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

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The Independent Culture

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.