Here’s your starter for ten: when did British quizzing begin? In the parlours of Victorian London? As a game in the coffee houses of the 17th century?
Sorry, five-point deduction. Britain learned to quiz from the BBC – and when it all began, around the start of the Second World War, we didn’t call them quizzes. We called them “bees”. If that word makes you think of spelling bees – those peculiar American contests of orthography – you’re thinking along the right lines.
In 1938, the BBC and America’s NBC collaborated on a programme called Transatlantic Spelling Bee, pitching a team from Oxford University against one from Harvard and Radcliffe. It might have become an annual contest, but the outbreak of war in Europe quashed those lofty hopes.
Listeners were, though, hugely keen on this new kind of programme, where teams of people pressed buzzers to show off what they knew. Soon, the format was put to national service. In Agricultural Bee, young women were quizzed not on spelling but on “What Land Girls ought to know”, while the Air Raid Wardens’ Training Bee pitted men against women to see who knew more about gas-mask procedure.
Another show, entitled A Competition: Sons in France against Parents in England, promised almost unbearable poignancy in the form of quizzing family reunions, live on air. The reality was a little less poignant: Dutch courage on the part of the sons led to audible vomiting and a behind-the-scenes panic that one of them might blurt out their location and reveal it to the Germans.
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Part of the appeal was hearing “ordinary” folk on the genteel BBC. One presenter who was extremely good with ordinary people was Wilfred Pickles. He hosted Fireguard Quiz (testing helmeted men, not protective wire frames) in wartime and then Have a Go! in peacetime (it ran 1946–67), quizzing around the country with his catchphrase “Give ’em the money, Barney!”
Meanwhile, that schoolmaster-ish improving mission of those early quizzes translated well to postwar TV, and two of the biggest beasts in quiz came directly from the war. University Challenge, almost unbelievably, started life as an evening’s activity for GIs, designed to keep them on base rather than wandering off and getting into trouble.
And it was the three years that he spent as the Gestapo’s prisoner-of-war that inspired BBC producer Bill Wright to concoct a new quiz. His tormentors’ demands for name, rank and serial number became Mastermind’s name, occupation and specialist subject. Wright kept the darkness, the intimidating chair – and host Magnus Magnusson was billed as “Interrogator”.
Both these shows were cancelled late in the 20th century – but both soon returned, and in prime time. And nowhere else in the world do very tough quizzes attract large numbers of viewers to watch smart people compete not for life-changing cash but for a rose bowl or a glass swan. As University Challenge’s original host Bamber Gascoigne put it, “It’s great fun to hear strange things that you don’t actually know about.”
In the 21st century, the quiz remains part of the furniture of TV, from the professional fact-hoovers of Eggheads and The Chase to the bittersweet consolation of the “coveted” Pointless trophy – and all thanks to that Transatlantic Spelling Bee.
How Quizzing Got Cool: TV’s Brains of Britain is on tonight at 9pm on BBC4
Alan Connor’s new book, The Joy of Quiz, is out now