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December 13, 2010

Lincoln Allison gets very nervous on Brain of Britain - and offers an anatomy of quizzes and quizzing

Posted by Lincoln Allison

I am not a nervous person, but I became very nervous recently. Normally, it is only the Henry Newbolt moment that gets to me: skipper, batting number eleven and the ninth wicket goes down with the target still attainable. Am I a hero or an over-the-hill wuss? But this had nothing to do with cricket; it was because I had been accepted onto Brain of Britain, the Radio 4 quiz which has some claim to be the oldest and most serious media quiz. BoB has a brutal and unforgiving format which means that if you get your first question wrong you may not get to answer one again until your opponents all err, by which time you may be way behind. But an appearance on BoB had always been on my post-retirement list of things to do. So here I was, having scored 84% in the audition.

All of which set me thinking about the nature of quizzes and quizzing: Who quizzes and who doesn't? What are the philosophical dimensions of quizzing? What makes a good quiz? I was a fairly latecomer to all of this, not having made it onto University Challenge. I was a reserve for one team and selected for another, but it never happened; either I was away or the team didn't make some sort of cut. So my first involvement was in the quizzes in the working men's clubs in my wife's home town of Billingham. Tough stuff, with lots of popular culture and local knowledge, though we did win occasionally and I remember a jackpot triumph achieved by knowing that Hore-Belisha's package of traffic reforms was enacted in 1935.

The real breakthrough came when I was around forty and a student recruited me to his pub quiz team, the Simple Simon in Warwick, so-called because it was next to the pie factory. Over the next decade the team, sans student and consisting of academics and schoolteachers, acquired a stack of trophies including a Whitbread National Championship for which we beat a team from Cheltenham who mainly worked for GCHQ.

Apart from that I (and often we because my wife shares the taste) have competed in pub, club, parish, PTA and radio quizzes and won countless bottles of wine and drinks vouchers, test match tickets, hampers and cash sums in envelopes. We're global: winnings include a $1,200 book of vouchers from the local chamber of trade in California, $550A for an 11-week jackpot in a pub in Perth and a television in the United Arab Emirates. Despite all this I am usually reluctant to get involved. I'll play cricket or tennis at the drop of a hat without worrying about the likelihood of defeat, but quizzing is different because I expect to win and I'm slightly affronted if I don't. When Trivial Pursuit was introduced I won the game at one go and was quite relieved when nobody asked me to play again.

I would argue that quizzing is not a sport, but that it has many sport-like features, especially in psychological terms because things like confidence and trust in teammates are just as important as in any game. But if you think of it as a sport the presentation of it on the media has a unique peculiarity, which is that contests at a very low level of competence are considered at least as entertaining as those between experts. It is as if you could get as good a television audience for an annual works cricket match featuring players who only turned out once a year as you could for an Ashes test.

University Challenge is a very good quiz with at least some very good quizzers and it is currently BBC2's most popular programme. On the other hand, The Weakest Link used to be the most popular programme on the channel until it was moved to BBC1 in 2008. It features contestants who are disturbingly ignorant and who can vote each other off the show. Their main satisfaction, when interviewed after their demise, appears to lie in having been insulted by Anne Robinson; it must feel like being noticed by the gods!

All of which makes me think that the true spirit of quizzing is unusually elusive and can be most easily defined by what it disdains. The list must start with naff quizzes, those in which ignorance is not properly punished: in Eggheads, for example, an amazingly bad team can beat a really good one just by having a bit of luck in choosing between three answers in the last round. Even so, the feat is not often achieved. Other quizzes for non-quizzers are the specialist ones which do not require a range of knowledge, especially those which confine themselves to contemporary popular culture. (I think the only time I've ever been last was when I mistakenly found myself in a quiz on popular music.)

Almost equally annoying are quizzes where most of the questions are ridiculously easy; once in a Sussex pub, for example, we got 48 right out of 50 and came fourth. In any case most ordinary pub quizzes, as opposed to organised leagues, have now become tests of information retrieval systems rather than of knowledge. I was at a skittles match recently when the barman asked me, across a crowded room, the name of the star of the recent biopic on Ray Charles. I told him it was Jamie Foxx, pointed out the strange spelling, and asked him why he wanted to know. Of course, he was texting the information to a mate in a pub quiz.

The other great bęte noire of serious quizzers is the badly formulated question. "Which is the odd one out . . . ?" is almost invariably in this category since, whatever they are, it is likely that they will all be the odd one out in some respect. So is "What is the largest city in Africa?" because there are no properly established conventions dealing with the size of cities. For instance, some American reference books have the size of Manchester as in excess of four million because the concept of "standard metropolitan statistical area" includes huge swathes of Lancashire and Cheshire in Manchester. English sources make it a fraction of that size. Questions on English counties are generally to be avoided because there at least two different systems of county boundaries in operation. On the other hand, "Which is the highest ground of a professional football club in England?" is a good, if over familiar, question as is "Which is the largest country in Africa in area?" because altitude and area are incontestable. (West Bromwich Albion and the Sudan, in case you didn't know.)

Turning this round we can see that the true spirit of quizzing is a love of pure facts. These occur when there are agreed and precise conventions both for the application of words and for the testing of information. Most of our lives involve ambiguity, ignorance, evaluation, hypothesis, judgement and similar mental tribulations so it is very pleasant to relax with hard, dependable facts. The love of detail is the love of life and it is strangely, randomly, democratically distributed. I know distinguished academics who operate on a "need to know" basis and have very little knowledge which they don't have a use for. But I also know carpenters and postmen who have a wealth of knowledge.

Personally, I can never be entirely comfortable with people who don't even want to know how many times Rangers have won the Scottish Cup or what the coldest temperature ever recorded in Norway was. One of my never-to-be-written novels is called The Quizmaster and it is about a political leader who introduces quizzes for the distribution of jobs, benefits and so on and then moves on to a population reduction policy based on quizzing . . .

So: how did I get on? In the week leading up to the contest my imagination constantly flirted with Kipling's twins, Triumph and Disaster. Either I would get every question right and have the audience open-mouthed with admiration. Or I would suffer from age-related nominal aphasia so that I could "see" Cary Grant's face vividly in my mind but couldn't remember his damn name. In the event neither of these things occurred; I was runner-up, a poor second, but not disgraced. The man who beat me was Mark Kerr, who has also distinguished himself on Mastermind, Only Connect et al. There was some notion that I was rather unlucky with my questions and I certainly struggled with timing the buzzer, not a feature of other quizzes I've been in. I remained, in short, a good amateur in every sense of that complex word.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is The Disrespect Agenda: Or How the Wrong Kind of Niceness Is Making Us Weak and Unhappy.


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"they say" that going East from the Hawthorns the next highest ground is in the Urals. Probably an urban myth, but it sometimes felt like that on a December Saturday.

Posted by: Laban Tall at December 14, 2010 12:20 PM
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It would need a very good physical map to check this precisely, but following the parallel from West Brom eastwards one does appear to pass sufficiently far north of the Harz Mountains in Germany.

Thereafter, it’s pretty flat all the way. So perhaps what “they say” is true.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at December 31, 2010 04:39 PM
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The recent election in the Sudan may change the answer to the "largest country in Africa by area" question, if it does result in the splitting of the country. But a quibbler could point out that the two sections might not be autonomous for all purposes. Is San Marino really an independent country?

Posted by: Robert Speirs at January 11, 2011 06:24 PM
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