Culture Clash

I’m an avid viewer of ‘University Challenge’ but there’s something that always bothers me about it. It’s obviously a difficult quiz show with subject matters which reflect academia – that’s fine. It’s what the contestants are there for and it’s what the viewers watch it for.

But what bothers me is that, in the early rounds, the once-a-show music question might be either something to do with classical music or pop music, but when it comes to the later rounds it is always, without fail unless anyone can contradict me on this, on classical music. As if they’re throwing the stupid ones a bone early on, but when it gets serious, getting on with the proper stuff. I’d much rather there was no popular music at all than that it’s quite clearly treated as something “beneath”.

I fear this is reflected in Paxman’s own attitude whenever something from the “low-culture” world enters the realm. The superciliousness which he is – often unjustly – famed for enters his voice. “How ridiculous of you to know that!” he seems to say (sometimes he doesn’t seem to say it, he just says it …). “How ridiculous that anyone bothers to know that.” The danger, for him, is that this blanket approach to the low arts can make him look a bit silly – I remember a question about Canadian singers where he took the same “what nonsense!” approach to a team identifying songs by Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain and Joni Mitchell. It doesn’t take a degree in pop music and a slavish devotion to the greatness of late 60s/early 70s singer-songwriters to know that there are vastly different degrees of “nonsense” within that question. He ended up just looking a little ignorant.

Perhaps it reflects his own tastes and cultural perspective, perhaps it’s the show’s party line. It’s a highbrow show for highbrow people, fine. That’s its USP. But, both in my professional life and my personal life,  I find the persistence of that cultural divide pretty insidious.

As a quiz master, it works both ways. First of all, to fend off any claims of hypocrisy, those who’ve ever been to a QuizQuizQuiz quiz might know we often include a round called Culture Clash where, yes, we differentiate between “High” and “Low” Culture. We say there’s something for everyone,  a bit about books, art, and a bit about film and TV. I’d like to claim that’s a bold subversion and a lesson in breaking down the walls of elitism but, nah, it’s just a good round format where we try not to exclude anyone, where there’s an opportunity for a good range of questions.

If we do that round, we make it fair. We make it suit the crowd. It might be weighted more one way or another depending on who it’s for, but, either way, it’s generally about well-known books, well-known artists, well-known TV  shows, well-known films – interesting facts and quirky questions within that.

So it can be frustrating when the eyes roll when I say “Now a question about classical music” or, likewise, “Which TV show …”. I’ve mentioned before, there’s nothing which’ll make a quiz master grit their teeth so much as the phrases “I wasn’t even born then” or “I don’t know anything about celebrities/pop music/TV”.

The thing is anything can be good and anything can, likewise, be worth knowing. Culturally speaking, if I live up to that credo, it means saying that the possibility of there being a good song by Westlife exists or the possibility of a good film by Michael Bay or a good TV show featuring Amanda Holden. It is possible, it might even already be real … might not … People might describe this as a form of (pop) cultural relativism.

Likewise, it follows that within each topic is something worth knowing. Our job as question writers is to find the thing worth knowing, or at least worth thinking about, within the topic, but the responsibility of the quizzer, as I see it, is to at least not dismiss the subject out of hand before it’s begun. I’ve seen people scorn questions about everything from sport to celebrity to politics to history to theology to pop music to TV to geography (really, I have! I mean, how do you think geography is beneath you?), and it bugs me.

Trivia’s a funny word, isn’t it? I disapprove of its use when applied to quizzes. Sometimes I tell people I write and run quizzes. “Like, trivia?” they say “No, not trivia, quizzes”. The word trivia is more persistent in America than the UK when applied to quizzes, to the business of knowing stuff in a competitive format.

But the word “trivial” is right there in both countries – that which is trifling, inessential. My “high-culture” background tells me that it’s from the Latin for where three roads meet, i.e that which is appropriate to the street corner, tittle-tattle. But whether is on high culture, low culture, celebrities, Ancient Greek architecture, sport or fashion, I think you’re missing a trick if you treat all or any of it as “trivia”, as vulgar and irrelevant to higher concerns. One day something that you learn  at a quiz may just save your life … or at least save you in an awkward social situation.




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