Only one woman can save Round Britain Quiz now; RADIO

It was years before Irene Thomas was invited on to Round Britain Quiz (R4). In the Sixties, she won Brain of Britain - she won Brain of Brains; her stock of knowledge was as vast and as varied as her ego was insignificant, the which two facts had endeared her to thousands of listeners. Yet it was only when a member of the (all-male) RBQ team fell ill just before a recording that she was summoned to take part. As they left the studio, the men peeled off into an (all-male) club and left her to go home on the bus, her job finished.

However, the enthusiastic response which greeted this performance secured her a permanent place on the London team until last year, when the programme was discontinued after the death of one of the question-masters, Gordon Clough. In its new incarnation Irene Thomas does not appear, though she is available and her wits and memory as nimble as ever.

They should beg her to return. RBQ, at least as much as any other quiz, depends heavily on a broad wisdom and geniality, both of which are sadly lacking in the current crop of contestants. Nick Clarke, now sole host and Bambering manfully on, had to give ever heavier clues to people who couldn't pick up a Hyacinth Bucket despite already having the spade, the seaside and the perishing sand-castle. Then he helped the opposing team to hunt for the name of a Fifties sex-symbol whose surname sounded like Dors. Talk about playing with himself: it reminded me of a fearsome time when I found myself scooting round a table trying to help all four ancient and (frankly) batty players in a viciously competitive game of senile Scrabble.

If you think RBQ is pretentious however, you should avoid The Culture Club (R3), for fear of apoplexy. Brian Aldridge of Ambridge would almost certainly hurl a mad cow at anyone who mentioned the word "culture" in his hearing, but his alter ego Charles Collingwood is moonlighting from the amateur dramatics currently obsessing The Archers to put in a performance of enormous and unjustifiable enthusiasm as the scorer in Joan Bakewell's dire quiz.

Only Dilly Keane (and occasionally Frank Delaney) showed any sense last Sunday. A team of Stephen Bayley and Brian Sewell fell over their vowels as often as their answers: one of them, asked to listen to a passage from the film of Trainspotting, fastidiously begged not to have to hear the Scottish voice again: "I think we'd rather go without points."

And they did. The ambit of this quiz is vast, covering "all aspects of cultural life", but the knowledge evinced is minimal. Sewell, asked to identify the sound of an instrument, suggested "a came and eld levetreh pepper" - but the real answers were silly things like crumhorns and Japanese zithers. He even got his art question wrong: though you couldn't really blame him, as the clues were so ineptly framed - punning, for example, on "Apollo" and "appalling".

It actually got worse, but that seems the right place to stop and turn to Peter Hobday's Wordly Wise (R4), which is better. Like the currently resting Quote Unquote, it provides enjoyably arcane information while also offering contestants a chance to tell their own stories: the best this week came from Jim Tavare, who had spotted an estate agent's ad for a flat where "Joe Orton died at the hands of his homosexual lover who, in a mad jealous frenzy, took a hammer and pummelled him to death as he lay helplessly naked on the bathroom floor within easy reach of the Tube".

I don't think Chad Varah has ever been on a radio quiz, which is just as well. When he was a young-ish vicar, he set up counselling sessions and asked ladies of the parish to provide tea and sympathy for the waiting queue. These women did such a good job that the queue melted away before reaching Varah: in recognition of their skills he founded The Samaritans. That was a wonderful moment of insight: God knows how many lives have been saved by Varah's organisation over the last 43 years.

But he's a peculiar old man now. Asked to identify A Pebble in the Pond (R4) of his life, he chose the moment when the former Bishop of Zanzibar enlightened him about sex. He was delighted with the power this knowledge brought, especially with regard to masturbation, of which "I had been an enthusiastic practitioner since well before puberty". He eagerly passed the information on to all his 12-year- old contemporaries, although "I can't remember ever having to explain the function of the clitoris to my school-fellows". Good-naturedly, Sheena McDonald let him ramble on about the joys of sexual freedom, though he was pretty patronising to her. Just occasionally, she pointed out the inconsistencies in his well-rehearsed and, one felt, somewhat romanticised account of his own life.

One stark episode stood out, of his officiating at the funeral of a girl who had killed herself at the onset of her periods. Such a thing could surely never happen today, yet an equally strange and sad story was told on Woman's Hour (R4) when Caroline Beale, the girl arrested in America in 1994 for trying to bring home the body of her newborn baby, spoke, for the first time, of her experiences to a particularly gentle and compassionate Jenni Murray.

She found it hard, because her only memories of the birth were like sepia photographs in her head. But this was a fiercely brave and honest account, horrifying at times. Accused of murder, she was imprisoned and then shackled, handcuffed and chained around the waist for her many court appearances. No wonder she eventually lied and said that she did indeed remember killing the baby: it was the only way she could get home. Only when the tiny body was buried in England did things begin to return to normal for her. It was the most moving broadcast of the week.

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