The problems besieging the pubs industry are well known. Beer tax rises, cheap supermarket booze and the increased social acceptability of drinking at home mean an average of 18 pubs are closing every week.
But landlords do have one trick up their sleeve, and it is proving an almost surefire way of bringing paying customers through the door: the humble pub quiz.
While many publicans have ditched their big television screens – because Monday night football fans cannot be counted on to drink enough to cover the cost of the pub’s subsription to Sky– more and more pubs are laying on quizzes.
A survey by the trade magazine The Publican shows that about 23,000 of the UK’s 60,000 or so pubs have at least one weekly quiz, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the proportion has increased further over the past few years. It is a trend very much noticed by quizmasters, question-setters, contestants and landlords.
The economic downturn is cited as one of the most likely causes. Martin Green, the managing director Redtooth, a pub entertainment company that sends out ready-to-go quizzes to more than 4,000 pubs a week, has his theory.
“The reason that they’re back in fashion is that there has been a big increase in people applying to be on TV game shows,” he says. “That has gone up by 75 per cent in the past few years. People are applying to go on Pointless, The Chase and The Million Pound Drop instead of buying a lottery ticket. They think it’s far more realistic to get on a game show and win five or ten grand. And there’s a lot of them on TV at the moment, and that’s getting people back in to pubs, even just to win £20, £30 or £50.”
Mark Labbett, one of the in-house “Chasers” on ITV1’s The Chase is one of Redtooth’s question writers. A pre-made quiz from Redtooth costs a publican only £7. The ubiquitous smartphone is an obvious menace to the pub quiz, if people want to cheat, but the emergence of the centralised quiz factories such as Redtooth can give rise to other opportunities to game the system. One serious quizzer, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Independent how he came to discover that the quiz in a north London pub on a Wednesday was always repeated in a pub in south London the following Monday, every single week.
“We actually got bored with winning in the end,” he says. “It became more fun gambling on how many we would risk getting wrong.”
It is a problem, though, that Redtooth is aware of. “We write it on a daily basis. So as long as everyone sticks to how it should work then it’s kind of foolproof,” says Mr Green. His company, based in Barlborough, Derbyshire, is also working on a new format whereby a landlord can download the quiz on a laptop and entrants play along on a television screen with a multiple choice fob, making speed as important as general knowledge, and where the Google app in your pocket does you no favours.
Redtooth also runs an annual Great British Pub Quiz challenge. Last year, more than 600 pubs took part, with the eventual winners coming from the The Black Bull in Shepley, near Huddersfield.
But for some the pub quiz is rather more of a cottage industry. Marcus Berkmann, an author, sets a weekly pub quiz at The Prince of Wales in Highgate, north London. “Oh you can tell they are on the rise,” he says. “Landlords tell me that quizzers drink a lot. You start at 8.30pm and by 11pm everyone’s drunk. Quizzers knock it back. People say football is the thing you have to have in a pub, but people watching football will often sit there and nurse a pint. They are really not always that profitable, given how much it costs to show the matches.”
So what makes a good quiz?
“Well I can be a bit pompous about this, but it’s a writerly craft,” adds Mr Berkmann. “If it’s well written it’s good. If it’s not it’s boring. You need interesting questions that are not too difficult. It’s a matter of making things interesting. A journalistic skill, like writing jokes, or tweeting. You need the exact amount of information, that will guide people to the answer but without giving it away.”
Traditionally, the pub quiz was established in the 1970s to get people to come drinking on quieter nights. Monday to Thursday are the most popular evenings, but Redtooth sells about 50 quizzes for Fridays and Saturdays, which you would imagine attracts a special type of contestant.
“Oh, pub quizzes are all about showing off,” adds Mr Martin. “Look at me! I’m the cleverest person in this pub. People love to win pub quizzes. They’ve never gone away, and I can’t see that they ever will.”
Brains of Britain: Three of the best
The Black Bull, Shepley, West Yorkshire
Venture here at your peril. This is the Lions’ Den. A team from here, named after a lion once reported to be on the loose in the village, near Huddersfield, won last year’s Great British Pub Quiz contest against teams from 600 pubs.
The Ancient Mariner, Brighton
Licensee Lillie Murdoch takes her Monday night quiz seriously and it is heavily promoted on the pub’s website. Recently, when the weekly accumulator had got a little out of hand, the winner took home more than £100 and 18 bottles of wine.
The Prince of Wales, Highgate, north London
Written and hosted each Tuesday by author Marcus Berkmann, who freely admits to having “got slightly addicted to writing quiz questions, if you can imagine such a thing”. “Perfectly difficult” and “joyfully frustrating” are among the many praiseworthy comments from his contestants.