How Watching a British Panel Show Makes You a Better Britophile

The following is a guest post.

In a hurry to increase your Britophile IQ? Obviously, you can go the traditional route and seek out the many excellent books available on the subject. As a reference librarian*, it’s against the rules for me to suggest otherwise. However, short of a being dropped off in the UK and left to make your own way through the cultural landscape, it’s my opinion that the quickest way to get acclimated is to watch comedy panel shows.

The structure of panel shows, less a gentle sprinkle, is more akin to a full baptismal dunk of names and products and places. The jokes come fast and furious and when I first discovered this telly genre I found myself laughing and completely clueless at the same time. With some practice and the internet, you’ll find yourself understanding UK pop culture like a native. Who’s Sarah Millican? I know and if you watch the programs I’m about to suggest, you will too.

If you’re new to the concept of the comedy panel series, you’re in luck because they are plentiful and oft-uploaded to YouTube. In fact, many of these popular shows will be broadcasting Christmas episodes soon so it’s a great time to check them out. Let’s look at a few to determine what they can do to raise your British pop culture awareness.

1. QI (Quite Interesting)

QI is hosted by the quite intellectual Stephen Fry. His job is to pose obscure questions covering a multitude of subjects to the assembled celebrity panelists. He then awards points based on occasional correctness or, more often, on the interesting-ness of their responses.

Just as curiosity and creativity are rewarded, points are deducted for unoriginal incorrect answers, more specifically those which are generally considered to be fact. (For example that haggis was invented by the Scots.) This rule is particularly noteworthy because it highlights that national trait of questioning the accepted wisdom. So if you’re looking for cleverness mixed with healthy dose of British skepticism, QI is the program for you.

This year’s Christmas episode, “Jingle Bells”, will be broadcast December 21 at 10 pm on BBC Two. Here’s a clip from a previous Christmas episode to give you a feel for this quite interesting panel show.

2. 8 Out of 10 Cats

Coined from the advertising slogan “8 out of 10 cats prefer Whiskas”, 8 Out of 10 Cats stars comedian Jimmy Carr. He questions celebrity teams on polling and survey results as well as other statistical data. While these queries serve, first and foremost, as the starting point for comic riffs, they also let the viewer in on the pulse of the British public – their preferences, opinions and what they’re talking about (probably on Twitter).

3. Mock the Week

Mock the Week is Whose Line Is It Anyway meets The Daily Show. Host Dara O’Briain administers a series of topically relevant questions and improv challenges for the team members to perform. As with the other panel shows, comedy is primary, so if you prefer your political commentary and world news be delivered with wit and well…mockery as the title suggests, MTW might be your cup of tea.

Look for a few holiday improv games during Mock the Week’s December 27 episode airing at 10pm on BBC Two. My guess is it will go something like this:

4. The Big Fat Quiz of the Year

An annual program hosted by Jimmy Carr, is a comprehensive rundown of the past twelve months as lived by the British people. Three celebrity teams answer news, entertainment and human interest questions covering each month. From what I’ve gathered, one of the teams is designated to provide only surreal or dim answers, in the interest of entertainment value, of course. The only down side is having to endure Jimmy Carr’s annoying laugh for close to two hours.

The 2012 quiz airs December 30th at 9 pm on Channel 4. Here’s one of those surreal team moments I mentioned. No surprise considering Noel Fielding is involved.

5.) Never Mind the Buzzcocks

Although it appears that my favorite panel show, the pop music quiz-fest Never Mind the Buzzcocks, will not be producing a Christmas show this year, I want to share 2010’s Doctor Who-themed episode guest hosted by David Tennant. It’s my all-time favorite and marks my introduction to the Time Lord and his world. True story!

I hope you’ll discover something just as wonderful when you delve into this delightful genre of British telly. Enlightenment, insights and laughs await you.

*In the spirit of full disclosure, I don’t have a Masters of Library Science degree. Therefore, I am not a librarian, but it’s easier to explain than “Adult Reference Library Associate”.

Carmen is an American wife and mother of two college students who live away from home. With her yellow lab Malcolm by her side, she watches and writes about British television for her own blog Everything I Know about the UK I Learned from the BBC. Read more of Carmen’s posts here.


