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.

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