Saturday, 31 January 2009

The Weekend Mini-Quiz

The Weekend Mini-Quiz

A friend of mine discovered the blog last week, and he asked me whether I ever put quizzes into it. I said that I didn't, but it got me thinking, and so that's why I've decided that I'm going to try to share a few tricky ( well I think they are ) questions with you every weekend , if I can. If you're ready then, away we go.

Two Round Mini Quiz Number 1

Themed round - 5 questions on Quizzes and Quiz Game Shows

1) In the 1994 film "Quiz Show" what is the name of the TV show on which Charles van Doren - played by Ralph Fiennes - defeated Herb Stempel after being fed answers by the production team ?

2) Which ITV quiz show of 1982 offered a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost as the prize ?

3) What was the very first quiz show to air on ITV ?

4) Who holds the record for the highest ever score in a single round of "Mastermind" ?

5) Who was Bob Johnson, and why is he remembered with affection by Game show afficionadoes ?

Round Two - 5 General Knowledge questions

1) Which irish athlete, famed for his abilities on indoor tracks was nicknamed The Chairman of the Boards ?

2) Following Edward VI , who was the next male heir to the throne to be born to a reigning British King ?

3) Architect Charles Holden is probably best remembered for which particular set of buildings ?

4) Oscar Diggs was the real name of which eponymous character from a perennially favourite children's book of 1900 ?

5) What was the first species of dinosaur to be described in scientific literature ?

There we are - 10 questions, no prizes. I'll print the answers with the next set of questions next weekend. If you can't wait, drop me an email , together with your answers, and I'll let you know how you did. Alternatively, if you're too shy to want to email me, then I'm sure that Google, wikipedia etc. can help you out.

Friday, 30 January 2009

The Return of Mastermind

Mastermind First Round Heat 15/24

Good grief, but it seems like a long time since heat 14 was shown. And in fact, it is a very long time indeed, some 8 weeks by my reckoning. Would the BBC treat any other show in this fashion, I wonder ? I mean, it was bad enough when they did it to my series last year, but at least there were only another 4 heats or so to be shown after the midwinter break before the semis. There's still another 9 heats after tonight. I honestly don't think that it does the series as a whole any favours. Still, I should probably stop moaning, and get on with reviewing tonight's show.

4 newcomers took to the chair in tonight's heat. A pleasingly mixed bag saw a rather hearty but down to earth vicar answer questions on british punk, a retired teacher take on the 1902 Ashes series, a historian answer on A. E. Houseman,and a much travelled young teacher expound on the Trans Siberian Railway. I was impressed with Robert Collard's knowledge of the trans Siberian Railway, but he was rather found out on the GK. John Rigby needn't be at all ashamed of his 21.In the Humphrys era, anything over 20 is a decent enough score. Reverend Duncan Swann spoke engagingly about his love of punk, and then produced the best GK round of the night, scoring 13 to finish on 26, a good performance overall, which might well have won him an easier heat. It didn't quite win this one though. Edward Pearce scored a fine 16 on A.E.Houseman. He started like an express train in his GK, but hit a bit of a pass spiral in the mid section of the round. As happens so often, he who holds his nerve can win the day, though, and he steadied the ship and scored the 11 needed to take the win. Boy, didn't he look relieved when John Humphrys told him his score ! I like that. There's nothing wrong with showing that the win means something to you.

Its been a few weeks since I've had the opportunity to say this, so I'm going to say it again now. First round form is such an unreliable guide to semi final performance that its very difficult to make any predictions. However I'd venture to say that Mr. Pearce wouldn't be one of my favourites to reach the final. I don't think there's much room for improvement in his specialist score, and there are a number of qualifiers for the semis already who have seemed more impressive on GK. 11 is a fair score for GK, but he did show some areas of weakness. However, as last year showed, anyone can win a semi if they pull out their best form, so you never know. I wish him good luck.

The Details

Duncan Swann British Punk of the late 1970s13 - 213 - 0 26 - 2
John Rigby The Ashes Series of 1902 12 - 0 9 - 3 21 - 3
Edward PearceThe Life and work of A.E.Houseman16 - 111 - 4 27 - 5
Robert CollardThe Trans Siberian Railway13 - 35 - 2 18 - 5

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Reasons to be cheerful - 1 - 2 - 3

You know, sometimes it really doesn't take a lot to turn you aside, at least for a short while, from the slippery path to grumpy old manhood. Since Sunday alone three things have brought a little unseasonal sunshine to the sometimes wintry corner of my life that is forever Quizdom. So - in order of occurence , here they are : -

Last week's "Weaver's Week" gave this very blog a namecheck, and a link to my entry regarding the Mastermind / Brain of Britain Double winners. If you haven't yet sampled the weekly delight that is "Weaver's Week", then do yourself a favour. If you're reading this blog, then you'll absolutely LOVE Weaver's Week. Follow this link
Weaver's Week,
and add it to your bookmarks. Quite simply it is the essential companion to your week's viewing of quizzes and game shows. To the best of my knowledge I haven't met Iain Weaver, but he knows the world of quizzes and game shows inside out, and he writes superbly. So you can imagine that to have been deemed worthy of notice gave me a great thrill.

We won on Monday, handicaps notwithstanding. Too easily if truth be known, and so the win wasn't necessarily quite as satisfying as it might have been. yes, I suppose I am moaning again. Out of interest I hear that the Sunday quiz which John and I abandoned back in July has adopted its own handicap system, although this is the altogether more sensible one whereby the winning team one week gets penalised by the margin of its victory the next week. Bet the team who used to moan about us still moan about it.

This evening I received an email from Jacob Funnell. If you've been watching University Challenge this year you might recognise Jacob as a member of quarter finalists Exeter University. Jacob was decent enough to email me about my comments about Exeter's match against Corpus Christi, Oxford, broadcast on Monday, January 27th. I gather that certain sections of the media have been less than fair about Exeter's performance, and he just wanted to say that he thought my summing up of what happened was a fair one. Thanks Jacob ! It gives me an excuse to say once more that Exeter's performance in getting as far as the quarter final really was an achievement, and their performance on the show itself nothing to be ashamed of. Be honest. We've all been in a quiz when stronger opponents have hit absolute top form against us. You can either go into your shell, or you can go down fighting. That's what happened to Exeter in my view. They could see that the only way they were going to start beating Corpus Christi to the starters was by gamble buzzing. Be honest . Would you have done anything different in their position ?

So thank you Jacob, and thank you Iain. Between the two of you, you have made my week.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Old shows for New - or vice versa

What Would you Bring Back ?

I think it was on Sunday that I was idly listening to the radio during quite a long car journey, when I heard an item on Absolute Radio, discussing which quiz/game shows people would really like to see back on television. I didn't catch the whole item, so I don't know whether this was brought on by such recent revivals as "Going for Gold " or "The Krypton Factor", neither of which I have yet seen, or by the rumour currently doing the rounds that the old Hughie Green show, "Take Your Pick" is about to be revived.

To be honest, what I heard of the item wasn't all that riveting, but then that's mass entertainment radio for you. Believe it or not I think that the show the host most wanted to be revived was Fred Dineage's "Gambit " ! But the idea behind the item was very interesting. So here, after due thought and deliberation, are the shows that I think I would most like to see brought back.

Fifteen to One

There cannot be a serious quizzer in the land, or many not serious quizzers either, who would not love to see Fifteen to One return to our screens. Since it ended in late 2003 there really has been nothing to replace it. It was a show that satisfied on pretty much every level. Yes, its true that if you were unlucky you might get a couple of real stinkers for your first two questions, and that would be that. But then just look at the list of winners of each series. There are no mugs there at all, and you can't make out a case that luck had anything to do with their success in any way. Look at the number of questions you'd get through in a half hour show - a half hour show with an ad break in the middle, at that. No messing about making us get to know the contestants, and a really simple format. If there was ever a quiz show that more perfectly delivered just what you'd want, then I for one would love to know what it was.
Here's another thing too. Alas, I never applied for Fifteen to One. My first ever audition for a show was in 2004, after it ended. But with the number of contestants who took part in each series, lets be honest, almost anyone had a chance of appearing on it. For example, all three of the other contenders in my first round heat of Mastermind in 2007 had appeared on Fifteen to One - although not at the same time !
I don't know who owns the rights to the format, and how feasible bringing the show back would be. But it would surely be a success.

TV Top of the Form

Don't laugh. There is actually method in my madness. Whereas with "Fifteen to One" I'd just like to see the show back on our screens, just as it was, I'm not suggesting that we resurrect dear old Geoffrey Wheeler, in all his brillianteened glory, with his teams of suburban grammar schoolites. No. But I am suggesting that a genuine general knowledge team quiz competition between schools might actually be a bloomin' good idea. Let me explain.

Although quizzers come in all shapes and sizes, and all ages, the majority of people that I meet in that corner of my life devoted to quizzing are people in their forties, like me, or older. Sometimes I've been amazed that a particular person might know the answer to a specific question, and I'll ask them how they knew it. You can get quite a number of responses if you try this, but I can guarantee that two answers will be far, far, far more common than any of the others. The first is: -
I heard it in another quiz
and the second is
I remember it from school
That's the thing. The way that we were taught , way back in the dark ages that were the 1970s and earlier, you couldn't help acquiring a decent amount of General Knowledge through school. Rightly or wrongly there was a certain body of knowledge that a person of average intelligence could have been expected to accumulate by the time they reached the age of 16.

