Miles Kington: Blank looks, hoarse whispers and obscure allusions

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The Independent Online

I was saying yesterday that for years I have been looking for a set of quiz questions with a bit of imagination behind them, and that I finally came across them in this year's Bradford-on-Avon Music and Arts Festival Quiz.

And it requires your imagination as well when you are asked to think of a British car racing champion and a Pre-Raphaelite painter who have the same surname.

Our team of six people sat there trying to remember famous racing drivers called Rossetti. Or Burne-Jones. Or Millais ... Complete blank.

"OK," said somebody. "Let's do it the other way round. Were there any painters called Moss? Hawthorne? Clarke?"

Baffled pause.

"There was James Hunt, of course," mused someone, "but..."

"Holman Hunt!" screamed somebody.

Except they didn't scream. You don't scream in quizzes. Rivals might hear you. Everyone converses in agitated hoarse whispers. Yes, Holman Hunt! And once you have got one answer, the others start getting easier.

The next one we guessed was the same surname joining a member of the Carry On team and a novelist who died in 1916. "Sid James and Henry James," said someone. Brilliant! Now, a Round the Horne stalwart and a playwright who died in 1986... Blimey. Who were the Round the Horne regulars...? Hugh Paddick... Marty Feldman... Kenneth Williams...

"Tennessee Williams!" muttered someone, at the top of their sotto voce.

The one we couldn't get was the athletics commentator with the same surname as the double Oscar winner. Turned out to be Brendan Foster and Jodie Foster. Oh, well...

These questions were the brainchild of our local bookseller, Jim, who also struck a nice vein in a round of questions about characters' jobs. Like what? Well, like, what was Vivaldi's other job? Which novelist, in his other job, helped introduce the post box to Britain? What was the job done by Bottom? Graham Greene's Mr Wormold? Alec Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob? And how was Quarter Master Major Boothroyd better known in a series of books and films?

Individually they are, perhaps, ordinary questions, but as a set of varied questions about jobs they make a great little team.

What's that? You'd like the answers? Oh, very well... The answers are Priest, Trollope, Weaver, Vacuum Cleaner Salesman, Bank Clerk and Q.

The only quiz-setter I can think of who regularly brings this sort of quirkiness to his quizzes is Jeremy Beadle in The Independent. I always start his questions with high spirits because I can always get one or two straight off. It's after that, when I hit the hard or over-allusive ones, that my spirits sag.

Jim of Bradford-on-Avon tells me that he uses the same approach. "It's always a good idea to have a few easier ones in each round, to make people feel that, if they can get those, they could be getting the others as well. In the round of questions on Trains, for example, I asked who it was who wrote the verse for Night Mail and who directed Strangers on a Train. Most people know it's Auden and Hitchcock. So they feel they ought to know who wrote By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, even though it's much harder."

(He even dared to include a round of questions which most strangers to Bradford-on-Avon could not have answered, as all the titles in the answers were based on the names of local pubs. "Name of novel by Kafka". The Castle. "Name of novel by Naomi Campbell". Oh, heck! Not one of us knew that it was The Swan ...)

I have not, I am glad to find, been bitten by the quiz bug, but I think I have conquered my quiz claustrophobia. Next year I think I might drop a hint that I'd like to be asked back...