A new take on the ancient art of grilling celebrities

Questionnaires have been around for 100 years. They were fashionable in Edwardian times...
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The Independent Culture
WHEN PEOPLE say that we live in an age of soundbites and quotes, they sometimes point for evidence to the instant questionnaires so popular in magazines and newspapers. These are brief ordeals in which celebrities agree to answer a series of little questions that are fairly trivial even when they sound profound, as in "What would be your first action as world leader?", "What would you most like to change about yourself?", or "What are you currently enjoying on TV?"

These are three of the real questions fired at Nick Ross in this week's Radio Times, and although he answers them quite crisply (I would resign; I would like to be 25 and have my life all over again; the off switch, so I can get out in the garden) you don't feel you get to know him very well - especially as almost everyone replies "Resign!" when asked what their first action as world leader would be. Perhaps he is better value when he is asked who he would vote for as first President of Earth, and says: "A pickled cucumber, for all the good a President of Earth would be..."

All very modern and instant. Yet the trouble with thinking that these snap-answer routines are symptomatic of a soundbite age is that such questionnaires have been around for 100 years at least. They were very fashionable in Edwardian times, not in newspapers so much as in private life - I can remember an account of John Galsworthy arriving to stay at some stately home and being subjected to "questionnaires" by the young ladies of the house, who put the answers in their albums.

And this morning I came across a 1949 edition of The Saturday Book in which nine "distinguished" men and women - not celebrities, you note - replied to a questionnaire. The questions were the same in each case, which means you can cross-check different reactions to the same idea. For instance, they were all asked what was their greatest deficiency in life. "Laziness," said Elizabeth Bowen. Ivor Brown said, endearingly, "Unwillingness to hit those who cannot hit back". Bernard Darwin said: "A hatred of doing things in the nature of business and a consequent inability to understand them". Stella Gibbons listed "lack of method, procrastination, a weak memory - in that order"; and Hermione Gingold cited "unspeakable laziness, and the belief that if you put bills unopened behind a picture frame, there is no need to pay them".

Some of the questions dreamt up (by the editor, Leonard Russell, presumably) are quite ingenious ("Are you a host or a guest?"), and some are a bit boring ("What century is your spiritual home?"), but only one approximates to one used by the Radio Times. Instead of "What would be your first action as world leader?" The Saturday Book asked, more mildly: "Have you any pet reforms?" Answers were:

Elizabeth Bowen: "Income tax - husbands and wives to be taxed separately, for a start".

Ivor Brown: "Abolition of smoking in theatres. Compulsion of pedestrians to cross according to the lights."

Bernard Darwin: "No. There is so much to be said for Lord Melbourne's `Why not leave it alone?' I agree with Mr Jellyby in Bleak House, `Never have a mission'."

Stella Gibbons: "Forbid advertising. I would also like to stop the publication of all newspapers, and the broadcasting of all news except local news for five years, to give us time to calm down."

John Gielgud: "Abolition of noise".

Compton Mackenzie: "The equalisation of the rates for travel and freight, along the lines of the Post Office."

AL Rowse: "Reducing our sex legislation to a rational basis".

Hermione Gingold: "All persons to be medically examined before being allowed to buy theatre tickets - those liable to bronchitis or coughing refused admission!"

Some of those answers I have edited for length - and that is the real difference between questionnaires now and then. Today's answers are short and snappy, because they're done over the phone, whereas The Saturday Book contributors wrote their answers; Stella Gibbons takes over a page to answer one question. Can you imagine anyone in the Radio Times taking a page for one question...?

Actually, I think Nick Ross's answers, however short, may have been cut even shorter. The Radio Times intro to the questionnaire says "Nick Ross, host of Crimewatch UK, says he prefers radio to TV..." But he doesn't! He doesn't say anything of the kind in his answers. Is it possible that he did say that, that the sub-editor wrote his heading, and that his answer was cut after the heading was written?

I demand an answer from the Radio Times. Short as you like. Phone it, if necessary.