Where are they now? James Harkin
Continuing our series of interviews with Sheffield alumni we spoke with James Harkin (BA Maths and Physics 2000) about his path from Maths and Physics graduate to head researcher and writer for the BBC quiz show QI.
What did you study while at Sheffield?
I studied maths and physics for three years at Sheffield. The most honest reason that I can give you is that I was good at maths and I was good at physics. Actually, I was fairly academic as a child - probably due to both my parents being teachers at the same school, so I had no choice but to work - so when A Levels were over, it was the natural progression for me to apply for the subjects that I was getting good marks in. I did enjoy those subjects though; I had a great maths teacher at A-Level, and was always attracted to the exactness of ‘getting the right answer’ that the sciences offered.
What first attracted you to Sheffield?
I read about as many of the top universities that I could to narrow it down to the ones that had particularly good maths departments, which is obviously a responsible and correct thing to do. But from there, I added a completely illogical emotional angle, and visited the towns and just decided on the ones that I liked the feel of most.
When I visited Sheffield, it felt that there was a buzz about the place: it was a beautiful sunny day, and I took the train across the Pennines (from my home in Bolton) which is enough to put anyone in a good mood. To put into context the lack of logic in that final decision, my second choice was Leicester, which also had a very good maths department, but which I mostly chose because when I first visited, their football team had just won the League Cup Final.
Did you get involved in any clubs or societies during your studies?
Not really. I played a lot of a football. And I mean a lot. I was in quite a few football teams, especially for some reason the medics team, which I’m not sure how I fell into, but which was obviously the best team to be in if you ever got injured. We had our own 5-a-side team, which also included comedian Tim Key. I fell out of contact with him after Uni, and it was only when we did a gig together in London that we realised we’d actually played together for a full season in the same team.
What were some of your favourite things to do in Sheffield?
I was a pub quiz maven. With a group of friends, I would supplement my socialising budget by regularly winning pub quizzes in the pubs around Broomhill as well as at the Students' Union. In fact, my first TV appearance came at this time when I went to local auditions for quiz show '15-1' and got onto the show. It was through meeting like-minded people that I decided to get into competitive quizzing, and from there I eventually sent ideas for questions to QI, where I got a job in television.
What are your best memories of Sheffield?
The first memory that comes to mind is the fire alarms going off at our Halls of Residence. There was something about the blitz-spirit of everyone standing outside in their pyjamas while the fire brigade rushed up the road in three separate engines to remove a slice of burnt toast from some poor student’s toaster.
I also remember the lecture that I learned the most in. It was a physics lecture during my third year when I accidentally went into a first-year class and was too embarrassed to leave when I noticed my mistake. And then, suddenly, a load of bits of quantum theory that I was struggling to get my head around made sense thanks to re-hearing the basics.
After graduating from Sheffield where did you go?
I started to work as an accountant. First at a well-known chain of hotels, where I did management accounts, then at another hospitality company, where they agreed to pay for me to do my accountancy exams. I was well on the way to becoming a qualified accountant and it was a life that suited me quite nicely: it paid for my mortgage, and gave me chance to do bits of writing and quizzing on the side.
You’re best known as one of the ‘QI elves’ – how did you end up there?
I got a new role at my accounting job, which left me with a lot of free time. When I asked for more work, they wouldn’t give me any, and so for a few months I was kicking my heels a little bit in the office. Luckily my computer faced away from the rest of the office, so as long as I got my work done in good time, I could write with the rest. Then I was told about a new show, QI, which was accepting question submissions online. I sent them a few. Then I won all their quizzes, and so they asked if I’d contribute full-time. I refused, as I wasn’t interested in television, but my then girlfriend talked me into taking the plunge. Now I’m the head researcher and head writer of the show.
What does your average day entail?
It’s different every day. A perfect day has me opening my laptop, or a good book, and reading for the whole day – simply making notes of everything that I find interesting. But it rarely works out like that. At the moment I’m script-editing for QI – that is, re-writing the scripts for our forthcoming series so that they’re clear, concise and unimpeachably true.
I’m also writing scripts for our BBC Radio 4 show The Museum of Curiosity, which I produce, and this afternoon I have a meeting with the BBC about another TV Show, No Such Thing as the News, which I co-present. We have a very small team at QI, just half a dozen or so full-timers, so we’re all involved in everything from writing and researching to editing and performing.
Working on QI has opened up a range of other opportunities for you. Which has been your favourite ‘side project’?
Our podcast, No Such Thing as a Fish, has been an absolute joy to be involved in from start to finish. It’s just four friends sitting around a microphone and trying to impress each other with the best facts that we’ve found in the previous seven days – failing that, we just try to make each other laugh.
We get well over a million listeners every week, but that just feels like a meaningless number until we go on tour and meet people who listen to every single episode; when having a bath, or doing the dishes, or training for a marathon, or whatever. It’s bizarre to have become part of people’s weekly routine just by chatting for an hour and posting it up on the internet. So it’s the live shows around the country that I love – we’re currently looking at a tour later in late 2017/early 2018, so hopefully we’ll be in Sheffield soon.
Have you come across any particularly good facts about Sheffield in your research?
- The world’s longest-lasting (or longest-observed) rainbow was seen over Sheffield from 9am to 3pm on 14 March 1994.
- When Sheffield FC played against Hallam in 1862, the match ended in a mass brawl after a rash challenge by a Hallam player called Waterfall. One local paper commented the next day that "the waistcoats came off and the fighting began".
- According to the poll tax return of 1379, 33% of the male population of Sheffield was called John.
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self or a recent graduate?
The one turning point which got me into my current, bizarre life was the questionable decision of jacking-in my job as an accountant in order to work in the very uncertain world of television. So given that single data point, I would say that if you’re given two paths, and one of them is a super-fun-mega-path, then take it, even if you don’t think it’s necessarily for you. You might find yourself participating in the London Marathon, without even leaving your couch.
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