William G Stewart

Although it’s now a few months since he died, I thought I’d write about William G. Stewart, the host of Fifteen-to-One. I loved Fifteen-to-One as I was growing up – it is easy to forget what an oasis of quizzing it was in the early-to-mid 90s. University Challenge didn’t come back till 1994, Millionaire and The Weakest Link weren’t until later, there was no Only Connect, no Pointless, no The Chase. There were a lot of game shows, a lot of light entertainment, but not all that much in the way of serious quizzing.

I knew I liked quizzes – I retained information well and tended to do pretty well when teachers ran quizzes at the end of term. We played Trivial Pursuit at home, too, but apart from that, too young for pub quizzes, there weren’t many avenues for regularly testing my quizzing abilities.

15-to-1 was a dream. Half an hour of compact, solid quizzery. It was usually on at 4, before Countdown, so I quite often didn’t get back from school in time for it, but I’d always watch it in the holidays. The format was notoriously spare – a means to whittle down 15 hopefuls to one winner as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It was brutal – there was no chat, just 2 (or 3, depending on what round you reached) lives, no coming back another day (unless you won the episode – and there were some exceptionally fine quizzers among the daily and series winners). But that was what I, and other people, loved about it. This kind of crisp format needed the right host, and it had it.

I think William G Stewart might even be a little underrated as a quiz host. Not surprisingly, how to run a quiz well is something I’ve given a great deal of thought to in the last decade or so. There are different types, as there should be, but, of his type, I think Stewart was the very best.

His persona was utterly disinterested in small talk, but he was not cold or pompous. He didn’t disdain one answer and elevate another. He read perfectly, he managed to give off the impression he’d written every question (I genuinely thought for the first couple of years that he had! I understand that he did review most, if not all, questions in detail in advance in a way that Bamber Gascoigne did and Victoria Coren Mitchell does). His authority was total, but the quiz, not the personality, led the way.

I actually went on 15-to-1 (pretty unsuccessfully) in my early 20s, in either his last, or penultimate, series. It was pretty much what it seemed like on TV, except, slightly to my surprise, he was quite warm and chatty, putting us all at our ease. Unused to the magic of TV, this break in character slightly shocked me. I blame that for my poor performance …

It also strikes me, looking back, how good the questions seemed to be on 15-to-1. There were, of course, easier and harder ones, but not wildly so – they were always really well calibrated to make a good game. They always seemed like they were on fair knowledge. I know now how hard that is to achieve, and they managed it over and over (and over) again.

I wonder if I’d have got in to quizzing the way I have if it wasn’t for 15-to-1.Perhaps the same is true for other quizzers. It remained a staple throughout university and beyond.

Perhaps when it finished in 2003, its time had passed – that was the age of big money quizzes which also had reasonable credibility, like WWTBAM and The Weakest Link.

I’ve only watched the rebooted show, presented by Sandi Toksvig, a few times. It seems good, a little warmer, slower and more human (as well as there being a serious cash prize for the series winner), and now contestants get to come back (which I would have killed for, but equally it was part of the attraction of the show that it was so brutal).

I think my own taste in quizzing has changed, and I’m a bit more of a fan of a slower pace than 15-to-1 these days. Still, no one should underestimate the importance of William G Stewart in the history of British quizzing.

Quiz Master Checklist

When we send quiz packs out to clients to run quizzes themselves, we always include an extensive ‘Quiz Master Guide’ to help them run the event smoothly, which breaks down the format, the running order, etc. And when we hire a new professional quiz master to run quizzes for us, we train them, ease them in, get them over a period of time to the point where they can confidently and skilfully run a quiz for us.

This post will be rather more informal. It’s just a few observations and hints which I just about feel qualified to give to anyone who fancies running a quiz, is new to running quizzes or is trying to get the hang of running quizzes.

First of all, it’s true that anyone can be a quiz master or quiz mistress. At its basic level, it doesn’t need any special talent. We’ve all been to (and still enjoyed) enough quizzes run by dozy, disinterested bar staff to know that’s true.

But not everyone’s going to be good at it. It does require a base level of confidence and clarity in speaking in public, a certain degree of composure, of decent judgement and, in my view, it really does require that you yourself are pretty decent at quizzes.

Having said that, this checklist is for quiz masters, not quiz writers. That’s a different ball game. I’m not going to talk about actual round construction and question writing here.

So here’s a bullet list of tips as they come to me. You may not feel they are universally applicable, but I think they’re a decent place to start.

