The Return of Fifteen to One

A new series of the classic quizzer’s quiz show, ’15 to 1′, has been and gone. How did they do?

A constant feature of my last few years at school and my university years, Channel 4’s magic hour from 4 to 5 was the perfect time for the all-round quizzing brain. ‘Countdown’ for the problem-solving, ’15 to 1′ for the pure knowledge. It was simple and brutal, and you got a phenomenal number of questions for your money. It stopped after 15 years in 2003 (I myself had just made a disappointing appearance on the show – Vivaldi, dammit, why didn’t I say Vivaldi) and came back for a 20-part series presented by Sandi Toksvig.

I was not yet a professional writer of quiz questions or a quiz master in 2003, so my perspective is a little different. I’m not interested in being hypercritical – and in truth, I only watched a few episodes of the revamped show – but it’s impossible not to have my quizman’s hat on.

I think, by and large, it was fine, true to the spirit of the old show and very solid. It was a full hour (it used to be half an hour, didn’t it) and I think there was a little more, though not much, in the way of chat and banter. The main format change, which every quiz show seems to be doing now, is that contestants get more than one chance. Three, in fact. Again, I like that. You spend all day at the studio, you might have come from miles away, I think probably it was overly brutal to get 2 questions wrong and then go home!

I heard a criticism that there could be a huge disparity in the difficulty level of questions but twas always thus, wasn’t it? That was part of the fun of the show, I always thought. Will I get lucky? Will I get a couple of stinkers? It would be really hard to produce that many questions of a similar difficulty.

And how were the questions? Pretty decent, generally. Often rather different from the kind of questions I write for pub  and corporate quizzes, where I have a general unwritten rule that the answer to a question will always be a word of phrase that everyone taking part will at least have heard at some point. There is, nor should there be, no such concession to “giving people a chance” in 15 to 1. There’s a lot of “you know it or you don’t” stuff, but for a quiz show like that, which really is about the people who know the most winning, well, that’s fine. You can’t blag, guess or  think your way through.

How about Sandi Toksvig? I think she was good. She’s got a bit more banter than William G Stewart, she’s obviously very clever, an experienced quiz host, maybe brings a bit more (incongruous) warmth to the show.

She read the questions off a tablet, and I’m not too sure about that. The way she’d scroll to a question, then look at it, then ask it, rather highlighted the fact that sometimes she was looking at the question for the first time. Occasionally she’d mispronounce words too. It’s pretty hard to know every question inside out when you’re asking that many, but that’s what William G Stewart was masterful at. As producer and presenter of the show, he really did seem like he’d written every question and knew absolutely everything. I remember him appearing on Celebrity Mastermind a few years ago and I was shocked that he was good, but not great.

I’m sure she’ll grow into that, and the producers will realise the importance of it. In almost all circumstances, from the humble pub quiz to the most prestigious game show, the quiz master should give the impression that they wrote the question, even if they didn’t. Only in certain circumstances does the matey “we’re all finding something new out together” thing work, and it’s even worse when a quiz master undermines the question in any way.

Anyway, I hope this revived series was a success and I hope they bring it back in a big way for a prolonged run. Formats come, formats go, but there’s something about its purity and simplicity which will always find it an audience with quizzers.

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