How Bri­tain fell in love with the high­brow game show

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Aclas­si­cist, a ce­ram­i­cist, an aca­demic au­thor and an art his­to­rian sit in Ox­ford’s Ash­molean Mu­seum, an­swer­ing ques­tions about an­cient Me­sopotamia. Oc­ca­sion­ally, they solve a fiendish rid­dle, clash over the at­tri­bu­tion of a lit­er­ary quote or ex­change eru­dite wit­ti­cisms. Wel­come to The Quizeum (BBC Four, Wed­nes­day). Pre­sented by Griff Rhys Jones, each week this new brain-acher vis­its a dif­fer­ent mu­seum around Bri­tain, high­light­ing their arte­facts and putting ex­perts to the test. Like QI meets Call My Bluff, it fea­tures mys­tery ob­jects, trea­sure hunts and quick-fire rounds. It might be im­pen­e­tra­ble at times and verge on smug at oth­ers, but it’s an en­joy­able treat. It’s also the lat­est in a trend to­wards high­brow TV quiz shows. Dur­ing the Noughties, game shows seemed to be dumb­ing down. Who Wants to Be a Mil­lion­aire? and The Weak­est Link asked gen­eral knowl­edge ques­tions, sure, but they were more about pres­sure, tick­tock­ing mu­sic, moody light­ing and the cult of the pre­sen­ter – chummy, chortling Chris Tar­rant or Queen of Mean Anne Robin­son. Then along came the glo­ri­fied guess­ing games: huge Chan­nel 4 teatime hit Deal or No Deal and ITV’s Red or Black? – a Simon Cow­ell-mas­ter­minded flop mem­o­rably de­scribed by this pa­per as “so de­void of in­tel­lect that it sucks nearby in­tel­li­gence into its vor­tex”. Thank­fully, those days are be­hind us. The BBC has be­come home to a bur­geon­ing sta­ble of quiz shows with higher in­tel­li­gence quo­tients. Key to this resur­gence, fit­tingly enough, is QI – the most per­spi­ca­cious panel show around, a self-styled “non-bor­ing en­cy­clo­pe­dia” with bur­blingly ver­bose Stephen Fry pre­sid­ing over pro­ceed­ings so whip-smart that Alan Davies – a pri­vate school-ed­u­cated grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­sity of Kent – is con­sid­ered the class dunce. Old warhorse Uni­ver­sity Chal­lenge is one of BBC Two’s high­est-rated shows. For many of us, an­swer­ing one of pit­bull Pax­man’s ques­tion cor­rectly per episode is a tri­umph. An­swer sev­eral and you feel like an in­tel­lec­tual ti­tan. It’s fol­lowed on a Mon­day night by Only Connect, Vic­to­ria Coren’s spot­the-link quiz which earned a pro­mo­tion from BBC Four to BBC Two last year. It’s as schol­arly as you might ex­pect from a show named af­ter an EM Forster epi­graph and which uses an­cient Egyptian hi­ero­glyphs to la­bel ques­tions. On ra­dio, of course, Brain of Bri­tain is still go­ing strong. Its TV equiv­a­lent, Mas­ter­mind, re­mains equally stu­dious – de­spite quizmaster John Humphrys’s typ­i­cally grumpy claim this week that it’s just a mem­ory test, rather than an in­tel­lec­tual chal­lenge. Even day­time TV is get­ting in on the act, with Point­less be­ing a par­tic­u­larly ro­bust an­ti­dote to the usual flimsy fare. The ap­peal of tough TV quizzes is that some­times, we want to be taxed. The low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor doesn’t al­ways have to win. Dif­fi­cult things can be fun. That com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment, a touch of show­ing off on the sofa, doesn’t hurt ei­ther. There have been at­tempts that haven’t worked: see The Book Quiz, hosted by Kirsty Wark, and Ju­lian Fel­lowes’s punc­tu­a­tion-based panel game Never Mind the Full Stops. But th­ese are ex­cep­tions. High­brow TV quizzing is a noble TV tra­di­tion that stretches back over half a cen­tury to the tweedy likes of Bam­ber Gas­coigne, pi­anist Joseph Cooper on Face the Mu­sic, Frank Muir on Call My Bluff and dear old Robert Robin­son on Ask the Fam­ily. Long may it con­tinue. “Fa­ther and el­der child only. Ah, would that it were, would that it were…” Michael Ho­gan

The quiz­mas­ters: Griff Rhys Jones hosts The Quizeum; (inset) Ask the Fam­ily, pre­sented by Robert Robin­son

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