Focus: They have all the answers

Who wants to be a question-setter? Lots of us. But watch out if you get it wrong
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Picture the scene. A desk piled high with reference books; Who's Who, Debrett's, Halliwell's film guide, Encyclopaedia Britannica. A hunched figure pores over the open pages, trawling the archives of historical and popular trivia. Hundreds of obscure dates and names swirl before her pink-rimmed eyes. She sighs, pulls down a worn history book and leafs through Ancient Egypt.

Picture another scene. Fred Jones from Worcester, sweating under the studio spotlights on Chris Tarrant's TV quiz Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? "So, Fred, for pounds 64,000, Queen Nefertiti was once ruler of which country? Was it a) Holland b) Greece c) Persia or d) Egypt?" "D, Chris. It's D." "Are you sure? Is that your final answer?" Chris Tarrant wrings out the last drops of what passes for dramatic tension on prime-time ITV broadcasting. As Adrian Woolfe, head of marketing and promotions for the show, says, "It has all the production values of a peak-time drama." Outside the film Casino, it's certainly the shrewdest union of gambling and theatre to date.

The lights dim. The music pulses ominously. The contestant sweats appropriately. "You don't want to phone a friend?" Pause again. "You're sure? Really sure?...Well, Fred, you've won pounds 64,000." The crowd erupts. Fred beams. The credits roll. Fred can sell his house, buy another one, give up his work and live on a beach for a year or two. Meanwhile, the question-setter puts away her books on ancient history and turns to Debrett's instead.

It's a shame, really, that the quiz- setter's art should come to light last week only because of one badly researched question - on the minimum number of points required to win a set of tennis. After all, these anonymous grafters get scant recognition for supplying tens of thousands of questions to satisfy the voracious appetites of Britain's quiz show viewers.

Last week the slip-up on tennis put the setters and checkers under the spotlight as never before. The question in question, as it were, secured a pounds 125,000 win for Tony Kennedy from Blackpool. When asked "Theoretically, what is the number of strokes with which a tennis player can win a set?", Tony chose 24 - and won. Later the programme admitted the correct answer was in fact 12. TV executives promised a full investigation. Researchers everywhere nervously triple-checked their facts.

For Celador Productions, which produces the show, the answer to another million-pound question eludes them. "Is it possible to set the foolproof question?" Yes and no, says one half of the industry's question-setting supremos, Neville Cohen. For security reasons Mr Cohen and his partner Janet Barker do not disclose their location or their company name. Suffice to say, in the event of appearing on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Neville is the best friend you could have at the end of a phone.

The couple have a database of some 28,000 questions which they supply to a diverse range of shows including Mastermind, University Challenge, 100 Per Cent and Lucky Numbers. Now they have struck a deal - still under wraps - to provide some of the questions for Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Understandably discreet, they operate in secretive conditions. Celador refuses to talk about them. Mr Cohen and Ms Barker are similarly cagey about disclosing too many trade secrets, but they also want to put the record straight. "Everyone thinks they could set them," says Ms Barker, slightly peeved. She is an arts graduate and former Mastermind semi-finalist. "But it is tough, especially making the multiple choice options believable. It's very easy to find something that no one can answer but getting something that everyone knows is more difficult." To test the climate of popular knowledge, she tries questions out on Stuart, her hairdresser. "If he knows it, I know I've hit the right level."

There's no hierarchy, it seems, among the different quiz show styles. It's tempting to imagine the anorak element clinging snobbily to the dry, arcane teasers of University Challenge or the specialist-smugness perfected on Mastermind. Ms Barker and Mr Cohen are absolutely democratic. "Each requires the same amount of checking," says Mr Cohen. The real skill lies in the wording which is where, he reckons, Chris Tarrant's researchers have been lacking. "They do set some questions badly," says Mr Cohen. "For example: `What did Isaac Pitman invent? Shorthand' from Wednesday's show. That was wrong, so wrong," he chides. "Samuel Pepys was using a form of shorthand long before Pitman. So it should have been `What did Pitman develop that's widely used?' Academically correct and accessible to Joe Soap Public, you see."

