How Brits became obsessed with quizzing
Are televised quizzes: A) Hopelessly naff ? B) Delightfully old-fashioned? C) Irredeemably commercialised? D) The finest and noblest form of human endeavour? Correct answer: D). This is, admittedly, subjective opinion, but I’m not alone in it: Wednesday night’s BBC4 programme How Quizzing Got Cool charts the unstoppable rise of the modern quiz, and how participants went pro along the way.
As a writer and researcher on the comedy quiz QI, I’m delighted to hear it. Each year, the show’s ‘elves’, as we have come to be known, spend several months in libraries, museums and odd corners of the internet truffling out facts about a given letter of the alphabet; after months of research, jettisoning thousands of tidbits, we have 16 rough scripts of arcane knowledge ready to be checked, sanded and polished. Then, of course, we let Alan Davies loose on them.
Quizzing is now in vogue, but during my schooldays, enjoying them was a faint perversion for the asthmatic and unsporty. Those of us who liked quizzes — and vocabulary tests, for that matter — garnered looks of cool disdain from everyone else, including some actual teachers.
Later, I spent much of my university years quizzing in grubby pubs, losing badly to teams of hard-bitten fortysomethings who knew the four largest rivers in Asia by both length and average water flow. Even then, my friends and I were dimly aware that the really cool kids were not at table 6 of the Rose and Crown because they were off experimenting with hard drugs.
And yet, for a supposedly geeky pastime, quizzes have become all the rage. Shows like Only Connect are marauding up the ratings charts faster than the hordes of Genghis Khan; each year social media picks one University Challenge contestant whose intelligence seems otherworldly and holds them sacrosanct. Even we QI elves have been given our own factbased news show, No Such Thing As The News, so whet is the nation’s appetite for being put to the test.
Furthermore, good quizzing formats are seriously durable. When University Challenge was first broadcast, the president was — anybody? — John F. Kennedy. The show has been on air with only one break since that initial episode in 1962, steered by just two hosts. That’s a slower turnover rate than the papacy, and only marginally faster than the presidency of Cuba.
Far beyond Tellyland, pub quizzes rule supreme. Landlords love them because they bring in nice people who will spend hours buying drinks and almost certainly won’t smash any furniture — even if they were robbed on the Showaddywaddy question. Elegant, understated, and wildly popular — strange as it seems, quizzes are cool. So how did we get here?
Claims vary, but one contender for the title of ‘first televised quiz’ was 1937 programme Sight and Sound which pitted poets against art experts — the poets had to identify paintings and the art experts lines of poetry. Quizzes were gentle, cerebral, and arguably improving. Any cash was symbolic. Wilfred Pickles’s radio show Have A Go, which followed in 1946, gave away prizes of under £2, or alternatively a donated jar of jam. About 20 million people routinely tuned in regardless.
And then … enter Mammon. In 1951, The Charlie Chester Show became the first televised quiz to offer prizes — albeit carefully limited to lamps or strings of synthetic pearls, to avoid accusations of “buying” viewers. In 1955 ITV ramped up the cash with Take Your Pick and Double Your Money.
Here, perhaps, the chasm in modern quizzing began — the tension between purely academic quizzes like Mastermind or University Challenge (top prize: a lump of Perspex) and the cash-dispensers (top prize: literally a million pounds). The earliest cash-prize shows were damned as immoral enterprises which rewarded meaningless regurgitation of facts with excessive sums of money. How degrading! And how popular! In America in 1955, 47 million viewers — a third of the entire country — tuned in to watch The $64,000 Question.
Britain was no less concerned, and scandals inevitably blossomed; in 1958, ITV cancelled Twenty One after QI. a contestant alleged they had received “definite leads” to answers. Former British Army major Charles Ingram was convicted of fraud in 2003 after his scooping Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ s top prize turned out to be thanks to his wife, who was in the studio audience, coughing whenever he mulled the correct option.
A 1962 government report dismissed quiz shows as voyeuristic, saying they rewarded trivial knowledge; debating the matter, a troubled Lord Auckland noted that it was “intolerable” that in Beat The Clock, “somebody can earn £500 for diving through some hoops, or something of the sort.” Yet it was that voyeurism and pride in trivia that later saw Millionaire earn 11 million viewers in the UK.
Before the rules were relaxed by the Independent Television Commission in 1990, the absolute maximum value of a prize could be no greater than the value of a small new car. No matter how big the prize, though, I suspect we’d all have watched anyway. Millionaire’s lights, music and brilliant hosting (“Is that your final answer?”) all added to the tension, as did the cash.
But the real reason people watch quizzes is to see a lone champion or tiny band of comrades facing down a ferocious team of slavering question-setters. University Challenge and Only Connect succeed because the other team is almost wholly irrelevant. Really, both teams, and the viewers, are competing against the quiz itself.
The best quiz shows reveal human nature and can even improve it. Coolness under pressure, collaboration, forgiveness when your colleague swore blind the answer was ‘Cezanne’ when actually it was ‘56’ — these are virtues irrespective of financial reward. Just look at the dons of modern quizzing — your Judith Keppels, your Chasers — they give the impression of being unassuming sorts who would sooner spend any prize money on doing up their kitchen than on lapdancers and Lamborghinis.
There’s one more reason why quizzing is cool. Fundamentally, quizzers don’t care what anyone else thinks of them. They care about the years in which the four highest mountains on earth were first climbed, in descending height order (1953, 1954, 1955 and 1956 respectively). A good quiz will tickle the brain, encourage teamwork, and crucially, remind you that you know nothing in comparison with the vast body of knowledge out there; as QI’s founder John Lloyd likes to say, they are autotelic — worth doing for their own sake.
So this is partly a plea to keep the old ways alive. The cash games are gripping, but the amateur spirit is the beating heart of the scene. Quizzing is, essentially, a civilising mission disguised as a bit of fun, without having to do a single pressup along the way.
In the “post -truth” world in which we’re now living, where things we considered facts one day turn into fiction the next, quizzes remind us that the truth is out there. If only I could only remember which TV show that line came from …
Do cater to people’s interests: Once everybody’s a few sherries in on Christmas Day, their ability to identify the diameter of the world’s largest ship to two decimal places might be somewhat diminished. If Uncle Pete is Formula One-mad, be sure to throw in a few questions on the topic to hold his interest. Don’t go it alone: The glory of a quiz entirely written by your own fair hand might seem nice, but your participants won’t thank you for it. The diversity — and sheer number — of QI elves writing the show’s questions ensures they span a brilliantly broad spectrum, a must for any quiz worth it’s salt. Don’t ignore the numbers: Ideally, you want people to get between 3/10 and 8/10 on each round. Any less than that and people might just start to lose heart: any more and it can get a bit embarrassing. Do include trick questions: To whit: a few deceptively easy questions leading straight into elephant traps add a dash of excitement to the proceedings. QI has spent 14 series entertaining this very notion — whether you win or not, you’re bound to be entertained. Don’t forget about prizes: No, it doesn’t have to be a £1m lump sum (though that would be rather nice), but any token — even if it is just a Christmas cracker cast-off — is sure to go down a treat.
Sandi Toksvig (center) presenting on