Radio: The Unbelievable Truth

"Hello, and welcome to The Unbelievable Truth. The best panel show on Radio 4. About truth and lies. That I host."
David Mitchell

BBC Radio 4 Panel Game based around truth and lies, hosted by David Mitchell. It is now airing its fourteenth series.

The format comprises four panellists, generally stand-up comedians or comedy writers; there are no permanent panellists, but some of the more frequent ones include John Finnemore, Graeme Gardennote , Tony Hawks, Lucy Porter, Arthur Smith and Henning Wehn.

Each of the guests will present a short lecture on a given subject, ranging from Isaac Newton to pigeons. Each lecture is a tissue of lies ranging from the plausible to the obviously absurd, save for five true pieces of information that the panellist should attempt to smuggle past their opponentsnote . Another player may buzz in if they believe they have spotted a truth; if they're correct, they win a point, but if they get it wrong they lose a point. At the end of their lecture, the panellist wins points depending on how many truths they have managed to smuggle past their opponents.


This show contains examples of:

  • Bait-and-Switch Comparison:
    • David Mitchell introducing Balhamite Arthur Smith with "After losing a bet to Tony Hawks, Arthur stood naked in Balham High Road and sang the national anthem of the People's Republic of Moldova. An impoverished region, the regular scene of civil unrest, Balham is in South London near Clapham."
    • In series 4 episode 6, Graeme Garden is introduced with, "Graeme was one of the original writers on the hit ITV sitcom, Doctor in the House, which featured the exploits of trainee doctors. It seems incredible, doesn't it, a hit ITV sitcom."
    • David talks about how the Duchess Richmond having a parrot buried in Westminster Abbey: "Reputedly the oldest stuffed bird in existence, she was married to the Duke of Richmond."
    • Once, when David introduces Tony Hawks, he mentions that Tony is often mistaken with Tony Hawk, though one wears a helmet at work while the other is a world skateboard champion.
    • And in series 9 episode 5, David introduces John Finnemore with, "You may recognize John's voice from the hit Radio 4 comedy Cabin Pressure, in which he plays airline steward Arthur Shappey. A nervy, unreliable, but ultimately loveable idiot, John also writes the show."
    • In season 10 episode 5, David mentions that Simon Cowell's favourite dessert is butterscotch angel delight. "Utterly artificial, devoid of goodness and liable to make you sick, Simon Cowell lives in Los Angeles."
    • Graeme Garden's lecture on gardens in Series 14, Episode 6 included a poke at QI and its presenter, Stephen Fry:
      Graeme: As fans of Stephen Fry's light-hearted TV quiz QI will know, Europe's largest producer of bananas is Iceland. Fed by subterranean rumblings and emitting blasts of hot air, Stephen has hosted the show since 2001.note 
  • Berserk Button: While it's definitely a mild example, David is always exasperated by pedantry related to food categories, in the "tomatoes are actually fruit" vein.
  • Biting-the-Hand Humor: Inevitably for a Radio 4 comedy panel show, there are many digs at Radio 4 and its stereotypical audience.
    [following a debate about the British tradition of eating lamb with mint sauce, which originated when Queen Elizabeth I decreed that lamb must be consumed with bitter herbs to discourage people from eating sheep instead of harvesting their wool]
    David Mitchell: People don't like things because they're nice, people like things because they're used to them! That's the whole principle behind Radio 4!
  • Blatant Lies: The whole point of the show, but it can escalate to hilariously absurd levels. Henning Wehn's statement "Britain is the envy of Europe in traffic management infrastructure" was so unbelievable that it earned a laugh from the audience and entire panel.
  • Brick Joke: In the first of his two series 13 recordings, Lloyd Langford's subject is Whales, which David Mitchell differentiates from the phonetically identical Wales in his introduction. In the second recording his subject is Wales, with David giving the same introduction from the first recording with the definitions of Whales and Wales reversed.