Certainly from at least the latter half of my teaching career the emphasis in education has been switched to the acquisition of skills, rather that knowledge. Now I'm not criticising that. But somewhere along the line our view of what general knowledge a child of 16 might reasonably be expected to have accumulated has contracted. Perhaps I am just exercising the right of the middle aged to begin to moan that things now are nowhere near as good as they were in our day. But I don't think so. In my experience, children today are every bit as intelligent as they were when I was at school, if not more so. But I do think that somewhere along the line we are failing to show them the importance, and above all else, the enjoyment of knowledge. I don't think its just school, either. I mentioned Fred Dineage earlier. Can you imagine ITV ever giving airtime now to a show like How ? Or for that matter, can you imagine them putting anyone either as old or hairy as Jack Hargeaves on children's TV now ? Albeit that he was surely the inspiration for Bob Fleming on The Fast Show.

Would a TV show to find the most knowledgeable school team in Britain make a difference ? Probably not. But on the other hand, possibly so. You can't turn the clock back, but it doesn't mean that you can't take a good idea from the past and update it to make it meaningful for the present and the future. Don't think for one minute that people wouldn't be prepared to watch a two teams of , lets say, fifteen year olds battling it out in a University Challenge style quiz - for the sake of argument. Should any producer reading this see the makings of a good idea, I am always available for advice and consultancy - just drop me an email.

University Challenge - Quarter Final 3

University Challenge - Monday 26th January 8pm

Quarter Final number 3, and after this there are just 4 shows to go in the series ( sob ) . For the first time in the quarter finals we have an Oxbridge college against a non-Oxbridge college - Corpus Christi Oxford against the University of Exeter.

Hopes for the University of Exeter weren't raised by Paxman's revelation that, going into this show, Corpus Christi have scored an aggregate total of 625 in their two matches, while Exeter have scored 370 in theirs. However, even allowing for that, what followed was beyond all expectation. Poor Exeter didn't really get a look in at all. It seemed like Gail Trimble of Corpus Christi had her hand glued to the buzzer. She ate up starter after starter in a breathtaking performance, and was ably supported by the rest of the team.

I would say that Exeter's performance was made to look worse than it was because they were forced to jump to the buzzer far too early to beat Corpus Christi to the starters, so for every time they got one right, they'd get two wrong, losing points in the process. So while Corpus Christi racked up an amazing 350 points, Exeter managed just 15, despite having answered enough questions correctly to have scored quite a bit higher than this.

Paxman seemed almost apologetic afterwards, and said that it would be "beastly" to pass any comment about their score. As I recall this hasn't stopped him in the past. He did make a point of saying that they had nothing to be ashamed of, since making the quarter finals is an achievement in itself. I couldn't agree more. However he did rather let himself down by suggesting that the team stay away from the student bar when the show was broadcast.

You may remember that St. John's College Cambridge were my tip for the top after all the second round matches were played. Next week they have to overcome City University for the dubious privilege of playing Corpus Christi in the semi. What a match up that might be.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

TV Extra

The things I do in the name of research ! Yes, this weekend I have been delving into the sometimes murky world of the quiz game show. Well, to be honest I woke up early on Sunday morning, and idly caught a couple of these shows on cable. So , enough of the self-justification. What have we actually been watching ?

Are You Smarter Than A Ten Year Old ? - Sky 1

I'm given to understand that there are two versions of this show, the primetime version where the prize is a cool quarter of a million pounds, and the daytime version where the top prize is £50,000. I saw the daytime version.

My hopes weren't high. There are a couple of reasons why I say this : -

1)You may remember that the BBC brought out their own "The Kids Are Alright" last year. Now, I have heard it said that this show was put into development before "Are You Smarter . . . " and so is in no way influenced by it. Whatever. The fact is that its a quiz game show with adults and schoolkids, so the comparison is one that you're going to make whether its fair or not. I thought that this show was very poor indeed. John Barrowman consistently irritated the hell out of me by SHOUTING EVERYTHING ! The squeezing of so many different round formats into a relatively short show was annoying too. So you can understand that after watching this show, I wasn't particularly eager to watch anything else from the same genre.

2) I've got a thing about quizbooks that tie in with quiz shows, so I did buy the "Are You Smarter Than A Ten Year Old ? " quiz book last year. I was running a Mastermind competition in my school, so I thought this might give me some questions at the right level. I have to say that there wasn't a great deal I liked about the book. Leaving aside the questions themselves I hated the multiple choice format - The Boxtree "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire" quizbooks have a lot to answer for - and there really aren't that many questions in the book, either. So you can forgive me for thinking that the show itself might be as lacklustre as the book.

So what about the show itself ? Let me damn it with faint praise. It was better than I expected. The primetime version, as I'm sure you know, is presented by Noel Tidybeard, but this version is presented by Dicken Dom. Mr. Dom is one of those strange, light entertainment double-bodied organisms, like Vic N. Bob, and the ubiquitous Anton Deck ( who you may remember started his career as a pop performer, under the stage name P. Jane Duncan ) My last experience of Dicken on a quiz show was Dicken Dom's "Ask the Family", which received unanimous acclaim as a complete turkey, and moved the original "Ask The Family" creator to compare it to "an elderly aunt prostituting herself". So the producers were taking a bit of a gamble with them, albeit that there's now quite a large audience of teenagers who have grown up watching them .

I have to admit, though, that I found their presentation style pleasant enough. Neither too abrasive, nor too insincere. They look as if they are enjoying themselves. As for the game, well it pretty much does exactly what it says on the tin. Unlike "The Kids Are Alright", contestants are not competing against the kids, the 6 children are there simply to give the contestant a choice of which kid they can use to help them. Each contestant faces a series of questions. Each question belongs to a category and an age group. So, for example, a contestant might begin with an age 6 Maths question. Each contestant has 3 lifelines - a la Millionaire. These are
1) Save - where the contestant can have a question wrong, as long as the chosen kid has it right ,
2) Peek - where the contestant gets a chance to look at the kid's answer ,and
3) Copy- where - oh, you work it out for yourself.
The amount of money increases with each correct answer. As with Millionaire, a contestant can bail out at any time up to when the category of the last question, for £50,000 is announced, but before it is actually asked. Answer wrongly, and you're out of there.

Overall, you can't judge this by the criteria you'd use for a serious quiz show. This is a game show, and its solid family entertainment. Judging it solely on this criteria I have to say that I found it untaxing, but watchable, which lets be honest, is about as much as you're likely to ask from a game show. The main criticisms that you could level at it are that its a little long at an hour, even allowing for regular ad breaks, and there's not a lot of questions asked during the show. However, these are pretty simple questions as you'd expect, and you've also got to say that you probably get as many questions in an hour as you get on WWTBAM, and its alongside shows like Millionaire, In It To Win It etc. that it should be judged. It works because the format is simple, the rules are easy to understand. The kids on this show could easily have become as annoying as those on "The Kids Are Alright", but they don't because they are used fairly sensibly, i.e. - as little as possible.

So - having watched it, what do I know about the show now that I didn't know previously ? Its not something you'd ever watch for the quiz content, but then it was never going to be , and I don't think that it ever pretended to be. However it is pleasantly watchable, in the same way that Millionaire, In It to Win It and 1 v. 100 are. I won't be deliberately watching it again any time soon, but I won't be rushing for the remote if I happen to come into the room and its on either. That's a lot more than I can say for some game shows.


Yes, I know that its 2 years since Dave Spikey's Challenge TV revival came and went, but I never caught it first time round. This was the first half of an early Sunday morning double bill, first on Challenge with this, then on Sky with "AYSTATYO", and that's why it finds its way onto the second half of this review.

"Bullseye" in its original version was a by-product of the darts boom in the early 80s. When snooker absolutely exploded in the 1980s, darts was the next 'sport' to receive the same TV treatment, and for a few years it seemed to be on the way to achieving the same kind of mass audience and following. Enter Bullseye. In the Thames TV region, where I was living at the time, it first hit our screens on a Monday evening, in the slot before "Coronation Street" if I remember rightly. However it soon graduated to the Sunday teatime slot where it became a national institution. Presented by "Lovely super smashing great superb" Jim Bowen, it guaranteed itself a place in the British wing of the Game Show Hall of Fame, with its terrible Bendy Bully consolation prize, and its catchphrases - Keep out of the Black and in the red - and - Lets see what you would have won. Bullseye had staying power too, lasting in its original incarnation from 1981 until 1995.

Its interesting that the revival was presented by Dave Spikey. I think that one of the reasons why there was an upswell in interest in the series was that his Phoenix Nights co-writer Peter Kay did some very funny material about the show in one of his DVDs - either Live at Bolton or Live at the Blackpool Tower. Then the afore mentioned Anton Deck included it as one of the segments in the Gameshow Marathon. So I guess with all this revived interest it must have seemed like a good idea to the executives at Challenge.

So lets get down to the show itself. You can't judge Bullseye as a quiz - you never could - its a game show. It seemed to me to be pretty true to the original format, and it even looked the same too. One difference was that when one pair successfully gambled their cash and won the star prize, they didn't end up with a speedboat, just a massive telly and a home entertainment system. You'll remember that on the original show, if you won you always got a speedboat. The well publicised story is that the producer or someone had a deal whereby he could get speedboats cheap. Cars and caravans only came out for a 'lets see what you would have won'.