  1. Miriam says

    What No mention of Have I got News for You? It’s been on for over 2o yrs!
    Our Seattle uk telly fan group started watching that in the 90’s and still does.
    ( and we also have watched QI/Never Mind the Buzzcocks and Would I Lie to you)
    I am a big Paul Merton fan so I had to respond :)

    I also suggest a mention of the many Radio 4 panel games available to listen to online such as Just a Minute/The News Quiz/The Unbelivable Truth & I’m Sorry Haven’t a Clue to mention but a few of them at the radio 4 & radio 4 extra websites

    There is an excellent Yahoo Group for Just a Minute & other panel/comedy bbc shows with file shares available as well as news and opinions.

    ( yes the bbc knows about it – in fact the site is linked at the official Radio 4 website for Just a Minute.)

    I was able to see a recording of Just a Minute in Salford a couple yrs ago and quite enjoying Seeing my favorite uk radio panel show live.

    Sadly we have only a few panel shows on tv or radio in the usa- strange as in the 50’s-60’s there were several like What’s My Line or To Tell the Truth- somehow this form of entertainment got “lost” in usa media.
    I know that an american version of Have I got News for you have been tried twice now with no luck & the american version of Never Mind the Buzzcocks barely lasted a season. Only Whose Line is it Anyways managed to make it on usa tv. I wish I understood why this genre is being ignored by the usa media.
    ( not to mention BBC America!)

  2. says

    Miriam, thanks for all those wonderful additions.

    I too enjoy Would I Lie to You, but it was difficult to mention all of the noteworthy panel shows in one post. To be honest, I’ve not yet seen Have I Got News for You, but I certainly will now. If only there were more hours in a day!

    My husband and I recently attended a live taping of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the NPR news panel show. It was a fun and interesting experience but unusual for the US.

    I don’t know why the format isn’t successful here. Perhaps it requires a more British sensibility and sense of humor to work. I suggest we flood BBC America with requests to satisfy our panel show cravings.

  3. says

    Perhaps we should approach Hulu instead. They’re offering a much greater variety of British programming than BBC America these days, particularly new comedy. Maybe they’d be game…

  4. says

    Abigail –

    Glad to be of service! I know I’m always on the lookout for new British telly experiences. Hope you find something that tickles your fancy.

  5. says

    These types of shows are a guilty pleasure every time I visit Britain. Love ‘em! Always feel a bit guilty watching telly on vacation, though. Hadn’t heard about the Stephen Fry one (this post was worth the price of admission for the sight of SF in a fez alone) or 8 out of 10 Cats. Thanks for the tip. I must check them out!

  6. says


    Glad you found something new to add to your guilty pleasure list! At least with QI and Stephen Fry, you’re bound to learn something as well.

    I fear that, at my level of obsession, if I took a trip to the UK , I’d be staying in glued to the telly the entire time;)

  7. R Stickler says

    There used to be 2 British shows broadcast on NPR that my husband & I really enjoyed listening to: My Word and My Music. Both had 4(?) panelists who were known in either the literary or musical arenas & could be quite funny, especially, it seemed, when they really had no clue what the answer should be. It would be a nice change to see some of these types of shows on US TV again; certainly would be better than all those ‘reality’ shows!

    We, too, enjoy watching British TV when in the UK & found ourselves watching episodes of Location, Location, Location and others we recognized from BBCAmerica on several mornings. I do believe one night we caught a glimpse of the Stephen Fry show, but didn’t watch long as that program was a bit raunchy. (Maybe the norm??)

  8. darcy says

    what about “Russell Howard’s Good News” ?? it’s a really great show!
    I do realize, that there are many facts concerning not the UK, but still Russell mostly digs up some bits from british TV. I’ve watched all the 8 series and I must admit it’s brilliant!
    plus! the mystery guest is a really good idea (here the show is totally about the UK)
    I highly recommend this one! :D

  9. Teri says

    Have I got News for You is brilliant! Also, look out for podcasts of Radio 4’s “The News Quiz” – similar format, just for the radio