Comment: In which the brains of British quizmasters are even more challenged

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The Independent Online
I seem to have started quite a hare running when I wondered out loud if anyone apart from me had ever noticed TV and radio quizmasters getting things wrong. Readers sent me enough samples of mistakes perpetrated by the smug brotherhood of quiz chairmen to fill a whole column yesterday and, blow me down, there is enough in the post this morning to do it again. I cannot resist the temptation.

A card, first, from John Handford of Gosport, who says he once heard Henry Kelly on Going for Gold ask a man from Hamburg: "From what language does the expression Zeitgeist come?". Unfortunately, he pronounced the expression as "Zeetgeest" and the poor German was none the wiser.

Margaret Thompson of Chessington reports that 10 years ago on Radio 4's Brain of Britain she heard an embarrassed female contestant being asked by a male quizmaster: "Where in the human body do you find the perineum?"

Now, even I knew this one. The perineum is that small blank space situated between the anal back area and the genital front area. I always think of it as the one part of the body which, when you are having a shower, is sure to retain quantities of soapy foam after you thought you had rinsed it all off, but apparently it also comes into play during childbirth, which explained the contestant's tongue-tied dithering.

"Sorry," said the quizmaster, "but I must give the answer. It's the membrane in the abdomen that covers the intestines."

Nothing of the sort, says Margaret Thompson - that's the peritoneum.

Raymond Cook of no fixed abode (ie, via e-mail) insists that he recently heard Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge ascribe the authorship of "A Shropshire Lad" to John Betjeman, instead of the rather more correct AE Housman, and that none of the contestants was knowledgeable enough to contradict him. In a later programme contestants were asked to identify a quotation about architecture, and when someone suggested John Betjeman, Paxman snapped: "He was a poet, not an architect!" Well, as Mr Cook suggests, if you think Betjeman wrote "A Shropshire Lad", you probably aren't too aware of Betjeman's frequent writings on architecture.

Paul Barnett, from somewhere else in e-mail country, says he heard a contestant on Brain of Britain give a perfectly correct answer and have it smugly dismissed by Robert Robinson as wrong. At the end of the programme the continuity person announced that in fact the contestant's answer had been right, but that it hadn't affected the outcome.

"Actually," says Paul Barnett, "I thought it bloody well might have. If I'd been that man, my mind would have been a-churn with confusion and/or fury for the rest of the session, so that I would forget all sorts of things I would normally remember."

Sebastian Robinson of Glasgow has a wonderfully esoteric example of an error by the same chairman on the same programme. "Robert Robinson," he says, "began by announcing: `The words of this popular song were written by Mitchell Parish. Who wrote the music?' He then played the introductory verse to `Stardust'. None of the contestants having been able to answer, he then said, `Hoagy Carmichael' - which, as you will know, is wrong. Carmichael wrote and published the chorus of `Stardust' as a medium-fast number in about 1928; about three years later Mitchell Parish thought it would make an excellent slow ballad, and wrote not only the words but the music of the verse, as played by R Robinson. This must be one of those rare occasions when a quizmaster, having given his victims the right answer, asked them for the wrong one."

And finally a letter from Mr Walter of Westcliff-on-Sea, who was actually a victim of error himself, on Television Brain of Britain, a precursor of Mastermind in the late Sixties.

"The question (put not to me but to another contestant called Marshbanks) was: `Which is the lightest planet?' It will be apparent to you, as it was to Mr Marshbanks and myself, that this is slightly ambiguous. Should we understand `lightest' literally (ie, `least massive') in which case the answer is Mercury, or loosely (`least dense') in which case it is Saturn? Marshbanks played sage and asked: `Do you really mean lightest?' He was told `yes', and said correctly `Mercury' and you can guess the rest. Marshbanks would have let it go but I protested and demanded that he be given the point."

Mr Walter himself was later asked to form the letter H in semaphore which he did correctly, only to be told it was wrong. Walter insisted he was right. The voice of the producer was heard backstage: "He's right, you know!" The error was not broadcast, and the programme was dropped after one series. I was not, says Mr Walter, altogether surprised.