  • Buffy Speak: Henning refers to car air fresheners as "Hanging lemony-scented smelly Christmas tree thingies".
  • Captain Obvious: Graeme Garden once used the story of Isaac Newton seeing an apple falling out of a tree as one of his five facts. When it was immediately buzzed on, he clarified it was a "pathetic attempt at a double-bluff".
  • Catch Phrase: David Mitchell always closes the show with "All that remains is for me to thank our guests. They were all truly unbelievable, and that's the unbelievable truth. Goodnight!" (although this has been dropped in recent series.)
  • Collective Groan:
    • Greeting Jeremy Hardy's line on the subject of the clergy:
      Jeremy Hardy: Most clerics have had to find lucrative side lines to make ends meet. [...] In early Christian Rome, clergy would make extra cash by leaving little baskets of dried flowers in lavatories, a practice known as 'popery'.
      Audience: (groan)
      Jeremy: Oh, shut up.
    • Also some of Ed Byrne's puns, see below.
  • Confusing Multiple Negatives: Occasionally used as a multiple-bluff.
    John Finnemore: It is a myth that it is a myth that crocodiles cry crocodile tears, so it would be wrong to say that they don't.
  • Crossover: Sort of; the 2010 New Year special had panellists Stephen Fry, Alan Davies, Rob Brydon and John Lloyd, began with a subversion of QI's buzzer gag, and even included the "obvious answer" klaxon. Stephen Fry set it off twice when challenging Alan, much to everyone's satisfaction.
  • Damned by Faint Praise: How the guests are usually introduced, often combined with Bait-and-Switch Comparison.
  • Do Not Do This Cool Thing: Referenced In-Universe by David in Series 9, Episode 2 following Tom Wrigglesworth's lecture on smoking:
    David: The UN's World Health Organization quotes a 1994 report which says, "Teens who smoke are three times more likely than non-smokers to use alcohol, eight times more likely to use marijuana, and twenty-two times more likely to use cocaine." Basically, that 1994 report might as well have just said, "Smoking is cool."
  • Don't Explain the Joke: In a fourth series episode, during a round about sausages, Henning Wehn talks about the sausage tree, found in tropical Africa. Then:
    David Mitchell: Yes, it's... it's... Because of its suggestive shape, it's often been used as an aphrodisiac. [beat] Um, saying sausages are like penises.
    Fi Glover: Thanks for the explanation. Don't know if you got it.
  • Dungeonmaster's Girlfriend: Parodied when Victoria Coren Mitchell appeared in Series 12 shortly after her marriage to David, and David assured listeners he would "be giving her no preferential treatment at any stage of her victory." When she fell for several lies, she claimed that David had told her she should appear on a panel with Henning Wehn, as he never wins.note 
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: On the Australian version, Shane Jacobson was giving a lecture on Vikings when Sam Simmons claimed that he's always thought Vikings were mythical.
  • Exact Words / Loophole Abuse: A common way of scoring points on the "accidental" truths panellists have included.
    • Graeme Garden is a particular fan of this approach:
      Tony Hawks: More people than you think have false teeth...
      [buzz]
      Graeme Garden: I think three people have false teeth.
    • As is Alex Horne:
      Alex Horne: Is it too late to say that Martha and Myrtle were the inspiration for M&Ms? The names.
      David Mitchell: It isn't too late to say that, and it is incorrect.
      Alex Horne: Yeah. No. I was just wondering if it was too late to say it or not.
      (later)
      David: "Live by pedantry, die by pedantry. That's my motto."
  • Feghoot: Panellists frequently end a false statement with one (they're a good way to work in a detailed and thus plausible-sounding anecdote, but still keep it funny). For example:
    Ed Byrne: So great is the heat generated by bees that the Romans used to encourage bees to build hives in the walls of their homes, forming a rudimentary form of central heating. The practice is remembered today when someone walks into a room with the heating turned up too high and remarks, "Swarm in here."