Now here come's the tricky part. I'm afraid that this just didn't do it for me. I'm not saying that the show would not necessarily have been a huge success again if Jim Bowen had been coaxed out of retirement, but I'm afraid that there's a big, Bowen-shaped hole in the middle of the show. I do like Dave Spikey, but at times I thought that I was watching Bullseye as presented by Jerry St. Clair, his Phoenix Nights character. Maybe its not fair to compare him to Jim Bowen, but I'm afraid that he's just too happy. He seems to be enjoying himself. Bowen always had the air that he was doing it under sufferance, and that worked for the show. Maybe I'm wrong.

Maybe we've moved on from where we were in 1995 when the original Bullseye ended, and its day really has passed. Actually, I'm sure that we have. After all, thinking back to my childhood, "The Golden Shot" was incredibly popular in its heyday, but would anyone ever think of bringing it back today ? Although I suppose a "Celebrity Golden Shot " is no more ridiculous than "Celebrity Family Fortunes" , "Celebrity Mastermind", "Celebrity Eggheads" and a ton of other celebrity versions that have been on our screens in the last couple of months. If any producer is reading this, and decides to act on this, then I hope they have the decency to drop me a few quid for the idea.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Mastermind - Brain of Britain Double

The Magnificent Five

Earlier this week the final of "The Brain of Britain" saw Geoff Thomas become only the fifth person ever to complete the "Mastermind" and "Brain of Britain " double. This would seem like an opportune time to reflect a little on the men who have managed this remarkable and difficult achievement.

Roger Pritchard

A very unassuming champion, Roger Pritchard won Brain of Britain and Brain of Brains in 1974.Funnily enough, all of the other double champions won Mastermind first before Brain of Britain. To underline his achievement, he also went on to become the third ever Top Brain in 1980. He put his decision to apply for Mastermind down to an excess of Christmas bravado. Roger won the 1976 series, when contenders were allowed to use the same subject for the first round and the final, and so he used the Duke of Wellington for his first round and final subject, and 20th century British warships for the semi final. He was the youngest champion at the time. Roger also took part in the 1982 Tournament of Champions - which was actually won by Sir David Hunt.

Kevin Ashman

Kevin Ashman's quiz career is so full and illustrious that it would take simply far too long to do it justice here. Kevin was the first Mastermind champion to have appeared in the programme in a previous series. The rule limiting contenders to just the one appearence was changed in 1995. Kevin had previously reached the semi final in the 1987 series. In 1995 he swept all opposition aside, setting a record of 41 points that seems unlikely to ever be broken. Kevin had an interesting mix of subjects - Martin Luther King, the History of the Western Film, and for the final, the Zulu War

While still Mastermind champion he won the 1996 Brain of Britain title,and the 1998 Brain of Brains and Top Brain titles. Kevin is unique amongst our Double winners, for he had also won the 1989 Fifteen to One Grand Final

Christopher Hughes

Chris took the longest amount of time to complete the Double after winning the first of the two titles. Chris became probably the next - highest profile Mastermind winner after Fred Housego in 1983. Chris answered on British steam locomotives in the first round and the final, and The Flashman novels of George Macdonald Fraser in the semi final.

By the time that Chris took on Brain of Britain he'd had his first media career in the 80s, gone back to being an ordinary member of the public, then resurfaced on TV as one of the Eggheads, along with double winner Kevin Ashman. Chris won the 2005 series, although he lost out to Mark Bytheway for the Brain of Brains title in 2008.

Patrick Gibson

Patrick completed a unique treble by winning his Brain of Britain title in 2006.Pat is so far the only person to do the Mastermind /BOB double and also to win £1 million on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Pat won the 2005 series of Mastermind, answering on the films of Quentin Tarantino, the Culture novels of Iain Banks, and Father Ted.
A year later, Pat won the 2006 series of Brain of Britain. Like Chris he lost out to Mark Bytheway for the Brain of Brains title in 2008. Pat is widely recognised as one of the finest quizzers in the world, and whats more, is just one of the very nicest quizzers you could ever hope to meet.

Geoff Thomas

Geoff had won other TV and radio titles before he won Mastermind in 2006 - Counterpoint on Radio 4, and Todays the Day on TV. 2006 was actually Geoff's fourth attempt at Mastermind, and he has taken part in all three different TV incarnations. 2003 represented a near miss, when Geoff was runner up . However in 2006 he carried all before him. I can vouch for this. 2006 was my first attempt at Mastermind. I was knocked out in the first round by Kath Drury, a very fine quizzer in her own right. I was stand-in for the semis, and was sitting in the audience for the first semi, which Geoff won . I thought he was awesome on the general knowledge round. Geoff's subjects in 2006 were Edith Piaf, William Joyce, and Margaret Mitchell.
I believe that Geoff had attempted Brain of Britain before as well, coming runner up to Daphne Fowler in 1997. There was no doubt in the result this time round, despite some very good competition .

So there we are. Its worth noting that the list is exclusively male, but then thats not such a surprise. Its only in the noughties that doing the double has become les rare, and when you think of it, the only two women who have won either title since 1990 are Daphne Fowler, who won Brain of Britain, and Anne Ashurst who won Mastermind, both in 1997. Daphne, I know , took part in the 1999 Mastermind radio series.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

University Challenge

University Challenge 2nd Quarter final - Queen's College Cambridge v. Lincoln College Oxford

The second round stats suggested that Lincoln College were slight favourites. Queen's College managed 205 in the second round, while Lincoln managed 280. So we had some reason to expect a fairly close contest. This was not to be. Lincoln took the lead from the start, and never let up, pulling further and further and further away, and by the end of the show breaking the magic 300 points barrier. On this form you'd fancy them to beat Manchester in the semi. However they won't find it so easy to hog all the starters against Manchester, so that's a match to look forward to.

My 1st New Year Quiz Resolution broken

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, concerning old movie mogul David O. Selznick. Selznick, you remember, produced the classic film "Gone With the Wind ", amongst others. An inveterate gambler, the story goes that Selznick was once found by a close friend , gambling in an establishment that had a reputation for cheating the punters. When his friend told him that the place was crooked, and he couldn't possibly win, Selznick is reputed to have replied,
"I know that , but its the only game in town. "

If true, I can actually understand what drove Selznick to play when he had no chance of winning. I'm not saying for one minute that any quiz I go to is 'fixed' , but the circumstances of the Monday night quiz in Newport mean that there are times when you know, before even one question has been asked, that you have no chance of winning. I refer to the iniquitous system of handicaps currently in place in the quiz.

Actually I say 'system', but to call it a system is to dignify it with a designation that it in no way merits. What we have is just Trevor the quiz master's arbitrary award of a head start to everyone except for my team. No account whatsoever is taken of the relative strength of our team on any given night - the rule of thumb for the QM is that our team start off scratch, whether there's 3, 4 or 5 of us. Its all about how much of a head start he gives everyone else. It seems to me that if you need to be given an 18 point head start, then you really don't deserve to win at all.

Its not because we won every week when no team had a head start, either. We probably won no more than a third, and shared the wins with two other teams, both of whom are often awarded a head start. Case in point. Both of these teams were given a four point head start last night. Yet on points scored, one of them drew with us, and the other beat us by one. We wouldn't have beaten them even without the handicaps. So why give it to them in the first place ? Beats me. If I do decide to go back next week, I'll bet you that both teams are given a start again. We won't be.

I ask myself why are we still putting ourselves through a 90 minute round trip every Monday ? It can't be for the prize money. Even if you win it still doesn't leave you in profit for the evening once the cost of petrol, chipping in to the jackpot, and a couple of drinks have been factored in. Sometimes you hear the head start being awarded to the other teams, and you just want to get straight back into the car and drive home. Yet you don't. Why not ? Well - you keep going because although it may not exactly be the only game in town, it is pretty much the best.

Take Sunday. I played on my own in the social quiz in The Haywain in Bridgend, and tied for first place with a team of 6 players, scoring 62 out of a possible 65. In the resulting tie break we were asked-
"How many dimples are there on a golf ball ? "
Thats a bit of an old quiz chestnut. I wrote down the answer 336 and handed it in, the other team went for 100 and something. 1 beats 6.
Quite an achievement, eh ?
Well, not so much, actually. After all, its unlikely that any of the other team are real quizzers, and I don't suppose that there's any reason why anyone would know the number of dimples on a golf ball if they weren't quizzers. So while its always nice to win, that's about it.
Maybe this is not the most polite way of putting it, but I am reminded of something the great Len Harvey once said. Len Harvey was a British boxing champion at 3 weights - Middle, Light Heavy and Heavy - during the 1930s, and he once said that you learn nothing and get nowhere by beating mugs. That's not meant as an insult to Sunday's opposition. Like most people who play in social quizzes on a Sunday evening, they aren't serious quizzers, so any win over them, while enjoyable, is of limited value.

Which is what makes Newport on a Monday night the only real game in town. I used to love playing in Quiz Leagues. Over the last 15 years quite a few of the Quiz Leagues in South Wales have died on their backsides. The last I heard was that the Swansea Independent League was down to a very few teams and in real danger of folding. Our league in Neath went belly up almost 10 years ago. Port Talbot haven't had a quiz league since 1989. Only the Bridgend League remains within a reasonable travelling distance. Full credit to the Bridgend quiz league, they have my full admiration for keeping going so successfully, but for some reason, since Mastermind I've once or twice been discouraged from offering my services to any team in Bridgend.

