How Brits be­came ob­sessed with quizzing

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFESTYLE - By AN­DREW HUNTER MUR­RAY

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

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