Judi Dench recently revealed that people often ask her if she has played anything else besides M in James Bond. Just all the Shakespeare and Chekhov… Harry Redknapp’s successful defence against tax evasion charges was essentially that he could barely read or write.
When her third child was born Posh Beckham claimed, and oh, how I hope she exaggerated, that she had never read a book to her children. The late Jade Goody thought a certain county to be called East Angular.
The most common criticism of the Cabinet is that too many of its members were too well educated, having been to Eton and Oxford. Indeed David Cameron sends his own children to local primary schools and looks round for the applause. You might be forgiven for thinking there is something wrong with first-class education.
The newspapers are full of celebrities talking about their kitchens but never their libraries, about Prozac but never poetry. Their addictions include everything but learning. Rather too many TV quiz shows reflect this dumbing down by defining general knowledge as the contents of soaps (Coronation Street, not the composition of Palmolive) and pop charts. Pythagoras? Who he? Which band was he in? Square roots? Yeah, must be some sort of hair dye. Pilate? A Roman governor? I thought it was that exercise thingy.
Of course there are exceptions, such as University Challenge, where it can be a struggle Ann Widdecombe to understand the question, let alone come up with the answer; Only Connect, which is so demanding that it languishes on BBC4; and Mastermind.
Why have Mastermind and University Challenge survived all these years? Because there is a genuine thirst for knowledge out there. They are also polite, give or take the odd look of incredulity from Paxo.
The first question I posed when asked to host my own TV quiz was: is it polite? I hate Weakest Link, where eliminated contestants take “the walk of shame”. What is shameful about losing a round in a quiz show? It is hardly drugs or adultery.
The second question was: is it clever? The short answer is: “yes”. On Cleverdicks I can begin a question with “Its atomic weight is 22.99…” and before I have moved to the next clue, two contestants will have buzzed in with the correct answer, “Sodium”. It leaves me awed and, yes, just a trifle envious. I wish I knew only a fraction of what any of them knows.
It is not just speed of memory but speed of deduction, as they carry out feats of elimination and analysis that lead them to the right answer in a split second. I was unsurprised when librarians turned up but just a trifle disconcerted by the large number of Inland Revenue employees. Do they look up from our tax returns and throw each other general-knowledge questions to relieve boredom? It may comfort viewers to know that a tax inspector appears to be quite a genial sort of cove. So who were their role models?
Not the Redknapps and Beckhams of this world. But given that the young are unlikely to be inspired by librarians or tax collectors, it is vital that celebrities are seen to value education, that it is cool to be clever, that knowledge is not the sole preserve of the bookish.
Instead of falling out of nightclubs, perhaps Kate Moss could emerge from a library; or instead of boasting about how many pints they can drink, sports personalities could boast about how many points they got in the pub quiz. Well, I can always hope!
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 21 February 2012.