    (audience groans)
    Ed Byrne: Thank you, thank you.
    • Graeme Garden managed to sneak in a truth by disguising it as the punchline to one of these, with a story about Florence Nightingale working as a caterer and trying to accurately calculate how many pastries she would need to feed the troops, and thereby inventing the pie chart.
  • Foreign Remake: There is now an Australian version of The Unbelievable Truth, developed by The Chaser, which is much the same except with Australian comedians, and on television.note  Series co-creator and regular panellist Graeme Garden appeared in the second episode and won by a large margin, with the host pointing out that it would have been quite embarrassing if he hadn't.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: The easiest facts to slip through are, naturally, the ones that any sane person would think was made up.
  • Friendly Rivalry: With QI. As both shows trade in little-known, counter-intuitive facts and thus are vulnerable to getting them wrong, they have each taken delight in pouncing on mistakes made by the other. Stephen Fry seems to delight in making the point during David's QI appearances of flagging up mistakes. David has started to respond with gleeful vitriol, making QI mistakes obvious if the same subject comes up on The Unbelievable Truth.
  • "Funny Aneurysm" Moment: Invoked and discussed In-Universe on one of Graeme Garden's appearances, mentioning an episode of The Goodies that features Rolf Harris in captivity.
  • Germanic Depressives: Henning Wehn tends to play up the "Germans have no sense of humor" stereotype.
  • A Good Name for a Rock Band: In Series 12, Episode 6, Graeme Garden's lecture on beetles includes the fact that certain sweets are coated with the anal secretions of the lack beetle. Jeremy Hardy buzzes in and says he's going for "the beetles' arse juice sweeties", adding that they're an indie band he saw recently.
  • Grammar Nazi: In Episode 5 of Series 8, David Mitchell says "would never've" and Mark Watson corrects/clarifies with "would never have".
    David Mitchell: Did I s-... If you're accusing me of saying "would of", that's a duelling issue!
  • He's Just Hiding: Invoked following Marcus Brigstocke's lecture on the Queen:
    [on learning the Queen takes a black outfit with her wherever she goes in case she needs to mourn a deceased family member]
    Frankie Boyle: Wasn't that just while the Queen Mother was still alive?
    Neil Mullarkey: She is still alive. She's just hiding.
    David Mitchell: In a grave.
  • House Rule: Over many series, David has established precedent in his rulings regarding various uncommon strategies, such as buzzing to declare that the next statement will be true (which he allows, but warns it tends not to pay off). The most significant informal rule is probably that if someone buzzes on a truth that was included accidentally, they get a point but the speaker doesn't lose one.
  • Hurricane of Puns: In series 8 episode 2, Mark Watson buys Ed Byrne's statement about bees having a universal language.
    Ed Byrne: My favorite fact was the fact that bees internationally don't quite understand each other.
    Mark Watson: I could see that from the evil gleam in your eye.
    Ed Byrne: You fell into my honey trap.
    Mark Watson: I wish I hadn't buzzed.
    Ed Byrne: You've been stung by me.
  • I Am Not Shazam: invokedDiscussed regarding Big Ben (often mistaken to be the name of the Clock Tower, rather than just its bell). On a discussion about hearing it on the hour on the radio before hearing the bell itself, due to radio waves travelling faster than sound:
    David Mitchell: You're standing at the bottom of Big Be- you know what I mean by "Big Ben" and everyone will write in saying it's not called "Big Ben" - the tower with the clock in that makes the bongy noise.
  • Japanese Ranguage: In Lee Mack's lecture on fleas, he claimed that in China fleas are very expensive, except when they are on special offer: Buy One, Get One Flea.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Frequently appear as panellists attempt to decide what level of bluff is being run.
    David Mitchell: I've lost count of the number of bluffs!
