Good on you Jeremy Paxman – but it’s not just toughness that makes a good quiz question

The titan of University Challenge reckons it’s time the BBC stopped treating audiences like idiots

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Jeremy Paxman wants the BBC to stop treating us all like idiots.

I think he must mean TV rather than radio, which doesn’t generally leave me feeling patronised, and I imagine he’s referring mainly to BBC1, which does these days feel like Beeb-lite.

He lauds his own University Challenge (BBC2) as a trend-bucking counter-example, and his BBC colleague John Humphrys might well say the same about Mastermind, whose general knowledge questions are even more difficult than University Challenge’s. There are TV quiz shows that actively discourage all that pesky learnin’ – on a show like Channel 4’s The Million Pound Drop, for example, the multiple-choice questions appear to be specifically engineered so that a dunce has as much chance as a don.

Not so on Challenge, which has surely been such a long-lasting success by treating the audience with a bit of intellectual respect. But if Paxman can be proud of his show for its unrelenting toughness, he and the producers should realise that the essence of a really great quiz isn’t how hard it is but how interesting and intriguing.

For some years I’ve been one of the setters of a pub quiz once described by Time Out as “the hardest in London”, but for me the challenge isn’t to stump the punters, it’s to make them think; they need to have enough information in the question to be able to work their way towards the answer. Setters mustn’t put in too many questions to which people will either simply know the answer or not – that gets boring. It’s all about the deducing, the piecing together of the clues towards an answer that is, in itself, interesting.

To take a random example from the most recent quiz I set: “In November 1969, when Pete Conrad put together a mixtape of his favourite tracks, including “Wichita Lineman”, “Son of a Preacher Man” and “Sugar, Sugar”, where did he take it?” There are clues there: he sounds American for a start. And what was happening of note in 1969? Among other things, the Apollo programme. Answer: he took it to the Moon. Even though I say it myself, both question and answer are interesting in themselves.

Or take this somewhat snappier question: “On which ship was the first onboard swimming pool?” If you think about it, there can only be one answer to that. Answers on a postcard please…

Chris Maume is the radio critic of The Independent on Sunday

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