ARTS / Show People: From chorus to thesaurus: Irene Thomas

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The Independent Culture
WHAT CONNECTS the Prince of Wales, an orphan, a gorilla and a glue pot? Perhaps you remember the answer? Well, the Prince of Wales is the heir apparent, an orphan has ne'er a parent and a gorilla has a hairy parent. And the glue pot? Ah, that's where you get stuck. Irene Thomas probably cut her teeth on this hoary, hairy old joke, but if she did, she never looked back. It's the kind of thing, multiplied by a hundred degrees of difficulty, that she does every week on Round Britain Quiz - and she seldom gets stuck.

Listeners often write in to Radio 4 with their own questions for the teams. You could ask them, say, what lucky charm unites a yellow crocus with a spangled leotard and a Welsh baritone and the answer would inevitably be Mrs Thomas. Her first public performance was as a crocus in Snow White. The fact that it was more than 60 years ago and she is still certain that it was a yellow crocus points to the second part. She wore more spangled leotards than any girl has a right to, in years of performing in the chorus at Covent Garden and then as one of the George Mitchell singers. She loved those outfits and uses them as a modest metaphor for her phenomenal mind, a mind 'filled with sequins, nothing very valuable, but showy'.

Just to finish off unravelling the question, as the teams always do, her charm is undeniable, her luck is what she puts it all down to, and the Welsh baritone is her husband Eddie, to whom she has been married for more than 40 years. He is not short of charm himself. Brother of the more famous Gwyn, he is small, dark, voluble and jocular - a perfect foil for his wife's fragile beauty.

She is like a cross between Anna Neagle and a freesia. She looks too slender to be able to stand, let alone to move with the elegance she achieves. A chronic lung disorder makes her rather short of breath and her sight has never been as good as she would like it to be, but her fair skin and brilliant blue eyes betray the stamina of her Danish ancestors. She'd have made a formidable Viking.

In fact, she was born in Feltham, Middlesex, a suburb not far from where they now live, in a neat and comfortable semi in Chiswick. The only child of an army bandsman and a seamstress, she belonged to a class that she defines as upper working: people who pay their bills, rinse their milk bottles and do their best to avoid hire-purchase. She loved school and became the 'Infant Phenomenon of the Keyboard', and although she was easily bright enough to have gone on

to university, there was never enough money for that. Instead she relied on comprehensive reading habits and an actively exercised memory to fill her head with knowledge, while earning her living playing the piano for Saturday morning 'concert parties'.

She served as a fire-officer during the war, then her light mezzo-soprano - the musical qualities of which are retained in her speaking voice - brought her work in grand opera that became less and less grand until she was singing for everything from ice-shows to television variety programmes to advertising jingles for the nascent ITV. But she was always cleverer than that and, on a whim, applied to join Mensa. Perhaps it was being placed in their 'top 2 per cent' category that gave her the confidence to enter, and win, Brain of Britain in 1961, and the even more prestigious Brain of Brains the following year.

The BBC snapped her up hungrily. She did so much for them that now she says it's only Match of the Day and fight-arranger for Songs of Praise that have eluded her, but it took seven years of trying before the wise men at Round Britain Quiz would consider her, and even then it was only because of last-minute illness that she got her break. They didn't warn her partner of the ghastly fate in store for him, but he bore it well before he and all the other participants went off to the all-male Garrick club for lunch. That was the first and last time they did that to her. So popular were her cheerfulness, her light touch and her erudition that she has been a star ever since.

She loves the show, and plans to carry on as long as she's spared. She is cross that the BBC, generally so keen on anniversaries, has not trailed or trumpeted the current, 20th season: 'Honestly, you'd think they get out the crucifix and the garlic when we approach.' But she takes revenge by putting her feet up and jeering at the telly. She doesn't mind being a token woman, better a paid token than nothing, she says, but she confides that women have an ability to pick up many little facts denied to the more single-minded sex - 'like a pointilliste painter. While I'm talking to you, I know that my cat is sitting here washing himself. A man wouldn't see that.' So engrossing is her company that I'm afraid I hadn't noticed it either.

What we all want to know is how she does it. How does she persuade all those snippets of knowledge to stay so readily available? Why do we never hear her say 'Hang on a moment it's on the tip of my tongue'? The answer is brisk: dithering makes bad radio. But it is rather a relief to know she is quite capable of forgetting what she went upstairs for. Perhaps she is human after all.

'Round Britain Quiz', 12.25pm Mon, repeated 6.30pm Wed, Radio 4.

(Photograph omitted)