How to commit a howler in style: ask millions of viewers to Call your Bluff

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In a recent piece I said that it was not unknown for quizzes on TV and radio to get their questions and answers in a twist, but that I had had personal experience of only two of these in my own life, so I appealed to readers to supply me with examples which they themselves had witnessed.

I was not disappointed. Several examples have flooded in, including one corker of a mistake from Call My Bluff which is so good I shall have to leave it to last.

My first informant was not a reader at all, but the letters editor of this very paper, who rang me to say that he had once seen an edition of University Challenge in which Bamber Gascoigne was overruled on air. One team was being asked a question about architecture; he couldn't remember what the question was, but he did know that the expected answer was "Norman", so the question must have been something like: "In what style is such- and-such a building built?"

The answer given was "Romanesque".

"I'm sorry, it's Norman," said Gascoigne.

At which point the other team interceded and said - rather like a batsman admitting that he had, in fact, touched the ball - that they thought that was near enough, and that Norman and Romanesque styles did overlap enough for the answer to stand. So Gascoigne gave way and let it stand.

The trouble, obviously, is that if the quizmaster has no flexibility, only a one-word answer, he is in no position even to defend himself. This was the problem, according to a reader called John Major (no relation), with Top Of The Form, which he describes as "that ghastly old Home Service programme ... I can't remember specific cases but there were clangers nearly every week. Often the kids interpreted the wording of the questions far better than the question setters, and when the problems were vaguely scientific or engineering oriented (I say `vaguely' - the Beeb seems to use only arts graduates) the answers were just plain wrong."

Scientific ignorance is certainly behind the plaint on a card I received anonymously from Stockport, which said, "Dear Miles, The saddest case of mispronunciation that I have ever heard was during a TV debate on the closure of iron and steelmaking in Cumbria. The BSC representative said that it was impossible to use local ore as it was `low fee', and the union representative never asked him to elaborate on this. Clearly neither of them knew what they were talking about - the chemical symbol for iron is `Fe', but this is always spoken as `iron'. Both sides were just playing at it, for appearance's sake."

Anne Lewis, of London SW15, writes to say that although she cannot remember which show it was on, she does remember a man being asked for the name of the German writer who wrote Faust. She remembers the man giving the correct answer, Goethe, pronounced "Gerta". She also remembers the quizmaster saying "No, it was Go-eath ..."

Clive Exton writes feelingly with this memory. "One quiz gaffe I remember particularly well - because it seemed to encapsulate neatly the British attitude to writers - happened in Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The climax of the show was a competition in which a member of the audience had to arrange a number of words into a well-known phrase or saying. On the Sunday night I remember, the contestant ended up with `The sword is mightier than the pen'. And won."

And finally to the wonderful cock-up on a recent Call My Bluff. Over, with gratitude, to John Greensmith of Huddersfield ...

"This happened about three months ago, when the correct definition of `Knorcock' was given as an Old English word for `next'. Having studied Anglo-Saxon in the past, I couldn't believe this; and my suspicions were confirmed when I looked it up in the OED in the library.

"Sure enough, it said `Knorcock - anglicised form of `next'. But `next' means, refer to the next word listed in the dictionary, which was `Knorhan', the name of a South African species of bustard.

"In other words, `Knorcock' is the English name for `Knorhan'."

Clearly, some poor innocent researcher had copied down "Anglicised version of next", and although a moment's thought would have told him or her that there is no way that the word `knorcock" could be any version of the word "next", he or she had clearly not bothered with a moment's thought and nobody had checked this odd definition. Were it not for a sharp-eyed Mr Greensmith, nobody would be any the wiser. Indeed, this may be the first intimation that the Call My Bluff people have had that they did commit a howler.

Ah, it wouldn't have happened in the old Muir and Campbell days.

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