    • After appearing in the show a few times, in a series 8 episode Tony Hawks is able to double bluff the other panellists by saying "fingers on buzzers" before giving a true statement.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: The results of the panellists' puns often make everyone else groan, although sometimes they quietly chuckle.
  • Little Known Facts: Because of the game's objective, all lies are read as true facts, even the most absurd.
  • Long List: A common way of smuggling truths past is to bury them in one of these (such as Charlie Brooker's spiel of items invented by Thomas Edison). Panelists are getting savvier about this, as David put it in series 9 "It's a list. We all know how this goes, everybody pick something." (This was indeed followed by all three of the other panellists guessing which one was true and David announcing who was right.)
  • Namesake Gag:
    • Neil Mullarkey's lecture on barcodes claimed that they were invented by Baron Felix Von Barcode, a contemporary of Michael Electricity and Sir William Shaving-Foam.
    • Tony Hawks' lecture on tennis claimed that the first recorded tennis court official was Sir William Umpire, who oversaw a match at Wimbledon in 1906 from a perch atop Captain Percival High-Chair.
  • "Not Making This Up" Disclaimer: After Rufus Hound explained he was going to deliver his lecture in the medium of rap:
    David Mitchell: For those listening at home... yes, this is really happening.
  • Off the Rails: As frequently as possible.
    (discussing the fact that the Queen's milk is still delivered in monogrammed milk bottles, which had just been correctly guessed)
    David Mitchell: The Queen is quoted as saying that the first time she realised she was Queen was when she saw milk bottles from the Royal Dairy with "E2R" written on them. (beat) That was the first time she realised she was Queen. Carry on—
    Shappi Khorsandi: What did she think the crown was for?
    David: The crown, the shouting, the death of her father... there were so many other pointers!
    Rhod Gilbert: To be fair, though, the coronation didn't happen while she was asleep!
    David: Do you think they didn't tell her about the death of her father, just slipped the milk bottle onto her breakfast tray? That was the way they broke the news to her? She turned it round, E2R — "Daddy!"
  • Only In America: "Stupid American laws" are always a popular kind of fact, as telling the difference between the real ones and the made-up ones is practically impossible.
    "Regular listeners will know that the silly and unenforceable laws of various states of America have been a boon to this programme."
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: Aside from the quotation on top of the page, David Mitchell has also introduced the programme with, "It's the show with more lying than any other show. That I work on. Apart from Would I Lie to You?. And The Bubble."
  • Overly Preprepared Gag: Henning Wehn claims that instead of "vroom vroom", the German onomatopoeia for the sound car engines make is "ya ya ya ya". When John Finnemore buzzes and asks if they really say "ya-ya-ya-ya-ya", Henning answers, "Nein-nein-nein-nein-nein".
  • The Points Mean Nothing: Often panellists will be awarded points for trivial reasons - in one episode Henning Wehn accidentally read out a true fact twice and points were awarded each time somebody buzzed on it, and David Mitchell once awarded a point to Catherine Tate when she asked because "it's getting late", although she had a strong lead and would have won regardless of his judgement. As well, the time limit for buzzing in on a truth is, as David has said, "completely arbitrary", and he once gave someone the point because he forgot what part of the sentence they claimed was true.
  • Rage Quit:
    • Tony Hawks following the incident detailed under Schmuck Bait, although he returned before long.
    • Arthur Smith walked out in the last episode of series 7 after David Mitchell repeatedly refused to give him a point for spotting a fact too late.
  • Raised by Wolves: Winston Churchill, according to Henning Wehn.
  • Rule of Three: A common tactic is to give a list of three related "facts", one of which is true. A sneakier tactic that has arisen from this is to have either more or less than one truth in the list.
  • Running Gag:
    • Henning Wehn starting his lectures by saying that Jesus was the inventor of his chosen subject.
      • In Series 7, Episode 5, he opened a lecture on furniture by saying "If you believe Mel Gibson, and there is no reason not to, furniture as we know it today was invented by Jesus." For once, this turned out to be one of his five truths, a reference to a scene in The Passion of the Christ which features a table made by Jesus in a more modern fashion.