  • Know your material – I’ve said it here and in other places many many times, but for me this is the Number 1 fundamental. Even if you haven’t written the questions, you have to seem like you have, you have to know their context. This applies to everyone from a TV quiz master to a humble pub quiz host. Otherwise you risk looking like an idiot and a fraud very quickly.
  • Don’t try and be too funny. The quiz is the main thing, funny can be a nice side product. We get a fair few enquiries from aspiring quiz masters telling us they’ve got cracking banter, or words to that effect (if you want to be a QuizMaster for us, we don’t want you to be the entertainment…you are the medium for the entertainment).
  • Be nice. People can be annoying and sometimes you do need to be firm with them, and sometimes it’s ok to put someone down a little to show you’re in control. But, by and large, stay calm, be patient and be nice.
  • Have a clear table/space on the bar in front of you to keep everything tidy and nicely organised..
  • Keep people informed on exactly what is happening in the short term, so they’re not confused and irritated, but keep the long term plans back so that you can adapt, and also retain an element of pleasant surprise.
  • Have a helper to do the marking and field enquiries if you can.
  • Be aware of what is and isn’t pleasant to listen to. It’s really important to get the acoustics as close to right as you possibly can. Do a sound check beforehand, and be aware of where people are sitting in relation to the speakers.
  • Repeat things, sometimes a lot. Questions, question numbers, instructions, answers, scores etc. There’s always someone who wasn’t listening first time, there’s probably someone who will tell you that you didn’t make something clear, and you will be able to be absolutely confident you did if you repeated it!
  • Don’t give half marks.
  • Don’t make up magic bonus marks on the spot!
  • Be aware of pacing. Give people time to work things out but don’t let it drag. Don’t run rounds which turn into epic adventures. Don’t run “sessions” which are too long. One and a half hours is probably longer than one session of a quiz night should be without a break.
  • You don’t have to have background music, but it helps to avoid “dead air”. You can cover not knowing what you’re doing for a second by playing a little background music.
  • What if, heaven forfend, you’re wrong? How do you deal with it? Is the quiz master always right, even if he/she is not? I’m going to sound like a right pompous chump here but I don’t quite remember, as it’s been a long time since I’ve actually run a quiz where one of my answers was wrong, wrong, wrong. That goes back to point 1. I’d say, “no, the quiz master is not always right”. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong. People have google. Who are you trying to kid? Find a way to swallow your pride while holding your dignity if there’s a blatant mistake. However, quite often, a question might have some manner of viable alternative, which people suggest, which the quiz writer hadn’t thought of… I can only say “be flexible” and be prepared to be generous. Use the magic of the internet yourself to confirm facts quickly.
  • Don’t disqualify people. You don’t want a fight to break out.
  • Don’t drink while running a quiz. Well, drink water. Anyone might stumble over their words once or twice within a couple of hours. Stumbling over your words looks a lot worse if you’ve a beer by your side. Also, a little tip from personal misadventure. Don’t drink too much Diet Coke while running pub quizzes or corporate quizzes! Just don’t, trust me. It’s a hard habit to break.

Ok, that’s all I can think of for now. A lot of that is probably blindingly obvious, and I’ve probably missed quite a lot of it. You mightn’t necessarily agree with all of it, but hopefully it’s of some use.

University Challenge is so hard

When I tell people I am a professional quiz master, and that I set quiz questions for iPhone quiz games, TV shows etc. I am often asked if we write the questions for ‘University Challenge’ (we don’t), such is the high profile of the show in the UK.

‘University Challenge’ style questions are very hard to write well. They should, ideally, unambiguously point towards the correct answer from the start, gradually giving more and more clues and getting easier as the question progresses, and should flow reasonably naturally to make them easy for players (and viewers) to understand when they hear them read out quickly.

But people who watch ‘University Challenge’ often feel that they are stupid for only getting  2 or 3 starter questions before the contestants. However, this is actually almost exactly par for the course.

Let’s say there are about 25 starter questions in a show. Assume all the players on the show have an even spread of knowledge, and answer all the starter questions evenly. That’s 3 starter questions per person. If you’re sat at home getting 2 or 3 then you are bang on the mark for what is expected. Once you are getting more than 2 or 3 starters before the contestants then you are a cult UC star (Trimble/Guttenplan/Fitzpatrick etc.) in the making.

Of course the often overlooked fact here is that bonus questions are where it can be won or lost. It is quite conceivable for a team to get only about one-third of their bonus questions correct whereas the other team might get two-thirds of theirs correct. The team that has a deeper knowledge for winning points on bonus questions in this example can afford to answer significantly fewer starter questions while still managing to win. (In this example the better team on bonuses could answer 10 starters and have 200 points whereas the better team on starters but worse on bonuses could answer 13 starters and only have 195 points. Fine margins – but the importance of the bonuses is easily forgotten).

How many starter questions do you typically get before the contestants when you watch ‘University Challenge’?

[poll id=’2′]

 

 

 

Ask the Audience (by Derren Brown)

We’re going to veer away from the world of the pub quiz night for this post (but will come back on topic next time). I noticed that ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’ is taking applications for shows in the summer: details on their website. But that isn’t really what this post is about (well not entirely). If you do apply, and get on, here’s a little strategy that might help you out.

Imagine you are in the hotseat, you are doing well, but up comes a question that stumps you. You’ve still got lifelines left, but you don’t fancy using 50:50  because you don’t feel 50:50 will really help. Perhaps you are pretty sure that one of the four options is wrong, but you can’t really choose between the other three. You don’t think any of your Phone-a-Friends will know this either. And you still have your Ask the Audience lifeline left but you are pretty convinced that this audience won’t know the answer (either because you can just tell the question is genuinely hard, or because you have been unimpressed by this audience’s efforts to help out a previous contestant – or a bit of both).