So, with no league to play in, for serious competition it only leaves Newport on a Monday night. Usually the questions are much better any other social quiz you go to, and even without the handicaps there are serious quizzers there who provide real opposition. A win is an achievement. However, coming third, but knowing you would have won if there had not been any handicaps is just not the same.

At the risk of making this sound like my application for full membership of the grumpy old man club, I can't help thinking back to my first experiences of League quizzing, two decades and more ago. You never expected nor received any consideration if you were a weaker team. In each league you'd have four or five good teams. If they lost out on a particular category of question one week, one of them would go away, learn it, and make damn sure that they didn't lose out on the same category again. Competition was the spur to improvement.
Now, why the hell should any of the weaker teams in Newport make any effort to improve their knowledge ? The less they know, the more of a head start they get given.
- Did we get any of those 6 American state Capitals right ? No ? Shall we learn them so we never lose on them again ? Nah - can't be arsed - we'll just ask for a bigger handicap next week, then. -

I sound bitter. My rational intellect tells me that it really doesn't matter. I know that by keeping going I am tacitly condoning something I hate, and that if I had the courage of my convictions, I would show my disapproval by boycotting the quiz. But like your man Selznick said - for a serious quizzer on the M4 corridor, its the only game in town. More's the pity.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Stop Press - Brain of Britain Final - Monday 19th January

Brain of Britain Final

1:30 pm lunchtime today saw the broadcast of the final of the Brain of Britain. IMHO its been a great series with some terrific performances, and with dear old Robert Robinson back at the helm, you don't get a much better quiz than this. Long may he continue.

So then , to the final itself. Four men contested the final - Mr. Worth, Mr. Steeples, Mr. Simmons and Mr. Thomas. I am sorry to say that I am not familiar with Mr. Worth or Mr. Steeples, but they earned their place in the finals, and so my congratulations to them. Worthy competitors both.

Mr. Simmons though I do know, for he is the same Barry Simmons who impressed so much when winning "Are You An Egghead ?" in November. As for Mr. Thomas, he is my Mastermind predecessor, Geoff Thomas, aiming to follow Roger Pritchard, Kevin Ashman, Chris Hughes, and Pat Gibson by doing the Mastermind & Brain of Britain double whammy.

Barry Simmons , as he showed in "Are You An Egghead ? " is a great quizzer. However his challenge foundered on a number of really tough 1st and 2nd questions. I've no doubt that he'll make no complaints about the result, but he certainly didn't have a lot of luck this year. Not that Geoff Thomas' today win owed anything at all to luck. All of the finalists have impressed throughout the series, and all of them had some terrific answers today, but I think I'm not being unfair when I say that Geoff was clearly the pick of the bunch. For the record Geoff scored 20 points, and Mr. Steeples was a worthy second. Thanks to all of you for providing some great quizzing entertainment today, and throughout the series. Roll on Brain of Britain 2009 ( note to the production team - this time please send me the application form I've asked for ! )

Sunday, 18 January 2009

All for One -

- And every man for himself

You remember me mentioning my friend John . Or maybe you don't. Its no big deal , really, one way or another. I only mention this because John is my best quiz mate and quiz partner, and we have been cutting a swathe through Sunday evening quizzes in a range of pubs from Morriston ( Swansea ) to Cardiff for more years now than I care to remember. John went in for a routine operation in the middle of the week, and as a result he is hors de combat tonight. So, finally getting to the point, I face the dilemma of either forgoing the quiz, or playing on my own.

If you've read this far and still haven't decided to click off to pastures new , and you've never read Marcus Berkman's book " Brain Men " ( recently given one extra chapter and retitled " A Matter of Facts "), then you should. Its the funniest and truest description of the world of quizzing you're ever likely to read. In one section he considers the question of how many people is the optimum number for a quiz team. He plumps for four, and I tend to go along with this, although I do accept that a team of five can be just as effective. One thing he is quite clear about, though, is that playing as a one person team is something you should try to avoid at all costs. I can see where he is coming from. Its better to play with team mates. You have someone to talk to during the boring bits. Hopefully your team mate or team mates will recognise one of your more ridiculous stabs in the dark, and stop you before you commit it to paper. A team mate is someone you can either share the blame with, or even offload all of the blame onto - even if you do this in your own head rather than out loud.

I will confess that I have played as a singleton before. I've won quizzes on my own in The Welcome in Morriston,The Tunnel Tavern in Neath and the Dynevor Arms in Groesfaen. These were interesting experiences. When two of you play together and win, you tend to provoke either admiration ( for the first 2 or 3 times you win ) or thinly veiled hostility ( every other time you win after that ) but winning on your own is different. As a rule it seems that people genuinely don't know how to react. With the result that they don't actually react at all. Which results in the kind of atmosphere you would get in a pub when everyone knows that the person sitting in the centre table has just grown an extra head, but being British they are all just too embarrassed to draw attention to it.

Yes, granted that I could join forces with another team. However it isn't quite as simple as that. Last week we played in the Culverhouse Hotel, and next week when John is better we shall play in the Culverhouse Hotel again. This means that I am really honour bound to give them a miss this week to make sure that we never win the quiz two weeks in a row. Perhaps that sounds arrogant. Perhaps it is arrogant. Yet the fact is that the 6 times we've been we have won everytime, and in my experience there is nothing that stops people coming out to a social quiz than the same team winning the prize - whatever it may be - every week.

So, tonight I'll play in the Haywain in Bridgend. There are a few regular teams, but here's the rub. Most of the regulars already have large teams. Playing in a team of 6 or more, who already have their own pecking order sorted out, is purgatory. So then perhaps I could offer to join forces with a smaller team. Yet even that has its consequences. When you play for a smaller team, with people you don't know, there will come a time when the team's regular members will be adamant that the answer they have is right, even when you know that its wrong. So either you do the quiz equivalent of pulling rank ( eg. - don't you know who I am and what I've won - I've started so I'll Finish etc. - followed by a hummed rendition of the Mastermind theme music ) which really will confirm everyone else's opinion that you must be the most arrogant and unpopular person in the pub , or far, far, far worse than that, you let a wrong answer slip by when you know that you could have substituted the right answer . Its a hard life.

I shall play it by ear when I get there. I'll let you know what happened later on in the week.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Stuff The Begrudgers !

Stuff the Begrudgers !

Yesterday I commented on the wonderful performances of Seren Jones and all of the finalists of Mastermind Plant Cymru. If you read the piece you might recall that I mentioned that Seren's mum Jackie and I are workmates. When I saw Jackie this morning she mentioned that she had read my blog, and also a lot of other web pages about Seren's win. Then she said that she was only going to read the nice ones from now on. When I asked her what she meant, she said that she had read some websites last night where there was some criticism of Seren's choice of subjects, supposedly for being easier than some of the other children's.

What are we coming to that we can't all simply applaud the achievements of a group of terrific, bright and intelligent young people ? That we have to analyse everything,looking for bias, or unfair advantage ? Alright, so the argument over what should be an acceptable subject and what shouldn't be an acceptable subject on the adult, original "Mastermind" is a very old one. But come on ! Criticising the children - any of the children who took part, regardless of how well they did on the show - is below the belt. It leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and betrays an atmosphere of mean- spiritedness that all of us who watched the final could see had no part in the proceedings whatsoever.

For the record, though, let me say something about Seren's choice of subjects. Her first round subject was "Dr. Who". Have you any idea of the amount of work you'd need to do to be confident of answering a set of questions on this subject ? I doubt very much that those who criticised this choice of subject have. "Dr. Who " was also a subject for 1993 Mastermind winner Gavin Fuller. Ask him if Dr. Who is a soft option. It isn't. Seren's final subject was "The St. Clare's books by Enid Blyton." There are 9 books in the series. That's a huge amount of revision and learning. These options are looking harder all the time, aren't they.

As I have already pointed out, any criticism of any of the children who take part in the show, or in Junior Mastermind, is totally unjustified, and uncalled for. I find it difficult to understand how anyone could be so petty minded as to suggest that any of the subjects that the children picked are somehow less worthy than others.

Might I humbly say this to anyone who believes that there is such a thing as a soft option for "Mastermind". You should apply to go on the show and have a go yourself. Take your own 'soft' option and see just how soft it really is. At least you wouldn't be commenting from a position of ignorance, as I would suggest that you are now.

TV Watch

TV ( and Radio ) Watch

University Challenge Monday 12th January BBC2

The first quarter final this week pitted 2 serious contenders against each other, the University of Manchester and the London School of Economics. Conspiracy theorists may draw attention to the fact that these two were matched against each other rather than Oxbridge, but what you lose on the swings etc. It means that two of the Oxbridge contenders will have to face each other at some time during the round.

By a coincidence the members of both of the teams who impressed me most both sported beards. Coleridge of the LSE seemed at times to be almost threatening to drag his team back into the game with a number of impressive starters. However the most impressive of all the players on show was Manchester's Pertinez, who answered starters across what seemed a formidable range of Arts and Sciences. While this was never a rout, Manchester were always in front, and from about the 20 minute mark you just couldn't see LSE ever getting on level terms. One interesting feature of the match was the number of points thrown away with incorrect starter interruptions. Both teams , it seemed , were so aware of the other team's ability that they had to take risks.Well, another very enjoyable match.