The question-setter's dream is, it seems, to reach a harmony between these two demands. "If they don't answer any, it's so frustrating," says Mr Cohen. "It's awful. I cringe if that happens. You want them to answer just a certain amount."

What's impressive is the never ending volume of questions that flow through these television formats. For Fifteen-to-One, the programme's presenter, William G Stewart, is supplied with some 25,000 questions a year - about 150 for each programme. Meanwhile Peter Gwynn, producer of University Challenge, has half a dozen freelancers - including Ms Barker and Mr Cohen - producing 4,500 questions for each series. Every question card has to have a source, quote, list of alternative answers, and is counter-signed by the checker. "Sometimes we slip up in small ways," admits Mr Gwynn. "The viewers like to see that sometimes; they enjoy testing themselves against us as well as the students."

The question-setter really found his niche in the 1940s with the first cash quiz show The 64,000 Dollar Question on American radio. This was followed swiftly by Twenty-One, the inspiration for Robert Redford's 1994 film Quiz Show. The formula soon crossed the Atlantic. In the Seventies the maximum cash prize a show could give away was pounds 6,000. The Broadcasting Act lifted the ceiling nine years ago and cash prizes have since reached dizzying heights, culminating in Chris Tarrant's million-pound jackpot - though this has yet to be won.

His programme epitomises the quiz as games show, a completely different animal from University Challenge and Mastermind. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is driven less by a thirst for general knowledge than an appetite for gambling - it's also more democratic. You don't have to sweat over Homer's Odyssey for a decade to enjoy the privilege of a hot spot on the ITV prime- time slot.

What is different about Tarrant's show is the audience's pivotal role. On Who Want To Be A Millionaire? the audience is on the side of the contestants, but against them on the likes of University Challenge. Schadenfreude is not part of the gameshow fan's experience as it is for the viewer who witnesses, say, St Catharine's College Cambridge losing abysmally with only 20 points.

William G Stewart, who exported The Price Is Right and Family Fortunes to Britain from America, agrees. "Quiz shows and game shows are miles apart. The way they select contestants is completely different - there are qualifying rounds. With Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? you just dial a number to get on." Which is surely one of the primary attractions.

Other shows do seem irritatingly elitist in comparison: even the newish breed of comedy quiz show like Have I Got News For You and Never Mind The Buzzcocks aims to display the lightning and acerbic wit of those taking part, making the viewers feel intellectually inferior. Quite the opposite applies to Tarrant's winning formula where the average 10-year-old could win pounds 200 without breaking sweat. In fact, in the next stage of evolution, it's hard to imagine how a game show could be more democratic - except to allow the audience to write the questions themselves, perhaps. Judging by last week's faux pas, they may be better qualified.

HOW FRED JONES OF WORCESTER WON pounds 64,000

Questions on Thursday's game of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? when Fred Jones won pounds 64,000 - he chose not to answer the last question and stuck with pounds 64,000.

For pounds 100:

What would a doctor use to take a temperature?

a)A thermometer

b)A mirror

c)A stethoscope

d)A pencil

Answer a)

For pounds 300:

What would you do with a didgeridoo?

a)Eat it

b)Spend it

c) Drink it.

d)Play it

Answer d)

For pounds 2,000:

What 1940 Disney animated film featured the song, `When You Wish Upon A Star?'

a)Pinocchio?

b)Sleeping Beauty?

c)Cinderella?

d)Dumbo?

Answer a)

For pounds 4,000:

Complete the title of the 1960s children's television series `Fireball...'

a)XJ6

b)XA3

c)XT9

d)XL5

Answer d)

For pounds 32,000:

What is a bodkin?

a)A small barrel

b)A needle

c)A cotton reel

d)A jacket

Answer b)

For pounds 64,000:

Queen Nefertiti was once ruler of which country?

a)Holland

b)Greece

c)Persia

d)Egypt

Answer d)

For pounds 125,000:

Approximately how long does light take to reach each of us from the sun?

a)8 seconds

b)8 minutes

c)12 minutes

d)16 minutes

Answer b)

Comments