I’ve seen occasions on the show when a contestant has said “I have a feeling about option C – I think I’ve read that somewhere” and then, lo and behold, 70% of the audience vote for that option – and turn out to be wrong.

So – you have a question that stumps you, minimal confidence in your audience to help you, but that crucial feeling (or even certainty) that one of the four options is definitely wrong.

Try this: announce confidently that you are pretty sure it is option A (where option A is the one you are sure is wrong). Come up with some spurious reasoning to make it sound convincing. Now is the time to Ask the Audience. Those in the audience who are like sheep will have been convinced by your reasoning and will vote for A to “help you have confidence to go for your answer” or because “I’m pretty sure that sounds familiar as well”. I reckon Derren Brown would agree that this is how many people in the audience would behave if you managed to do your manipulation effectively earlier on whilst thinking outloud.

So, in one fell swoop you manage to divert all the people in the audience who don’t know the answer onto the one option that you are convinced is wrong. Those who do actually know the answer (and you can be pretty sure that there will be some people in the audience who do actually know the answer) will of course choose the option that they think is correct, which, with luck, is not the one you are sure is wrong (and the one that the sheep in the audience have voted for).

To find the correct answer then just go for the highest Ask the Audience vote that isn’t the one you have diverted the sheep onto.

It could, of course, go horribly wrong, but could be one of the greatest moments in quiz show history if executed successfully. If you get onto the show, and try this, and win big, then remember where you got the idea from…

Do you have any cunning strategies of your own to help you navigate the ups and downs of big money quiz shows?

 

 

My Pointless Friend

“It’s like Family Fortunes. In reverse” – not the most promising tagline for a quiz show, and I do admit I have some difficulty explaining the peculiar magic of my current, indeed probably all-time, favourite quiz show, ‘Pointless’, to people. But it is clearly a show with a burgeoning fanbase, after its switch from BBC2 to a later slot on BBC1.

It’s not my intention to compare other shows unfavourably to ‘Pointless’ – different people want different things from quizzes. I know my colleague is a big fan of its ITV rival ‘The Chase’, a show on which you get plenty of questions for your money, and having watched it in full for the first time recently, I agree it’s a pretty good format. Since the end of ’15 to 1′ I’ve shared the feeling that a lot of the big shows don’t give a real quiz fan enough questions to get their teeth into, so why then am I so enamoured of ‘Pointless’, which really only has four questions all show?

Well, for starters, I think it’s a very nice premise and a very nice format. Obscure knowledge is rewarded, which appeals to the quizzy quizzer, but there is a sliding scale of reward, so just knowing something about the given category can be good enough. There is right and wrong, but not just one right answer (or one wrong answer). The knowledge starts off very general, but becomes more and more specific as it moves on, so that you tend to actually have to be pretty smart AND lucky to win the jackpot, which is just what you want.

But who am I kidding? Why is ‘Pointless’ great? Because of the banter. I may be wrong, but Alexander Armstrong is one of those genially funny men who is thoroughly undivisive. Who could hold it in their heart to loathe him? He’s funny, of course, and very charming to the contestants, albeit sometimes in an ever so slightly bemused, superior way.

But he’s not even the star of the show. In the standard role of quiz sidekick, we have “my pointless friend” Richard Osman (brother of Mat Osman from Suede, fact fans) who, unless i’m very much mistaken, is a genuinely hilarious man. Ben Miller needs to watch out, as this is a great double act – both are clever and prepared to mock the contestants, but always in a gentle, good-natured way.

Add to that the fact that the show provides great opportunities for viewer participation, as you’re not in a race against the contestants – there’s plenty of time to think about your answers, and to feel pleased and smug if you better them.

I haven’t been this excited about a teatime TV show since ‘Home and Away’ returned to our screens on Channel 5!!!

Have you seen ‘Pointless’? Any flaws? Not a fan of Armstrong? Or Osman? And are there any other quiz show gems out there I’m missing?

 

Quiz show parodies

I don’t watch a vast number of quiz shows on TV anymore (apart from Only Connect), although  “UK TV Quiz shows” was my chosen specialist subject on ‘The People Versus’ back in about 2000.

I do enjoy a good quiz show parody though, and they don’t come along all that often.

Here are my favourites, all very different and marvellous in different ways. Enjoy.

1. The Two Ronnies’ Mastermind is very funny although it does lose momentum a bit towards the end

2. Adam and Joe’s Quizzlestick is pure genius, and if this leaves you confused, then read the UKGameshows review

3. Alex Zane’s Cleverness Game is my favourite, although the cruellest to the contestants…

4. I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue: The Quiz of Quizzes is perhaps less well known, but very amusing indeed (although possibly not an ISIHAC classic).

Have we missed any good ones?