Brain of Britain Radio 4 Monday 12th January

The last of the semi finals. I may be mistaken, but I believe that the previous two semi finals were both won by a player getting the full five questions for 6 points in the very last round. Surely it wasn't going to happen again. Was it ?

Forgive me if I spell anyone's name wrongly now. For the first half of the contest Mr. Taylor, going last in the round, established a lead, and seemed to keep his nose in front as each round went by. In the middle of the contests there was a spirited rally from Mr. Hayward. At the halfway stage I'm sure you could have named your own odds for Mr. Steeples. However he did what any great jockey would do. He kept just behind the leaders, then unleashed a fantastic finishing burst as the post came into view, scoring a full six points to win by a short head. Congratulations to you sir ! The final is next Monday. As the great Robert Robinson said at the end of the show - don't miss it !

Terry Wogan's Perfect Recall

Yes, its been a slack week again, and so we're down among what would have been called "the wines and spirits" in the old Variety theatres. Now that he's given up the Eurovision gig to the boy Norton, our Tel is shoring up his bank balance with another series of this quiz/game hybrid. I'll put my cards on the table here. Its the kind of show that I feel I really shouldn't ever watch, but I have to admit that I really don't mind it. Alright, that's lukewarm praise, I know. But it does have some things going for it.

Terry Wogan is not by any means everyone's cup of darjeeling, but as regular listeners to his radio 2 show know he's a droll old soul. This show doesn't waste too much time on letting us get to know the contestants, and that's always a plus in my book. On the negative side the questions aren't hard, and the game gets a little tedious when you keep having yet another set of questions with the same answers. That aside, though, the show does provide a certain amount of cruel amusement, when a contestant can remember one word from the list, and uses it in answer to every question in the vague hope that they will hit the target sooner or later.

If you've seen the show before, then you know what its all about. Its never going to be much better, but its never going to be much worse.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Mastermind Plant Cymru

Da Iawn, Seren !

Congratulations to Seren Jones from Castell Nedd, (Neath)who won the inaugural Mastermind Plant Cymru, which was shown on Sunday evening. Seren was answering questions on the Enid Blyton St. Clare's series of books.

I can come clean now. Seren's mum, Jackie, is a work colleague of mine, and I have known about the result for a little while. Its a fabulous achievement, and I have nothing but admiration for every one of the children who have taken part in this series, and the Junior Mastermind series in the last few years.

The Question Master Is Always Right

The Question Master is still always right

Yes, its a first outing of 2009 for the (n)ever popular debunking of those stubborn understains of the quiz world, the wrong'uns. Here's just a few more that have come to my attention in the last few weeks.

How Does Van Helsing Kill Dracula ?

Well, there's no argument about this one, is there ? Surely its that
He drives a stake through Dracula's heart.
You've seen it in the cinema with your own eyes, right ? Right. Only it doesn't quite happen like that in the book. Yes, Van Helsing does kill other vampires with a stake, but no, he doesn't kill Dracula this way. Instead
he dispatches him with two knives
but then for some reason that's hardly as poetic and gothic as driving a wooden stake through his heart.

This next one is one that I promised you a few weeks ago. It was sent from David Bodycombe, who recently scored such a hit with the superb series "Only Connect " : -
Which is the closest star to the Earth ?
"On the subject of the Questionmaster is always right, there’s quite some mileage in “What is the nearest star to Earth?” (not Proxima Centauri!) And it’s interesting how many reference books fudge the issue between Proxima Centauri and Alpha Centauri. I had to dump a series question on Only Connect because of that."
David also kindly supplies us with
"Another pet hate of mine is: “What is the next number in the series: 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13...” – the answer being 17 but the first term shouldn’t be there. I’ve seen it in at least two Mensa puzzle books"

What is the origin of the nursery rhyme "Ring a ring of Roses " ?

Actually, the answer you're likely to give to this , the one that you were taught in school, namely -
It commemorates the Black Death
does make perfect sense. However the problem is that this is a nursery rhyme that was first written down in the 19th century. So this means that for over 500 years it existed, but nobody thought to write it down, despite its obvious significance. even if we say that it commemorates
The Great Plague of 1665
there's still 200 years to account for, with no evidence to back up the claim at all.

When it was translated into japanese, what title was given to John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath " ?

Alright, I'll come clean.When I heard this question asked it was actually asked the other way round. The QM gave the translated title, and asked us how we know the book in its original english title. So according to him, the japanese title of the novel translates into english as
Angry Raisins
Now, you've got to admit, that's funny. There's only one problem with it, though. Funny it may be, but true its not. In japanese, the title of The Grapes of Wrath is just that, a japense phrase which does equate to the sense of The Grapes of Wrath. But then that's not anything like as funny, is it.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

So - How DO you get on the telly ?

Those Three Little Questions

Dateline - Thursday 5th January 9pm - Aberavon Rugby Club. The first quiz of the New Year in the rugby club is always compiled and presented by Brian, who has coordinated the quiz since long before I first started taking part 14 years ago. Its always a quiz about the events of the previous year, and my teammates and I have always said that if our Fairy Quizmaster were to magically appear and say to us that we could only win one quiz in the whole year, but we could pick which one it was, this would be the one we'd pick. In 2008 we came second, after winning it for more than a decade, so you can imagine we were a little on edge and keyed up for this one. As it was we needn't have worried. We won fairly comfortably in the end.

I mention this quiz for two reasons. Firstly, Brian gratified a wish I expressed some months ago, namely, that I'd be in a quiz where it would be asked who won the last series of "Mastermind". I'm sure he only did it to gratify my ego, but God bless him, Brian asked it.

That's not the main reason why I mention the quiz though. At the end of the quiz a guest player from one of the other teams, whom I didn't know at all, came up to me. He wanted to talk about Mastermind, and then,very nicely and politely, he asked me the three questions I'm most commonly asked by people who want to speak to me because they've heard about the Mastermind thing. These are : -
1) Have you been on any other TV shows ?
Answer - Yes -
Come and Have a Go If You Think You're Smart Enough
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire

2) How did you do ?
Answer -

3) How do you get onto all these shows ?

Its this last question that makes me pause for thought most. You see I have been on 4 different quiz shows, making 7 TV appearances in total, but that's actually not that many compared with a lot of other people I know. So I'm not setting myself up as some kind of expert on this. Still, for what its worth, here are my thoughts on the subject : -

1) Nobody is going to ring you up out of the blue and ask if you would like to go on a particular TV show. You have to go through some kind of application process, which means getting off your backside and doing something. Most people who say that they'd love to go on this show or that show never actually make an application. If you don't apply, you don't get on.

2) Find out how to apply. Do a little research on the internet. Many shows have their own web page which will give you an idea where to write to in order to obtain an application form. Some of them, for example Mastermind, have an online application form as well. Find out where to get one from, and then make sure you do actually send off for the form.

3) Do a little homework. Maybe you're applying for an established show which you already know well. That's fine. But if you're applying for a new show or one you've never seen, try to find out what sort of thing its going to be. Different shows will want different types of contestants. As a rule: -
Big money / Game-type quiz shows - eg. Millionaire - In It To Win It - Weakest Link -
won't really be looking for people with a lot of quiz experience. Your personality will be far more important, in fact, lack of quiz experience will probably go in your favour.
Serious quiz shows - eg. Mastermind, Brain of Britain -
Many very talented and successful quizzers do appear on these shows. However being a first timer won't count against you either. I believe that you do need to demonstrate a certain level of General Knowledge in the audition, but then this is as much to protect potential contestants from making a fool of themselves in quite a traumatic stituation as anything else.

4) Fill in the application form. Be open. Remember that this is your opportunity to sell yourself. Somewhere on the form they'll give you the opportunity to write a little about yourself, hobbies, interests etc.Think of something interesting or unusual about yourself, and shove it down. For example - I usually mention the fact that I have five children. OK, its not the most fascinating fact you've ever heard, but its just a little something which I guess makes me stand out from the majority - and sometimes that's all you need. Maybe, for example, you have an unusual occupation. A taxidermist, for example, has a built in advantage. Anything, really, which would give a researcher something to talk about with you if they give you an audition.

5) At this stage, I should probably add that although you haven't sworn an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on your form, please : -
- especially where it asks you whether you've been on television before. Apart from the obvious dishonesty, some of these forms have little legal clauses against you providing false information. So while you don't have to volunteer any information that they don't ask for, do please answer all the questions honestly.

6) One of two things will happen now. Either you'll get an audition , or you won't. Some shows will send you a polite letter saying that you have been unsuccessful for this series, and some won't even do that. If you don't get an audition, then move on, and start applying for another show.

If you do get invited for an audition, then it means that the production company can see you being a contestant. What they want to know is how will you measure up in the flesh. I don't think that the way you look is hugely important - otherwise how would I have ever found my way onto television ? What I do think is important though is that you show that you can hold a relaxed , chatty and informal conversation with someone you've never met before - the researcher. Nobody will expect you to be able to discourse like David Attenborough on a wide variety of subjects. To be honest it probably doesn't matter if you're talking complete rubbish. So long as you're talking. They need to be convinced that you're not going to clam up before the cameras.
If you want to do a little preparation before you go , though, you might like to think about a couple of things you can talk about. If you're having an audition for an established show, you might like to think about the question - why do you want to go on . . . ( whatever show it is )? Again, your answer isn't all that important - although a little judicious flattery of the show will probably not go amiss - its the fact that you've thought about it at all and have a ready answer which matters. Likewise, you'll possibly get a chance to tell a self deprecating story some time during the audition - for example you could say about the biggest mistake you ever made in a quiz. I have a couple of embarrassing incidents from my teaching career up my sleeve for this purpose.