      • In Series 12 Episode 6, he opens his lecture on Britons with "Contrary to popular belief, Britain was not invented by Jesus."
    • In Series 8, Episode 2, there was a running gag about bees' inability to spin webs, and in episode 4, there were repeated jokes about barbecues and tenses.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Panelists may successfully smuggle a truth if the statement itself is silly enough, though some have managed inflections that make it seem like it's definitely untrue. Also, lecturers often try to smuggle truths by giving two or more ridiculous statements/facts in a sentence, one of which is true, and hope that the others will assume it's entirely false.
  • Schmuck Bait:
    • Tony Hawks spent one episode of Series 4 buzzing in on any fact related to America, on the grounds that he was a "sucker" for facts about America, and he was always incorrect; he kept on buzzing-in on any fact about America, with the encouragement of Mitchell and the panel. On the final fact (that in Atlanta, it is illegal to tie a giraffe to a telephone pole), he refused to buzz in...
      Tony: I'm not going for that!
      Phill Jupitus: (buzz) I reckon that's true.
      David Mitchell: Yeah, you're right, Phill!
    • In one episode of Series 14, Arthur Smith, on the subject of Death, said "Over 2,000 years ago, a man called Jesus died and came back to life three days later." After a longish pause where no-one buzzed he said "All right, have it your way." (David later clarified that Jesus was crucified less than 2,000 years ago, "so we are not required to discuss the issue of whether or not he came back to life".)
  • Self-Deprecation: Lee Mack correctly identifies a statement about a clown who was hired to perform for chimpanzees as true. He claims he knows that because he's the clown.
  • Sound to Screen Adaptation: As mentioned above, the Australian version.
    David Mitchell: See, it works on television. And yet here we are, in a tent in Edinburgh again.
  • Spin-Off: The Unbelievable Truth is itself a spin-off from I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue (Graeme Garden is a regular on ISIHAC, and the other co-creator, Jon Naismith, is its producer). Specifically, it's based on a game called Lies, All Lies, where the panellists had to give an improvised lecture on a given subject that was entirely false, and the other panellists had to buzz in if they accidentally said a truth.
  • Take That: In a 2012 lecture on beards, Henning Wehn recited a joke about Richard Sheridan, "the best paid comedian of the day", paying just two shillings in beard tax due to a "convoluted Jersey-based avoidance scheme", which he later described as "an error of judgement". This was a dig at the then-current tabloid scandal over comedian Jimmy Carr's tax avoidance.
  • Token Minority: Parodied in the first episode of Series 13. Following a 2014 BBC directive that all Panel Shows were required to include at least one female panellist (due to increasing criticism of the dearth of female panellists on such programmes), David Mitchell introduced comedienne Lucy Beaumont as the panel's token... Northerner.note 
  • Trust Me, I'm an X:
    • In a 2012 episode, Arthur Smith had the subject of Barbie, and made the claim that, if Barbie was a real person, she'd only have room in her body for half a liver and a few centimeters of intestine, and would therefore suffer from chronic diarrhea. Graeme Garden buzzed in, paused for a few moments, then said, in his most serious tone of voice, "As a medical man..."note 
    • In another episode, Clive Anderson insisted that some people thought Jack The Ripper was a bicyclist, saying that some of his old colleagues used to say it, naming this trope outright with "Trust me, I'm a lawyer!"
  • The Tyson Zone:
    • Rhod Gilbert, on the subject of soup, got as far as "Britney Spears once..." before Arthur Smith challenged, on the grounds that he would believe absolutely anything following that phrase. (He was wrong.)
    • Tony Hawks decided that absolutely any statement which started with "In America..." was believable.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Panellists will occasionally play this for laughs by buzzing-in on a lecture and saying "Deviation!" (Or, on at least one occasion, "Repetition!")