TELEVISION / Long Runners: No 23: A Question of Sport

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Age: 24. It first appeared on 5 January 1970 and has been screened every year since (except 1978, when it took a breather between presenters). This makes it television's longest-running quiz, two years older than Mastermind.

Frequency: weekly, 26 weeks a year.

Ratings: it averages more than nine million - a figure it maintained even after a New Year switch from Tuesday to Monday. Its best rating was 18 million, earned by the 1987 programme on which Princess Anne was manhandled by Emlyn Hughes.

Formula: the show adheres to the philosophy, 'if it ain't bust, don't fix it'. The format has remained the same since David Coleman took over from the original presenter David Vine in 1979. Team captains Bill Beaumont and Ian Botham lead their two guest sportsmen or women through the following routine: the Picture Board (centre-forwards invariably ask for 'number nine please, David'); the Individual Round; the Mystery Guests (at which Beaumont is notoriously poor - he once mistook Anne Hobbs for Jim Watt); Home and Away (Botham, laughably weak on cricket, often does better 'away'); the much imitated What Happened Next? (two weeks ago the show featured an all-time great - a Russian ice dancer whose trousers fell down); the One-Minute Round; and then a second bite at the Picture Board (often featuring a golfer up a tree and a cricketer dressed up as Santa). Each round is interspersed with slightly stilted badinage initiated by the presenter - 'Looking forward to the tour, Mike?', 'How's the groin strain, Jeremy?' But, unlike certain more fashionable quiz shows, there is a genuine competitive edge - often driven by the guests' desire to avoid dressing-room humiliation.

Little-known facts: like R4's Any Questions, QoS has never suffered the indignity of a refused invitation. The intensely competitive Botham has been known to ponder a crucial question for up to 10 minutes. On the morning of the recording (two programmes are taped back-to-back every other Sunday), Coleman tests out the questions on teams from local pub-quiz leagues. Manchester United footballer Bryan Robson, who has appeared in every series since 1980, has let the producer Mike Adley know he can step in as late as Sunday morning if a guest cries off. Thanks to an attachment in the East African Army, Coleman speaks a bit of Swahili - though he has never had cause to use it on QoS. His son Dean was once a Black and White Minstrel.

Any rivals? In the Eighties, ITV aired Sporting Triangles, an imitation trading on the supposed charms of Nick Owen and Jimmy Greaves. A Tom Keating beside a Rembrandt.

Graduates: there have been 10 regular captains - Beaumont, Botham, Willie Carson, Henry Cooper, Gareth Edwards, Brendan Foster, Hughes, Bobby Moore, Cliff Morgan, Fred Trueman.

Anything that makes you want to kick the screen in? Botham's hairdo is stuck somewhere in the mid-Eighties, a most unattractive cross between Michael Bolton and Mark Hateley. Beaumont knows an awful lot - he spends his lunch breaks poring over the Sport in Short columns - but the questions are sometimes ridiculously easy. Contestants have been asked about events they took part in, although this can be excused on the grounds that the BBC is not over-endowed with footage of, say, women's netball. 'Beefy' Botham also has a weakness for the drinking anecdote (typical intro: 'Bill and I were having half a lager shandy at about 4.30 in the morning, and suddenly all these fire engines arrived').

The bottom line - how good is it? Very. Some critics have deemed it a studiedly oafish pub quiz - all blokeish banter and bad knitwear. In fact the participants come across as likeable rather than loud-mouthed. This is borne out by the perhaps surprising information that women constitute more than 50 per cent of the audience. (There is also an 18-month waiting list for tickets to watch a recording.) The friendly atmosphere makes 'characters' out of the least likely candidates - Ryan Giggs (heard to speak in public for almost the first time on QoS), Steve 'Interesting' Davis, John Parrot, Beaumont himself. The joshing between Coleman, Botham and Beaumont has something of the 'sitcom' element familiar from Have I Got News for You. And - the acid test - it is the only programme I will religiously tape if I'm out.

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