As a rough rule of thumb, Millionaire - Weakest Link - Eggheads - In It To Win It ( and the other lottery quizzes ) want big personalities who are going on for a bit of a laugh, who won't go all silent, and will have a laugh with the host if the opportunity arises.

Mastermind, Brain of Britain etc. are looking for people who can more than hold their own in a general knowledge quiz, but can also talk confidently about other things as well.

7) If at first you don't succeed . . . Perseverance is a virtue. My audition for the first series of Eggheads was unsuccessful. In the end, that probably wasn't a complete disaster, though. The more you go through the application process, the less daunting it seems. The more auditions you go to , the more relaxed you'll become about the whole process, and the more attractive you'll become as a contestant. Don't give up , and keep applying.

That's really all that I can say. The hardest part is making your first application to a TV show. Then once you've made your first appearance on TV, chances are one of two things will happen. Either it will get it out of your system, or you'll be hooked, and eventually become a serial contestant. Best of luck.

As it happens, they'd rung for closing time before I finished telling him all of this. For which he looked exceedingly grateful.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

TV Watch - 10th January 2009

Yes, its the first regular TV Watch of 2009, albeit that quizzes are a little thin on the ground. Only Connect finished before Christmas, and Mastermind is still on its break. At least we have University Challenge to be thankful for.

University Challenge Monday 5th January 2009

Its the last match of the second round, and whether by accident or design its also by far the most exciting match of the round too. Last year's runners up, the University of Sheffield, played the University of Exeter. One side then another claimed the ascendancy, and with only a couple of minutes still to go Sheffield had their noses just in front. However an incorrect buzz and a five point deduction wrought the damage . It was a terrific match which neither side really deserved to lose. Still , we now know the 8 teams through to the quarter finals. In order of points scored they are : -

St. John's College Cambridge345
Corpus Christi College Oxford295
Manchester University280
Lincoln College Oxford280
London School of Economics270
Queen's College Cambridge205
City University185
Exeter University175

By my reckoning that's an even split between Oxbridge and others. Believe it or not the odds militate against an Oxbridge win. There have been 14 champions since the show was revived by the BBC in 1995. Amazingly, only the first - Trinity College - has been a Cambridge College. Oxford has produced 6 wins - but then three of those were all Magdalen. 2 London University Colleges - Birkbeck and Imperial have won, and Imperial have won twice. The Open University, Durham, Warwick and Manchester all have a win as well. So it really does seem that there is no Oxbridge bias, just as the makers of the show say. You'd have to say , though, that this St. John's team look as good a prospect for a Cambridge win as any team in many a long year.

In It To Win It

This isn't the kind of show that I'd normally comment on, but its been a thin week TV wise, and I did watch it, so here we go. This is not a show where you'd expect to see serious quizzers contesting it - I know some who audition, but precious few seem to get on. So I won't comment on questions the contestants slipped up on, since these seem mostly just members of the public, giving it their best shot. Good luck to them. Yes, OK, with a couple of exceptions the questions were on the easy side, but then this was never meant to be on a par with The Brain of Britain. It moved along at a decent pace, and I actually felt genuinely sorry for the contestants who missed out on a share of the money. As an aside, my son Michael had an audition for this show, but didn't get through. Shame.

Mastermind Plant Cymru

I'm afraid that my welsh is in no way good enough to enable me to review the show. Still, its the Grand Final on Sunday 11th, and I would like to offer my congratulations to all of the children in the final.

Brain of Britain

Another superb semi final saw newest Egghead Barry Simmons come through in the last round with a full five correct answers and bonus to book his place in the final. Well done sir ! What a final this promises to be. Out of interest, finalists Geoff Thomas and Barry Simmons met in the first semi final of Mastermind 2006 ( I was in the audience as a stand-in ) - and Geoff won and went on to take the title. What price on Barry reversing that result ? Not forgetting that there will be two other finalists as well, of course. I can't wait.

Friday, 9 January 2009

A true Brain of Britain

I don't suppose that the name Irene Thomas means a great deal to quizzers of my age and younger. Yet in her day, in the 60 and 70s, she had a claim to being one of the best known and most popular quizzers in the country, albeit that the term 'quizzer' had probably not even been coined then.

Let me explain why I raise the subject. At a quiz I attended just before Christmas, one of the questions we were asked was
"Name the first ever winner of Mastermind in 1972. "
All 4 of us in the team said "Nancy Wilkinson. " which is of course the correct answer. In the conversation that followed we mulled over the fact that the first 3 winners were all women, and then one of the elder statesmen of the team suggested to me that Irene Thomas had won Mastermind in one of the early series. I replied that he was talking nonsense; not only did Irene Thomas never win Mastermind, according to my list of contestants she had never even entered the show. He replied that he could distinctly remember watching her sitting in the black chair, and answering questions from Magnus Magnusson. Unable to either prove or disprove this assertion on the spot, we moved on to another topic of discussion.

Now, maintaining a reputation as an anally retentive know-all sometimes means you have to put the hours in. As soon as I got home I logged on to ebay, and bought a copy of Irene Thomas' autobiography, "The Bandsman's Daughter". It arrived a couple of weeks ago, and its just now that I have had the time to read over the last couple of days, and very well written and interesting it was too. It seems that I was right, that she never entered a regular series of "Mastermind". However my friend was right as well when he recalled her sitting in the chair answering questions from Magnus. In 1976 Irene Thomas took part in a one off special, called "Supermind", which pitted her , as a representative of "The Round Britain Quiz",against the current champions of "Mastermind" and "The Brain of Britain ", and the Mensa champion. For readers even more anally retentive than I am, the Mensa champion won.

Irene Thomas ( 1919 - 2001 ) had a remarkable career. I already knew that she was the first ever lady to win the title of "Brain of Britain ", and went on to win "Brain of Brains ".I also knew that she went on to become a regular member of the London team in the long-running "Round Britain Quiz ". I personally remember her being a team captain on a short lived, but very good quiz on BBC TV called "Connections" which would have aired around 1983. Chaired by John Julius Norwich, the opposing captain was the current Mastermind and future Egghead Christopher Hughes. It was run along the lines of "The Round Britain Quiz ", and it was all very jolly and enjoyable. At the time I was struck by her remarkable breadth of knowledge and the ease with which she applied it to solve seemingly impenetrable connections.

Reading her book, one thing that did strike me was how little she actually wrote about the quizzes themselves. I would imagine that any quizzer of a similar stature today - possibly a Kevin Ashman or a Daphne Fowler - would probably eat, drink and sleep quizzes. Not so Mrs. Thomas. There's no mention of her ever taking part in quiz leagues, pub quizzes and the like. Probably with good reason. As far as I know there was no such thing as a pub quiz in the 60s and early 70s. Certainly there was no such thing as a 'quiz professional.' Irene Thomas was actually a professional singer. She auditioned for a part in the chorus in the Royal Opera House in 1947, and much to her surprise was hired. In later years she worked for George Mitchell, possibly best known as the creator of The Black and White Minstrels. Incidentally, this leads me to make an observation that one of my definitions of futility is trying to explain the idea of the Black and White Minstrel TV show to anyone under the age of 35. However, I digress.

What intrigued me was that she claimed that she never revised or learned specifically for quizzes, just relied on the things that she had picked up from a natural curiosity and a remarkably retentive memory. You've got to respect that. However it does make me wonder. Irene Thomas, with no quiz background, entered and won the premier quiz title in British broadcasting in 1961, a little short of a half a century ago. Would it be possible today, in 2009, for an amateur with no quiz background at all to enter a quiz show and win one of the top titles - for example Brain of Britain or Mastermind ? The evidence of the last few years suggests not. After all, the last three Brain of Britain winners were Mark Bytheway - current Top Brain and Brain of Brains and the World Champion to boot, Pat Gibson - Mastermind 2005, former World Champion , £1 million winner on Millionaire and Christopher Hughes - Mastermind 1983, and Egghead. The winners of Mastermind in 2005 and 2006 were Pat Gibson, and another superb quizzer with a highly distinguished track record, Geoff Thomas - who is in the final of this year's Brain of Britain. Ok - so my credentials are nothing like as impressive as these luminaries, but I've more than 2 decades of competitive quiz experience, and had appeared on several other TV shows before I won Mastermind, so I could hardly be described as a novice.

One other point occurs. Just looking at the bare facts of Irene Thomas' broadcasting career - all those years spent on "The Round Britain Quiz" could just evoke the tiniest tinge of jealousy. However reading the book it turns out that it took years for her to become a regular panelist, and was not achieved without extreme persistence, sending regular letters to the producers, and receiving regular 'polite' refusals. Perhaps it was the fact she was a woman, from what she herself called an 'upper working class background' without university qualifications. Whatever the case, her persistence eventually bore fruit, when she was asked to be a stand in for the London team at short notice. Her brilliance meant that the temporary substitute soon became the most permanent of fixtures, and that is a lesson to all of us. Yes, for the vast majority of us quizzing is only a game, but its a good game, a game worth sticking with and persevering with to the limits of your ability.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Please Please Tell Me Now -

Is there something I should know ?
Good quiz last night in Newport. Yes, we did win, thank you for asking. In the last round we were asked the question,
"Which record was the last UK number 1 single for the band DuranDuran ? "
Members of the team put together a list of 6 or 7 possible singles, including amongst others Rio, Girls on Film , Planet Earth, Wild Boys, New Moon on Monday, Union of the Snake, Save a Prayer, and so on. I'm happy to say that I put my foot down, and said that the only DuranDuran singles I was certain got to number one were "Is there something I should know ? " and "Reflex" - of which "Reflex " was the later. This proved to be the correct answer.

