When I heard it, I picked Sarah up in her wedding dress and swung her around in the aisle. Then one of Sarahs mates had put fireworks in the church and suddenly they were exploding all over the village. Some of the old boys in Great Tew appeared with their shotguns because they thought the Germans were back. Thats how much of a time warp this village is!
Both Johns settled in Great Tew to bring up their families, JM continued to work in publishing for Orion and JL became an advertisement producer working alongside Alan Davies for the Alliance & Leicester commercials (because lifes complicated enough.). In the interim between my old life and QI, we were living a very comfortable existence says JL, the children were young, there was money in the bank, I had given up the BBC in 1989 and I had a lot of time on my hands. But the moment came when I had an epiphany alone one day in Number 44 - it was like the top of my head was sawn off and the idea for QI was deposited into my head. Quite Interesting - the belief that everything in the universe is interesting if looked at in the right way. I was so excited I started writing it all down in notebooks. It would be a school, a university subject, a website, documentaries, books, TV programmes, a magazine...
At this point I was about to take a job at Harper Collins, says JM, and John and I had met and really hit it off. After one particularly long, drunken pub session he told me not to take the job and explained the QI concept to me. I asked him whether he knew that kangaroos had three vaginas and other QI facts that Id been researching, enthuses JL. So I rolled home, drunk and said to my wife Sorry, I think Im about to cock our lives up again! laughs JM. People said it would never work. We approached several publishers: first, with the idea for a book - the complete re-writing the Encyclopaedia Britannica with annotations. They didnt buy it. John (Lloyd) was also writing TV treatments at this time with the idea of making a show where there was a clever team, fronted by Stephen Fry, and dunderhead team, led by Alan Davies. Both Stephen and Alan had agreed to do it, but the BBC 1 commissioner wasnt interested. Eventually we took it to BBC 2 and voila - were now on our ninth series with Stephen as the host. And it was all formed over there, says JL as he points in the general direction of a row of chocolate box ironstone cottages in the distance. But the whole thing is that it was never about the television show, it was always a way of living and thinking which was developed here.
Thats why, now the Cornbury Festival is moving to Great Tew Estate this year it would be insane for the two Johns not to be involved. I like the idea of taking QI to the masses, says JM, especially as it can be something interactive. QI will have atent at the festival, which is modelled on the VIP tent, called the QUINP - The Quite Interesting, Nevertheless Important tent, which will be packed full of QI personalities, QI paraphernalia, Quite Interesting facts and of course, the two Johns. At this point the plan is to have alive QI Oracle, where people can come in and ask interesting questions about their lives and a panel of QI guests can answer them, says JL. Its basically an excuse for a great big p*** up, says JM, and we get to watch the bands too!
QI will be at the Cornbury Festival this Summer from July 1-3, www.cornburyfestival.com. Ticket sales hotline: 0844 338 0000.
1. Where is your favourite place to work? JM: On the toilet, of course. I have my best ideas on the toilet, as its the only place I ever get a moment to think! JL: Hes got four kids, what did you expect?! For me, its anywhere with books and late at night. Im an insomniac.
2. What has been your favourite QI fact? JM: When John and I first met he told me that when they first invented basketball it took them 21 years to work out they should put a hole in the net. JL: Yes, that was a good one. Then there was the whole thing about barnacles having the largest penises in proportion to their size
3. Which do you think are the best of the QI books? JL: The Book of General Ignorance took the longest to write, but then it was a bestseller. It was printed in 29 languages and was the fourth bestselling book of all time on Amazon, so it must be the best!
4. What sort of music do you like? JM: I was the lead singer in a band called the Chartered Accountants when I was younger. I love that you can be in a band without any real talent. These days I can always pick the hit. I listen to Tiny Tempah on the radio and I think I can tell the kids will love this, its cute! JL: My taste is ridiculously eclectic. Baroque to Vivaldis Gloria (which was played at my youngest daughters confirmation last weekend,) reggae and blues, world music, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy...
5. Who are you looking forward to seeing play at Cornbury Festival? JL: Ray Davies is a genius, I always loved The Kinks. And theres nothing wrong with a bit of Status Quo! JM: He does love The Kinks! As for me - Wilko Johnson, I love how he played like he was being constantly electrocuted when he was in Dr Feelgood.