You’re on the 17th series of The Museum of Curiosity and the 21st of QI. Why the switch from satire?
I produced topical radio and television comedy for 15 years and left Spitting Image in 1987 with a broken heart. I was 36 years old but felt 90. Satire is for young people who think they know the answers. It doesn’t make you happy and it doesn’t change anything. By contrast, I commend this quote from Merlin in TH White’s The Once and Future King: “The best thing for being sad is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then – to learn.”
What would you donate to The Museum of Curiosity?
Consciousness. Omnipresent and eternal, dimensionless and weightless, it’s easy to pop on a plinth and needs no cleaning. It’s the most interesting phenomenon in the Universe and probably the only one that is actually real.
Your ideal three guests, from any period?
Socrates, who was rated the wisest man in Athens by the Oracle at Delphi. He said it was because he was the only person in the city who knew he didn’t really know anything. Carl Jung, who died in 1961, the year I was sent to boarding school. I have a theory that, if he had swapped places with Newton and been born in 1642, we would have solved the problems of the human mind by now, instead of just been good at fixing physical things. Tallulah Bankhead, for light relief. A man once rushed up to her and yelled “My, God, Tallulah, I haven’t seen you for 40 years!” She turned to him with an icy stare and hissed, “I thought I told you to wait in the car…”
You can’t beat Amsterdam. The majestic Rijksmuseum and the unfailingly inspiring Van Gogh Museum. Then there are Rembrandt’s and Anne Frank’s houses, both terribly moving in different ways, and my favourite, the city museum, showing how the city developed over the centuries. I’d be happy to retire there, just endlessly going round each one on a bicycle, with a bottle of beer and a bag of bitterballen.
Most interesting facts you’ve learnt this month?
The odds of being attacked by a grizzly bear in a US National Park are one in 2.7m, the same as dying from chickenpox. The UK’s largest turnip farmer used to operate in Thérèse Coffey’s constituency but gave up months before she said we should all eat them. Whispering bats emit shrieks as loud as chainsaws or leaf blowers but are too high-pitched for us to hear. Britain is currently ranked 29th in global life expectancy, down from 7th in 1952.
Your best idea for a show that wasn’t commissioned?
In 1993, I put together a bid for the world’s first 24-hour radio comedy station. It was called Radio Barking. We signed up 100 comedians and raised £4m in cash. With Douglas Adams of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Chris Donald, the original editor of Viz magazine, we wrote a week’s programme schedule designed to look like an entry in Radio Times. The Radio Authority said it was the best application for a franchise they’d ever seen but refused to grant us a licence. They said, “You can write a pitch, but what’s the guarantee you can run a radio station?” I said, “Well, the competition can’t even write a decent brochure…” So they said, “If it’s such a good idea, how come no one’s ever thought of it before?” I riposted: “You mean like the laser or the helicopter?” Of the long list of my failed projects, Radio Barking is the one my wife Sarah says she really regrets.
How do you maintain your sense of wonder in a gloomy world?
I’m continually astonished by everything and it’s baffling to me that most people don’t seem to feel the same way. As for gloom, I find it helps to bear in mind the ancient Persian Sufi saying, “This too shall pass”. I learned long ago that you cannot change another person, you can only change yourself. So I’m working away on me. It’s a full-time job. What the others are doing is none of my business.
Who’s the best quizmaster?
From personal experience, I have to award this jointly to Stephen Fry and Sandi Toksvig, the King and Queen of Interestingness. They have both been a joy. But I’ll always have a particular affection for Bamber Gascoigne, the original host of University Challenge, which started the year after Carl Jung died.
This issue is themed around cities. Which do you love most?
Impossible to choose: New York for its energy; Venice for its mystery; Istanbul for its history; Stockholm for its beauty; Rome for its cuisine; Paris for its charm; Melbourne for its vibrancy; Reykjavik for its bars; Copenhagen for its freshness; London because it’s home.
Favourite urban architect?
I’ve always liked the boldness of Richard Rogers – particularly the Lloyd’s building in London and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. His style inspired his Spitting Image puppet, which had all its internal organs on the outside.
Which politician would you allow into your nuclear bunker?
Politicians I have met and really liked include Kenneth Clarke, Shirley Williams and David Owen. Plus, if they can be revived for Armageddon, I’d like to invite Pericles, FDR and Queen Victoria.
Which comedians have been your biggest influences?
We didn’t have a television until I was ten. I grew up with radio. So top of my list would be Kenneth Horne, supported by Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee and their genius writers, Marty Feldman and my old friend Barry Took. Barry went on to commission Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which was the big TV comedy show when I was a student. When I turned professional, they were a huge influence, but in a negative way. On Not The Nine O’Clock News, we continually asked ourselves, “What would the Pythons do?” and then tried to do the opposite.
Your thoughts on Charles III?
Humble and loyal. I wish His Majesty well and am very sorry about his puppet.