Let’s talk about Counterpoint
by Daniel Adler
Yes, Counterpoint. The kid brother of the Radio 4 quiz cycle, sandwiched throughout the year between Brain of Britain and Round Britain Quiz, Operation Yewtree permitting (all three are produced by the same team, incidentally). It’s only been going since 1986 - both the other two started in some form or another over sixty years ago - but it’s perfect for radio: three music geeks at a time, going up against each other on questions covering all forms of music, some being illustrated with the actual music being played. In your face, Mastermind! (That’s enough of that – Ed)
I have loved this programme from the start. It began around when I was a student, somewhat obsessed back then with collecting records and CDs (remember them?). I marvelled especially at those contestants who could not only name all of Wagner’s heroines, but also identify a recent Smiths track or spot the obscure Genesis album. They seemed to be the ones that won through – that first contest was taken by David Kenrick, who now adjudicates the competition.
Fast forward to December 2011. I’m in the car with my daughter, shouting the answers and getting frustrated when the supposedly musical panel seem stumped. I say I could do better, the light of my life retorts that I wouldn’t dare, so when I get home, naturally, I fill in the application form. One phone audition (on a bus, as I recall), and a few weeks later I find myself on the stage of the Radio Theatre, wondering if I will acquit myself with honour, or crash and burn. In the event, I get 29 points – usually a winning score – but I’m a split second behind on the tie break (Eric Satie, for the record), and go home rationalising that I seemed to thrive under the pressure, but that I’ve been robbed. Sitting in the audience a few weeks later watching the final being recorded only confirms that (how I didn’t shout out “It’s Schubert, you numbskulls!” I’ll never know), so in a fit of annoyance I go and fill in the application for Mastermind. That goes reasonably well too, and I get to study two opera composers into the bargain. Good preparation for another go at Counterpoint.
Well, if you heard the final that went out on Monday (now up on iPlayer), you’ll know how that turned out. I will admit here and now that I did something very un-British: I went all out to win. And so, rather than give a blow by blow account, I thought I would share with you how I approached that aim, and sort-of gamed the system. Feel free to follow my recipe, if you wish.
Know your strengths. And even more, your weaknesses: I have been listening to music seriously for nearly fifty years. I am fairly au fait with the canon of Western art music, with some gaps – for example, I have never “got” Hungarians such as Liszt and Bartok, and Strauss’s operas just leave me cold. I am pretty good on Italian opera, British music (especially the “Cow Pat School”), and French orchestral too. Pop and Rock between about 1960 and 2000 is another strong area for me.
Weaknesses were firstly more modern pop music (I made Spotify playlists of recent number ones, asked my kids what they were listening too, and went through every single Mercury winner, even that one by Speech Labelle). Jazz needed a spruce, which I did by listening my way through the fifty or so most highly regarded albums – some great, some fairly unlistenable (I’m looking at you, Ornette), and reading Ted Giola’s History Of Jazz. And musicals entailed going through my father’s extensive DVD collection and monopolising the TV for about three weeks, much to my family’s unalloyed joy. I now have more showtunes in my head than is probably decent for someone with three kids, but I can now tell the good from the bad. For the record, Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, Chicago, My Fair Lady and anything by Sondheim in the former, and virtually everything Andrew Lloyd Webber has ever touched can be filed under “meh”, in my humble opinion. Oh, and The Sound Of Music? Just about the only movie where it’s fine to cheer for the Nazis, I reckon.
I should also put in a good word for BBC4. They constantly have outstanding documentaries on all sorts of music, and one in particular (on French chansons) got me bonus point in my heat. Also, a new admiration for Charles Aznavour – truly, a genius.
See Dead People: There are always questions about recently deceased musicians. I kept a list running from the end of the last series, and then spent a happy day going through the Wikipedia entries for each one. At a particularly desperate moment in the semi-final, this resulted in me literally punching the air with delight at the words “Aphrodite’s Child”. You can hear it in the final edit.
Know your opponents: Some quiz formats – Mastermind, for example – do not allow your score to be affected by the performance of the other contestants, or for you to affect theirs. Counterpoint is not one of those: you can take bonuses from questions others can’t answer, stop them from answering questions if you’re quick on the buzzer and steal whole specialist rounds from under their noses.
After I’d won my heat, I was given the option of being in one of the first two semi-finals (recorded together), or the third (recorded a week later, with the final right after). I chose the latter course, and then got a ticket for the earlier recording. I sat at the back taking notes, and figured that if I did get through to the final, one of my opponents was an absolute whizz on pop music, films and musicals (but not too hot on anything “classical”), and the other could be beaten on the buzzer.
But before that, I had to get through the semi. I knew who one of my opponents would be, as his heat had been recorded on the same evening as mine, but I had no clue about the other; his heat had yet to be broadcast (luckily – he got through it on an intimidatingly high score). In the event, the little information I had was crucial: Lying second after the first round, I picked my specialist subject mainly because I knew the third placed chap would ace it (I nearly did myself). I think you can just about hear him groan.
Keep calm, don’t take chances: The first round of my semi-final was dire. I remember looking at my wife sitting in the audience, shaking my head and seeing her shrug a sort of “oh well” back. But a few deep breaths, plugging away, picking up points where I could, and I’d clawed back a lead by the end of the second (it helped that the leader after the first round picked a truly terrible specialist round, appropriately enough called ‘Dreams and Nightmares’, one I may well have picked myself if I’d had first choice).
The final round is on the buzzer. I was anticipating most questions, buzzing in before anyone else, but after a while I figured I might be far enough ahead to stop taking chances (you lose a point for a wrong answer), and let them go by. I should have taken a chance on Taylor Swift, though (didn't even make it thought the edit, that one). Down with the kids, me.
Have fun: It’s a game. The BBC fund it because they believe it to be entertaining to someone out there. If you take it too seriously, it comes across on the recording, and that makes bad radio. I had immense fun recording all three rounds, and just as much swotting up for it – I tried guessing some of the specialist rounds that might have come up, and even though I spent ages on Stephen Sondheim, and Italian Film Music, neither of which figured anywhere, I have no regrets. Horizons broadened.
So. Mission accomplished. I have a trophy, but talk of acquiring an actual trophy cabinet results in hails of derisive laughter from those who I find myself sharing living space with (there’s talk of a shelf in the downstairs loo, though). I got to make a heartfelt speech about my old school music teacher to a large and captive audience (if you’re out there, Richard Hickman, that’s you). And I got to be involved in something the BBC does particularly well, something that would not happen but for the BBC. It’s exactly the sort of thing that needs to be preserved in an increasingly choppy sea for the Corporation.
Mastermind again next year, probably. Brain of Britain? Maybe. Now, that is some seriously tricky gig. Respect to anyone who’s done that one. (Thanks – although I was only joint runner up on that one – Ed)
Respect to you too Dan, and I offer you heartfelt congratulations on behalf of all of LAM’s readers. Thanks also for your enlightening and entertaining article.