Ian Gillies

'Mycroft' on 'Brain of Britain'

Thursday 18 April 2002 00:00
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Ian Malcolm Gillies, advertising account director and quiz compiler: born London 7 December 1927; died Southend-on-Sea, Essex 13 April 2002.

Ian Gillies gave up a career in the cut-throat world of advertising for one of the most leisured, gentlemanly and essentially sedentary paid occupations one could imagine in the latter half of the 20th century: question-setter for a variety of broadcast quizzes.

His range, like his interests, was wide. He compiled questions for small quizzes and celebrity quizzes. He was consulted by television quiz-show producers. But his real fame rests on his occupation, for nearly 30 years, of the chair next to the question-master Robert Robinson in the annual Radio 4 general knowledge quiz-show Brain of Britain.

Here he was the "court of last resort". The answers were all printed on the question-cards held by Robinson and were manifestly correct (Gillies utilised a vast personal library of reference works, then typed up questions and answers which were later checked by the BBC Reference Library using different sources). But, if a contestant guessed a particularly close or intelligent near-miss, on Gillies's expert judgement and knowledge alone rested Robinson's yea or nay. The phrase "Mycroft's shaking his head", enunciated by Robinson in suitably doom-laden tones, invariably dashed the contestant's hopes (Gillies had been dubbed "Mycroft" after Sherlock Holmes's brainier brother).

The contest was originally the centrepiece of an old Light Programme half-hour devoted to general knowledge, What Do You Know?, compiled by the producer John P. Wynn, and first competed for in 1954. Gillies himself won in 1964, subsequently winning the programme's spin-off contests Brain of Brains (1965) and Top Brain (1971). He possessed an extraordinarily retentive memory and, what was far more useful when he himself competed, excellent recall. As he once pointed out, "Most people remember things that interest them, [but] I have an unusually wide range of interests."

Ian Gillies was born in Hampstead, north London, in 1927, but was evacuated in 1940 to Worcester, where he finished his secondary education at the Royal Grammar School. He gained a degree in History at Jesus College, Oxford, then spent two years in the RAF for his National Service. On his release he went into advertising, becoming an account director in the 1960s.

He applied to be a Brain of Britain contestant as a joke. When the original quiz-master Franklin Engelmann died in 1972 in the middle of a series, Gillies was invited to chair the series's final programme. He then accepted a subsequent invitation to act as judge during recordings, finally giving up his day-job in advertising to compile questions. A selection of these was published as Brain of Britain: a family quiz book (1986).

In the 1980s he became "Mycroft" to Ned Sherrin on the Radio 4 musical general knowledge contest Counterpoint (originally dreamed up by the BBC staffer Edward Cole), although Sherrin nicknamed him "Young Grove", after the multi-volume musical reference dictionary.

Gillies was a modest and unassuming man whose invariable response to the question "What do you do for a living?" was a muttered "Compile questions for the BBC". He delighted, however, in acting the "hustler" role, often being taken to pub quizzes incognito by friends and wiping the floor with the opposition.

Jack Adrian

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