Being the anally retentive person that I am I googled Duran Duran today, and lo and behold, they did only ever have the two number 1 singles. Quite surprising. Now, don't get me wrong. I wasn't a particular fan of DuranDuran, although every girl I went out with between 1980 and 1984 was, but they were at their biggest at a particularly happy time in my life, the early to mid 80s, when I was at the 6th form , then university. Its easy to forget it now, but they were massive at the time. 2 number 1s only seems a rather poor total, although rivals Spandau Ballet only did manage the one - "True" - come to think of it. "Gold" was kept off the top spot by KC and the Sunshine Band's "Give it Up". Here's a thought on the same subject, and not a pretty one at that. The Spice Girls had more UK number 1 singles than the Rolling Stones. Don't even get me started on Westlife.

I'm meandering. What I think I'm getting at is that when I started quizzing, questions about Duran Duran would have been very much 'current' pop music questions, and would have got the same reaction from most of the teams around then, as questions about, for want of a better example, the Killers and the Arctic Monkeys get from me now. Now such a question only provokes general waves of nostalgia. Which is all yet more incontrovertible proof - should any more be needed - I'm getting old. I don't mind the increasing evidence that I'm past it - I just never realised that I actually ever reached it in the first place.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

On Cheats and Cheating

Looking over my quiz resolutions earlier today, I noticed that I have resolved to stop giving two teams a hard time for cheating with their wap phones in the quiz in the rugby club. It set me to thinking about my experience of (other) people cheating in a quiz.

You do sometimes wonder why people feel the need to cheat in a pub quiz. There have been times when there's been a freak result on a Sunday Night, and you can't help thinking that its been done to take you down a peg or two. As I've said before, one of the worst things you can do to any man ( I say man advisedly ) is to make him feel stupid in his own local. Possibly its lust for the prizes on offer. More likely it has to do with being top dog on your own patch. Whatever the reasons, it does go on. For what its worth, these are the methods I've either seen being used, or been told of by an eyewitness.

1) Phone A Friend

Who Wants to be a Millionaire has a lot to answer for. Everyone except me has a mobile phone these days. If your phone gives you internet connection , then you've got ready access to The Fount Of All Human Wisdom - or as its otherwise known - wikipedia. Even if it doesn't you can still ring Whatsisname who knows everything there is to know about whatever it is you're stuck with. I would love to be able to say just how widespread phone cheating is in quizzes. But the fact is I don't know, and nobody does. After all, halfway through a round when you see a person in another team chatting away animatedly to their phone, for all you know they might be making their weekly phone call to their dear silver haired old granny. So you say nothing, and if they are cheating, they get away with it. I have heard of pubs where phones are banned for the duration of the quiz, but policing this is too hard to make it more than a token gesture towards the notion of fair play.

2) Let Your Fingers Do The Walking

Thinking about the Rugby club, one of the teams that uses a phone also backs this up with recourse to a book ! They're not the only team to do it either. If you use anything like a list question - who won whatever in 1997 - for example, the book will be opened in their laps and both teams will invariably get the question right.This is absolutely true, and they're totally shameless about it. I have to say that the two individuals who do it are both women. Last year during one of my stints as Qm I did try to shame them, by telling them personally over the mike not to use their books, and suggesting that if they were that desperate to win they should come up to my table and I'd show them the answers. At the end of the quiz Brian, the organiser, gave me a telling-off for saying it. Not that he was trying to say that they weren't cheating, only that I shouldn't have embarrassed them about it. Embarrassed ! They were so embarrassed that they continued to cheat throughout the rest of the quiz, and in ever one of my quizzes since !

3) Ask the Audience

The only times that other men have approached me in the Gents Toilets with an indecent proposal has been during quizzes. In a certain type of quiz you are almost guaranteed to be approached in the gents at half time, and offered a chance to swap answers with other teams - they'll give you something you don't know for something they don't know. Its actually normal practice in some quizzes, so much so that the QM actually had a quiet word with John and I after a quiz we won, telling us that other teams had complained when we had refused to swap some answers with them. So far from being the only team who weren't morally bankrupt, we were made to feel somehow that we were a bad influence on the quiz.

4) You scratch my answers and I'll scratch yours

The fact is that if teams mark each others' papers there is always the opportunity for collusion. Like phone cheating it is notoriously difficult to prove this has actually happened. The only way you can be absolutely that Team A hasn't been colluding with Team B is to grab their paper as quick as possible to mark it yourself so that they don't have the chance. I'm fairly sure that one team in The Culverhouse on Sunday thinks that John and I have been cheating somehow, since they always grab our paper as soon as the last round ends.

5) I'm All Ears ( and Eyes )

'Earwigging' is a commonly known term in quiz circles. I think I probably need to define my terms here. If the layout of a particular venue means that you can't avoid sitting close to each other, and you accidentally overhear some of another team's correct answers, then that's not your fault, and you can't be blamed for it. However there is a world of difference between this unlooked for ( or unlistened for ) windfall, and the practice of earwigging, which means deliberately listening for another team's answers. The good thing about earwigging is that its easy enough to fix a team that you suspect of doing it. Just feed them some wrong'uns, and laugh like a musketeer when they realise what you've done. I was playing in a Sunday night quiz league when we suspected that our opposition were doing just this. We fed them three wrong'uns in the last round, and they swallowed them all, hook, line, sinker and copy of the Angling Times. They left after the announcement of the result without even saying goodbye.
Its more difficult to protect your answers from prying eyes, but then its less necessary too, for if someone else is trying to catch a glimpse of your answers, chances are they're making it obvious that they're doing so.

6) Sleeping With the Question Master

This isn't as bad as it sounds. What I really mean is receiving aid from the question master in the careful selection of questions which he/she knows will particularly suit one particular team or player. Case in point, one of the guest QMs we had in the rugby club a few years ago. Whenever he did the quiz, his wife would still play with his usual team. With the result that all bar one team would average between 3 and 5 out of 10 on his ridiculously boring and difficult questions, whereas the team with his wife would average between 9 and 10 on his ridiculously difficult and boring questions. At the end of the last quiz he did for us he announced that he was doing a charity quiz in a different venue in a week or two's time. I shouted out that my money was on whatever team his wife was in to win. He never offered to do another quiz for us again.

Mel Smith - UC Night - Elthorne High School Mastermind

I'm pleased to be able to follow up my comments on Mel Smith's worrying appearance on sleb MM4. Apparently I wasn't the only person who thought he seemed worryingly ill when he appeared on New Years Eve. This from the Daily Mail,

" A BBC spokesman said : "Mel was unwell on the day of the recording with a serious throat infection. He was representing a charity and didn't want to let them down. We were grateful he went ahead with the recording despite not being at his best. "

Get well soon Mel.

I haven't been to another quiz since last Sunday, and that was a quiz in Welsh, so was far from a typical quiz experience for me. So I've been having to live vicariously even more than usual through TV quizzes this last fortnight or so. I watched the BBC's University Challenge night last week, and quite enjoyed it, even though there wasn't a lot that was all that fresh on the menu. I've seen the documentary before, and also the Comic Relief North v. South special. I love the Young Ones episode with the Scumbag College v. Footlights College Oxbridge University Challenge - well I love all of them - but again its something I've seen many times. This wasn't Griff's first time playing Bamber Gascoigne. He'd also played him a couple of years earlier on "Not The Nine O'Clock News" in a sketch based on UC - HM Prisons Challenge ( umm - was it Reggie 'The Dog' Trubshawe ? ) I was glad that they put the film "Starter for Ten " on afterwards - I read the novel a few years ago, but this was the first time I've seen the film.

It all bought back the regret I still feel that I never got on University Challenge. Its not strictly my fault, mind. Goldsmiths College, University of London, is my alma mater, and we never had a team in the series for all of my 3 years - 84 - 86. What surprised me even more, though, is a little bit of research reveals that we have never had a team reach the televised stages of the competition. As far as I know the same arrangement works for London as for Oxford and Cambridge - individual colleges apply separately. I don't think that this happens for Durham, though, which is interesting. I suppose there is always UC The Professionals, but then there's all the hassle of getting a team together. Or alternatively I could enroll for a degree in the Open University. Having said that its a bit drastic just to get onto UC, albeit that its the show I would love to go on more than any other I haven't been on.

I was contacted by one of my teachers through Friends Reunited a week or so ago. During my last three years in the school, we ran our own "Mastermind" competition. I won the inaugural running of it in 1981, performed abysmally in 1982, and was respectably mid table in 1983. The 1983 performance was all the more remarkable considering that it was run on the evening of the same day that I heard I had an unconditional offer of a place at Goldsmiths, and so by the time the competition started I was, not to put too fine a point on it, drunk.

