The Week In Radio: Why can't the Brain of Britain be a woman?

There was a moment in this week's episode of Ed Reardon's Week with which we can all identify. On hearing the opening notes of a 6.30pm comedy quiz on Radio 4, he springs across the kitchen to reach the off button and in his haste trips over the cat, badly bruising its tail. That's the thing about radio quizzes. Whether it be young comedians or ancient wags, there's invariably one which will produce that red-mist moment. Yet even if some formats fail, you have to applaud the BBC for trying because quizzing is a growth industry. At a time when the nation's idea of a good night out seems to be arguing in a pub about the colours of the Estonian flag, or the chemical symbol for tin, it's no surprise that quizzes of every variety are springing up in the schedules like Japanese knotweed.

This week, the granddaddy of them all, Brain of Britain, reached its final. Brain, which began life as the snappily titled "Ask Me Another" in 1953 before undergoing a radical relaunch in 1967, is the absolute definition of uncool. Its studiedly simple format has varied not a whisker for decades. Jokes are few, and lame. Small talk is discouraged. In the segment called Beat the Brains, where a listener sends in questions and the contestants club together to answer them, the prize is a book token – a book token! – and a round of applause. Russell Davies, who took over this series from the long-serving Robert Robinson, has mastered the technique of ironing out excitement from his voice, though he has – sacrilegiously in my view – abandoned Robinson's habit of addressing people by their honorifics as Mr Jenkins or Miss Sidebottom, a technique that whizzed you straight back to the Fifties. Yet still the formality and courtesy of his exchanges sound like something out of Brief Encounter.

A few listeners moan that since Robinson's departure the questions are easier, and references to popular culture are creeping in, but I don't see it. The contestants are still teachers and accountants and civil servants. No one is obliged to make amusing quips about current affairs. Everything is about general knowledge in its squarest possible sense. Rennet is extracted from which part of a cow? What's the scientific name for saltpetre? It's a glorious quiz, and I love every second of it.

Yet one of the other old-fashioned things about Brain is the dearth of women. Although this week's final did feature Anne Hegarty, an academic proofreader from Manchester, like many other general-knowledge quizzes the regular contestant body is about as feminised as the Taliban. In this, Brain shares a private agony with TV quizzes like Mastermind and University Challenge, which strive in vain to attract more women to their panel. Richard Edis, the long-serving producer of Brain, once told me that of the 48 contestants required for a series, the best-ever ratio was one woman to four men and the worst was one woman to 12 men.

Exactly why this should be is not clear. It's not as though male brains contain extra storage space for the dates of American presidents, or the achievements of Soviet athletes in the 1976 Olympics, but this gender imbalance undoubtedly bothers the BBC. No one wants quiz panels to become the preserve of nerds and geeks, yet likewise no one wants to be accused of positive discrimination by evolving some form of general-knowledge that is notionally female-friendly, with all the patronising horror that would involve.

Perhaps in the end, it's just down to testosterone levels of competitiveness. Having played on a couple of BBC radio quiz programmes, I have been taken aback by the sheer, quivering levels of nervous tension that abound. You would no more use the expression "It's only a game" in these green rooms than you would at a match between Arsenal and Manchester United. Before the contest, nobody touches the plastic glasses of indifferent wine or the selection of doughy nibbles. And far from treating the whole thing primarily as entertainment, the contestants are, as someone brilliantly put it, as competitive as spermatozoa. Comedians look anxiously at jokes they have scribbled on pieces of paper, specialists swot up on their subjects. Being laid back is for losers.

The other assault on the egalitarian image of Brain emerged at the end of the 57th series when the hugely impressive winner, Dr Ian Bayley, who had streaked ahead on swimbladders and Ginger Rogers, received his "handsome salver to keep in perpetuity". Dr Bayley, it turns out, is a champion quizzer, who plays for Britain and has been on the final of Mastermind. I know this is great and we must honour national excellence wherever we find it, but somehow, in some small way, I couldn't help feeling weirdly cheated.

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?