Little minds can have long memories

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The Independent Online
The oddest thing about Mastermind, the light-hearted quiz programme which has just gone to the attic to gather dust, is also the oddest thing about Round Britain Quiz and Brain of Britain and A Question of Sport and University Challenge and all the others, and that is that the word "memory" is not used in any of their titles.

This is not a new observation, but it is one worth making now and then to remind us that the people who appear on these programmes are not brains. They are not masterminds. They are not anything at all except people with good memories which have been force-fed full of facts with a single-mindedness which would be called cruel if done to geese. The titles of the programmes suggest that the contestants are being given some sort of creative challenge to actually do something imaginative, in a master-mindly, brainy sort of way, but nothing of the sort ever happens. I don't watch much daytime television but I am dimly aware that there are many programmes on television in daylight hours which ask people to do things like rearrange letters to make words, and that daytime TV audiences do sit around at home watching people in a studio rearranging letters to make words. This doesn't say much for the richness of life of people at home, but I will say this for the people in the studio; if you are given the letters G-B-E-I-R-V-A-E and are asked to rearrange them into a proper word (come on, readers, you have 30 seconds starting NOW!) and you do succeed in forming a word from those letters (come on readers, you have only 25 seconds left!), then you have made more intellectual effort than anyone who ever appeared on Mastermind, because contestants on Mastermind were never asked to think about anything. Only to remember.

This is odd, in a way, because there is something a little unBritish about an emphasis on memory. American crosswords depend entirely on general knowledge, as far as I can make out. If the answer to an American clue is a seven-letter name of a river, like Potomac, then the clue will often be "River (7)". The same is true of our quick crossword-setters, but give a name like Potomac to a proper setter and he will say, "Ah! The first two letters are the name of another river! And `mac' is to do with rain ... so the clue might be `American river takes Italian river to raincoat' ... no, that's not quite right ... Ah, `Potomac' is an anagram of `camp too', so how about `American river changes camp too'? ... No ..." And if the answer to a clue is the word "Verbiage" (which is the word I was thinking of above) then an American crossword will give the clue "Wordiness (8)" but a British clue will be something a bit more tricky like "Barge I've changed for hot air (8)". I may be wrong, but I don't think the Americans even have the equivalent of our penchant for intricate crossword clues. Heaven knows what they would make of a programme like Radio 4's The News Quiz, which sounds as if it is a quiz about the week's news but is anything but, being mainly a chance for the panellists to make jokes about the news, the chairman, each other and our leaders. The questions are merely the pretext for this. But as it would sound a bit simple-minded to ask questions such as, "What are the Scots going to be voting for next week?" or, "Why is everyone upset in Calcutta?" they wreathe the questions in camouflage.

For instance, in the edition which went out on Friday 29 August, just before Princess Diana died (and which therefore contained the kind of jokes about her which people were making when she was alive, and which therefore was not repeated the following Monday), there was this question: "Who was barred for saying the same again?" It sounds as if it is all about drinking. Therefore it must be about something else, and, as Jeremy Hardy spotted, it was about people who had been penalised for plagiarising other people's poetry. But you have to be crossword-minded in a particularly British way to find this sort of thing sensible, and I fear we are the only country in the world which does so.

A reader writes: Well, if we are all so clever and crossword-minded, how do you explain the popularity of pub quizzes which are all about memory and nothing to do with cleverness?

Miles Kington writes: I was just coming to that.

Continued some other time, probably tomorrow.

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