Geoff, the teacher, contacted me to say that his friend Clive, who'd been the question master, had found a recording of one of the contests. The fact was that they'd been recorded, and broadcast on local hospital radio. So, lets see if you can guess which contest live found. Would it be 1981, where I won ? Nope. Would it be 1983 where I did respectably ? I should cocoa. No, it was none other than the 1982 contest, where I failed dismally , and alright, I might not have come last, but certainly was way down the bottom half of the draw. You probably won't be surprised when I say that I turned Geoff down.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Sleb Mastermind 5 - Thursday 1st January - end of the series

Sleb Mastermind 5 Thursday 1st January

The last show of this run, and it only seems like five days since it started. Which is no surprise, since it is just five days since it started. After the 'crib sheet' nonsense, you can't help wondering whether there will ever be another one. I hope so.

First up was Phil "Park Life" Daniels answering on Chelsea FC in the 1970s. An interesting decade for Chelsea. They began it with an FA Cup win in a replay against Leeds, and then won hardly anything else for the rest of the decade. Still they had some great and larger than life players during the time, hence questions on Chopper Harris, Peter Osgood and Alan Hudson to name 3. A damn good round which saw our boy only falter on the very last question of all, to gain 16 and no passes.

Rick Wakeman came next. Now Rick is a good old London Borough of Ealing boy , like myself. I also loved Richmal Crompton's Just William stories, which was Rick's specialist subject, so I will admit that I was rooting for him. Alas, the old prog rocker managed 10 which left him pretty much out of contention even at this early stage.

The start of Ian Lavender's round provided the finest comic moment of the series. When asked " Your name ? " Rick Wakeman shouted from the sidelines "Don't tell him, Pike !" Well, it made me laugh. It made Ian Lavender laugh a bit as well, and it did mean that he was a couple of questions into his round on Buster Keaton before he really settled to his task. 9 was actually a pretty decent score if you listened to his rather complicated and involved questions, but it meant that he was out of the running as well.

Tim Vine brought the first round to a finish, answering on Elvis Presley. Considering that he dropped 2 absolute sitters, when failing to answer 'Colonel Tom Parker' and 'Gracelands' to a couple of gimmes, he produced a very good quickfire round to score 15 and 1 pass, thus ensuring that we had a real contest in the GK rounds.

Ian Lavender became the first, and in fact only contender in this series to score more on GK than he did on his specialist round. His 12 and 2 passes took him past 20, and when we look at the results for the whole series, this is enough to give him middle of the table respectability. He finished on 21. Rick Wakeman, despite the support and encouragement emanating from my armchair, could only add 7 to his total for 17. Tim Vine rose to John Humphrys' challenge, and told about 10 jokes of varied quality in 30 seconds. Then he rose to the challenge of the GK round, and scored 13, to set the target for Phil Daniels on 28. After telling us that he has recently come to terms for being chiefly remembered for his role in "Quadrophenia", Mr. Daniels poo-poohed his chances, saying that he only knows about sport. Well, by the standards of this series at least he acquitted himself reasonably, scoring 8, but he never looked likely to overhaul Tim Vine.

Tonight's pass total was even lower than last night's with 13 only for the whole show.

The Details

Phil Daniels Chelsea FC in the 70s 16 - 0 /8 - 3 /24 - 3
Rick WakemanJust William Books10 - 2 /7 - 5 /17 - 7
Ian LavenderBuster Keaton Films9 - 0 /12 - 2 / 21 - 2
Tim VineElvis Presley 15 - 1 /13 - 0 /28 -1

Well, that's it then. With regards to the series as a whole : -

Highest overall total for the series was Philippa Gregory with 30

Highest Specialist total for the series were: -
David Harewood with 17 and 1 pass on Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials Trilogy.
Sally Lindsay with 17 and no passes on the Carry On Films.

Highest General Knowledge total for the series was Philippa Gregory with 14.

Lowest overall total for the series was David Lammy with 13 and 6 passes.

Lowest Specialist total for the series was also David Lammy, with 8 points and 1 pass on The Life and Career of Muhammed Ali.

Lowest General Knowledge total for the series were : -
Toyah Wilcox
Rav Wilding
Bob Harris - all of whom scored 4 correct answers and 5 passes.

Highest Number of passes for the series was Andrew Neil with 11.

Aggregate totals - Episodes

Total Points scored -

Episode 1 - 75
Episode 2 - 93
Episode 3 - 76
Episode 4 - 83
Episode 5 - 90

Total Specialist points

Episode 1 - 47
Episode 2 - 56
Episode 3 - 53
Episode 4 - 53
Episode 5 - 50

Total General Knowledge points

Episode 1 - 28
Episode 2 - 37
Episode 3 - 23
Episode 4 - 30
Episode 5 - 40

Total Passes

Episode 1 - 22
Episode 2 - 19
Episode 3 - 34
Episode 4 - 19
Episode 5 - 13

So, looking at the above, its a toss up between episodes 2 and 5 for the best in the series, with episodes 1 and 3 being notably weaker than the others. For the record, here are the full individual results.

The Whole Series - Results

* NB Winners of individual shows are italicised and underlined

Phillippa Gregory16 - 0 /14 - 2 /30 - 2
Tim Vine15 - 1 /13 - 0 /28 - 1
Sally Lindsay17 - 0 /10 - 3 /27 - 3
Mark Chapman13 - 0 /12 - 2 /25 - 2
Dave Myers12 -1 /12 - 1 /24 - 2
Phil Daniels16 - 0 /8 - 324 - 3
David Harewood17 - 1 /7 - 5 /24 - 6
Jon Culshaw16 - 3 /7 - 6 /23 - 9
Mel Smith16 - 0 /6 - 4 /22 - 4
John Sessions15 - 0 /7 - 7 /22 - 7
Ian Lavender9 - 0 /12 - 2 /21 - 2
Andrew Neil14 - 3 /6 - 8 /20 - 11
Summer Strallen11 - 2 /7 - 1 /18 - 3
Louise Minchin12 - 1 /6 - 8 /18 -9
Rick Wakeman10 - 2 /7 - 5 /17 - 7
Bob Harris12 - 2 /4 - 5 /16 - 7
Mick Hucknall9 - 4 /7 - 5 /16 - 9
Rav Wilding11 - 1 /4 - 5 /15 - 6
Toyah Wilcox10 - 3 /4 - 5 /14 - 8 /
David Lammy8 - 1 /5 - 5 /13 - 6

Sleb Mastermind 4 Weds 31st December

Sleb Mastermind 4 Wednesday 31st December

Well, at least the show has provided 3 people I've heard of tonight. Summer Strallen wasn't a name I was previously aware of, but research reveals that she's a West End musical leading lady who took over the role of Maria from Connie Fisher, and her aunt is Bonnie Langford. Now, lets get on with the review.

Sally Lindsay kicked off with The Carry On Films. This wasn't the most difficult set of questions that has ever been asked on Sleb MM, but you've got to say that there were a few difficult ones in there, and she managed to get almost all of them. A fine performance. Just out of interest, I wondered if they would have allowed such a non PC subject if it had been a male contender who'd asked to do it ?

Mick Hucknall took us a considerable way upmarket with the Life and Career of Henri Matisse. It must have been getting on for half a minute before he actually got one right, and for a while it looked as if he was going to challenge David Lammy's lowest specialist score of the series so far. He rallied, though, and pulled back to a respectable 9.

The afore-mentioned Ms.Strallen followed with Breeds of Dog. I enjoyed this round because a lot of the questions were standard pub quiz questions - what doesn't a basenji do ? - the Dandie Dinmont is named after a character in a book by which scottish author ? - name the Skye Terrier who kept guard over his master's grave for 14 years - you get the point. 11 was quite a good score for this round, but not a good enough score to put her into contention really.

Mel Smith. I hope that there is nothing seriously wrong with Mel Smith , one of my 'Not The Nine O'Clock News' heroes, but he sounded terrible. If he's been ill recently, or suffered from a condition which is common knowledge and I've just missed it, then I apologise. Still he handled a tricky round with aplomb. Shakespeare wrote a lot of comedies and the questions that were asked about them weren't all gimmes by any stretch of the imagination. 16 and 0 passes certainly put him into contention.

Well, in shows 2 and 3 the leader at the halfway stage went on to win. Yes I know that both Philippa Gregory and Jon Culshaw scored 16 in their first rounds of their show, but Philippa Gregory had fewer passes. However we also had Dave Myers overturn a 5 point lead to win on passes in show 1. So it was by no means a foregone conclusion that Sally Lindsay would win, especially if any of the other three could really put on a show in the GK round. Mick Hucknall didn't, managing 7. This was matched by Summer Strallen, whose 7 took the target to beat up to 18. Mel Smith started well on the General knowledge round, but then something seemed to happen, and he lost all oomph or concentration. It just seemed too much for him in this condition, and he struggled to 6 for 22. Sally Lindsay played the best general knowledge round of the show. She had the sense to answer what she did know, guess what she thought she could guess, and pass what she didn't. Her 10, which gave her 27, was actually only the 4th GK round of this series to get into double figures, and puts her second overall for this series with one show to go. For the record there were 17 passes in total on this show - exactly half the amount on yesterday's show.

The Details

Sally Lindsay The Carry On Films17 - 0 /10 - 3 /27 - 3
Mick HucknallHenri Matisse 9 - 4 /7 - 5 /16 - 9
Summer StrallenDog Breeds11 - 2 /7 - 1 / 18 - 3
Mel SmithThe Comedies of Shakespeare 16 - 0 /6 - 4 / 22 - 4