John Lloyd – In Conversation

Beginning his entertainment career in 1974 as a radio producer at the BBC, producer and executive John Lloyd joined the corporation in arguably a golden period for entertainment. Surrounded by pioneers of television production such as Hugh Carlton-Greene, Bill Cotton and David Croft, the BBC still occupied a very significant place in the psyche of the nation and it was a huge honour to work in such a revered establishment. It was here that John realised how significant the BBC was to the functioning of the country and reinforced his passion for programme making. One of the first radio programmes which fell under his radar was Radio 4’s News Quiz which was first broadcast in 1977 and provided inspiration for the heavyweight panel show Have I Got News For You over a decade later. Yet during the mid seventies TV seemed far removed from the social revolution which was taking place amongst John’s demographic and the comedy output of the time was unable to reflect the underground cultural revolution which was taking place.

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Just five years later, John was invited to the opening night of The Comedy Store in May 1979 for what we now know as the birthplace of Alternative Comedy. Being the same generation as Rik and Ade and co, John shared the same desires as the performers he was watching. Yet as a BBC representative, he represented the establishment which they were rebelling against. This was a difficult concept for John to get his head around as despite owning a BBC staff pass, he felt more of a bond with the clientele of the Comedy Store than the conservative executives at the BBC. Finally this was the Britain that John recognised and he knew that there was a whole audience out there who would feel the same. Once this was reiterated to the performers involved, Lloyd became a significant player in the development of Alternative Comedy and set the wheels in motion to transform such a growing phenomenon from a small theatre above a strip club to the bedrock of TV Light Entertainment.


1979 was a pivotal year for Britain: the landslide conservative election spearheaded by Margaret Thatcher, mass unemployment and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten had all left an indelible mark on the history of the nation. Yet a decade after the birth of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, there had been little comedy to challenge the popular formula which all family comedy had been based. This was all about to change as on the 16th October 1979, BBC2 broadcast a sketch show which rebelled against and satirised the fixed concepts in which TV comedy found itself. Surviving for twenty-seven episodes on BBC2, Not The Nine O’Clock News starred a group of TV newcomers Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones as they took the sketch show to a new dimension. Suddenly, this was a show made by young people for young people and John was proud to have the opportunity to put it all together.


Despite having such a pivotal contribution to Alternative Comedy, John has always had the unique ability to cater for different audiences. In 1979 together with long time friend Peter Spence, John wrote a pilot for a new sitcom. As a writer, John finds it incredibly difficult to collaborate with a fellow writer yet having known Spence for a long time he persevered with the script. On completion, the pair took a gamble and sent it to Penelope Keith who was then one of the biggest stars on TV thanks to her portrayal of the ladder climbing Margot Leadbetter in The Good Life. To John’s disbelief, Penelope loved the script and this proved a great advantage when pitching it to the BBC. A pilot was commissioned which meant John and Peter were forced to collaborate again on a script which proved successful and a series followed. Unfortunately John relinquished his writing role on the series and left the show in the capable hands of Peter Spence who took the sitcom to new heights and saw the highest viewing figures for a situation comedy as the public fell in love with the dysfunctional relationship between Audrey Forbes-Hamilton and Richard DeVere. Despite stepping away from the sitcom after the first series, John remains extremely proud of his contribution to the show and forty years later the show remains beloved by the nation.


After conquering the mainstream sitcom, John was on the lookout for a new challenge and reconnected with Not The Nine O’Clock News contributor Richard Curtis who had developed an idea for a historical sitcom. In 1983 the BBC commissioned a time travelling sitcom from the mind of Curtis starring Rowan Atkinson as the blithering buffoon Edmund Blackadder as he attempts to increase his social standing and impress his father; Richard IV. Torn apart by the critics, the BBC promptly cancelled the series. Yet John was adamant that the sitcom had legs and cameos from the likes of Peter Cook had cemented its quality. Young Ones writer Ben Elton was therefore drafted in to collaborate with Curtis on the new series which Lloyd persuaded the BBC to commission. Out went the over elaborate budget, Rowan’s bumbling oaf routine and in came the pomposity of Basil Fawlty with the historical context of El Cid as the sitcom was swept into the Middle Ages. This time it worked!


As producer, John was forced to act as the voice of reason between Curtis and Elton’s creative differences. Having such a prescriptive process which meant the pair insisted on writing separately on each episode, it fell to John to act as the moderator. On occasions this would test his patience to the maximum as the pair would constantly challenge nearly each and every line of dialogue. Both creative perfectionists who were looking to gauge the series just right, Richard and Ben took a while to agree on anything but John recognised that when they eventually decided on the quality of the script, it would always be to the highest standard. Most of the cast were highly experienced and talented writers in their own right and this became an added benefit on production. Rowan Atkinson himself had co-written the first series with Richard Curtis so had been influential to every stage in the development of Edmund Blackadder so now as an actor, had more of an insight when it came to nailing the character. This had a direct impact on Blackadder’s future success, making it one of Britain’s finest sitcoms.


Not content with merely revolutionising the British sitcom, in 1984 John swapped sides to ITV with the mission of updating the satirical sketch show for eighties Britain. It had been two decades since David Frost had spearheaded the television satire movement with the seminal That Was The Week That Was and now creators Peter Fluck, Roger Law and Martin Lambie-Narn had a vision to move the genre forward. For this the trio were inspired by the ancient art of Punch and Judy shows and cartoonists of the eighteenth century and this had a dominant influence on the style of the puppets. They were baldy, ugly and in some circumstances totally outrageous which all contributed to the anarchy of the series and provided the perfect device to disguise explicit material which would have likely been banned if they were said by a human. Yet because such outrageous content was coming from the mouths of rubber puppets, Spitting Image had the ability to push the boundaries of comedy and elude to things that no other comedy could. 


Spitting Image bid farewell to ITV in 1996 which left John to contemplate other ventures away from television. By this time he had been working in comedy for over twenty years and was looking for a change. In fact Lloyd assumed that his days as a TV executive were over until 2003 when a friendly debate encouraged John to have a brainwave. It occurred to him that there were pieces of information that nearly everyone thought were factually correct but yet were frequently disproved by science. Having already had a hand in penning formats for two panel shows; The News Quiz and Have I Got News For You, John set about attempting to find a format that would suit information which challenges what we think is right. First broadcast on Thursday 11th September 2003, QI set to test celebrities ‘general ignorance’ as Stephen Fry worked through the alphabet testing the panel on what they thought they knew. The series proved another hit for John and seventeen years later, he and his team are still arguing over the validity of common beliefs. It’s clear that QI remains a real passion project for John and long may it reign over the schedules.

After an unprecedented forty five years in television John Lloyd could be excused from retiring from public life to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Yet still looking for the latest venture, John is returning to a novel which he started during the late seventies inspired by Douglas Adam’s cult sci-fi radio comedy Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which he produced all twelve episodes. Since then he has been working on a series of sci fi adventure novels following similar lines of Adam’s worldwide success. During lockdown John returned to the idea and is looking forward to releasing the project in the coming months. So it’s clear that there is still a lot to come from the man of many talents. It was a great pleasure to interview the all conquering John Lloyd and wish him well for his future ventures.