Planet Quiz 2000

Q: in which year did Anne Robinson say 'Goodbye' and Judith Keppel said 'Hello' to TV's first £1m prize. A: 2000, the year our quiz addiction erupted into something more obsessive. But how much attention were you paying? Thomas Sutcliffe sets a quiz-show challenge

Thursday 28 December 2000 01:00 GMT

According to one recent report, four out of five people compete with the contestants when watching TV quizzes - a blindingly obvious research finding that conceals a core of mystery. How could you watch and not compete, since quiz shows stir the most atavistic urges in us? Who are the one in five who have freed themselves from the trammels of their evolutionary inheritance, who feel not a flicker of antler-locking adrenaline when the presenter throws an obvious question into the ring?

According to one recent report, four out of five people compete with the contestants when watching TV quizzes - a blindingly obvious research finding that conceals a core of mystery. How could you watch and not compete, since quiz shows stir the most atavistic urges in us? Who are the one in five who have freed themselves from the trammels of their evolutionary inheritance, who feel not a flicker of antler-locking adrenaline when the presenter throws an obvious question into the ring?

It's hardly surprising that men are six times more likely to describe their general knowledge as "well-above average" - they've been bred over centuries for this kind of groundless optimism, every gene screaming at them to display their suitability as breeding material. No one is immune though - and certainly not this year, in which a longstanding addiction to quizzes erupted into something more obsessive, fuelled by the first really big money prizes since the Fifties.

The devisers of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? called it "shoutability" - a quality that can make maiden aunts whinny like goaded horses and the more excitable viewers rend their garments - and they restored it to the television quiz with huge injections of cash and a cunning top-dressing of strategy. The BBC did it with a presenter so tart she made acetic acid look like a cordial. The result was the year of the quiz. On the average day you can watch six or seven if you're so inclined. I did, and these are the results - in six categories, and no conferring - of a brief sojourn on Planet Quiz.

Q: Which quiz show spent £150,000 on its set, and discovered it had a bargain?

The colour of mental effort is electric blue - at least if we're to believe the designers of television quiz shows. Turn on Fifteen to One, The Weakest Link and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and you'll see virtually the same colour scheme and lighting set-up - a raking, icy blue light that glares at the contestants and ricochets off the chrome and metal fittings. Angles are sharp and surfaces highly reflective. The resulting ambiance is two parts gulag perimeter fence to one part police interrogation room. When this modern look collides with the cheesier habits of festive television the effect can be decidedly odd. In One to Win, Channel 5's tea-time quiz, even the Christmas tree was made out of blue tinsel; it was a Christmas tree, yes, but that didn't mean it was a soft touch. It's unclear if mere fashion is responsible for this design cliché or a kind of viral contagion, spread by the success of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? - but it's worth remembering that the true origin for this effect of ersatz gravity is Mastermind, pioneer of the searchlight aesthetic.

A: 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?', which went three times over budget on its perspex and chrome amphitheatre but has amortised the cost by hiring it out to other production companies for editions in Tagalog, Inuit and Latvian.

Q: Match the following catchphrases with their quiz shows: a) I've started so I'll finish; b) I don't want to give you that; c) The higher they go the bigger the dough.

One informal measure of the success of a quiz show is the speed with which its catchphrases get into the linguistic bloodstream. Last year, no pantomime in mainland Britain was complete without a gag built around the phrases "Phone a friend" or "Final answer?" - this year, wicked stepmothers and evil witches will all be dismissing their victims with the same cackle of triumph: "You are the weakest link, goodbye." In Anne Robinson's case, an intonation alone has achieved the status of an identifying characteristic. During Wipeout, a BBC daytime quiz, Bob Monkhouse condensed this catchphrase to its final word, uttered with the affectless cruelty of an abattoir android, and everyone got the joke. Even Mr Blair used the phrase during a question time session with Mr Hague, inadvertently confirming the kinship between the nation's principal forum for political debate and a Bournemouth Palladium Christmas season. One senior churchman pointed out that supplying the witless of Britain with a convenient shortcut to dismissive contempt is not the finest purpose to which the licence fee has been turned. Quiz show catchphrases are often uttered in game show crescendo, an upward vocal surge which includes a two-beat pause and requires at least four exclamation marks to be accurately rendered in print. Thus "Lets playyyyyyy... ...Sudden Death!!!!" or "It's time forrrrr... ...In the Spotlight!!!!" After too much exposure this drives you... ...Round the Bend!!!!

A: a) ' Mastermind'; b) ' Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?'; c) ' Wipeout'.

Q: Who was the presenter of the first ever quiz show on British television?

The spectrum of presenter manners runs from queasily unctuous (Bob Monkhouse on a bad day), through avuncular (Bob Holness as kindly uncle, and Magnus Magnusson as the one who wants to discuss your A-level options), on past matey (Chris Tarrant, who has been known to snog his contestants at moments of intense emotion) to inquisitorial. Anne Robinson currently enjoys pole position in the Sneering Grand Prix - due to her vivid impression of PMT in a trouser suit. But true connoisseurs of magisterial contempt will always prefer Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge - a presenter who blends testy impatience and patrician incredulity into an almost millennial sense of cultural despair. Wild guesses are usually taken aside and thrashed until they whimper: he was particularly withering after an impulsive answer from Sands, Warwick, to a question about plants developed at a Scottish agricultural institute. "You think they develop thistles!" he said, compacting a full page of character analysis into a single sentence. Presenters only need to know how to read, incidentally, though the judicious way in which they say "I'll allow that" makes an implicit claim for ownership of the facts and information they marshal. Sometimes the air of portentous moment collides with a question so fluffily trivial that the result is richly comic. The sight of Anne Robinson asking for the name of the policeman in Top Cat with all the solemnity of a barrister conducting a death-row appeal should offer some consolation to those she has flayed in the past.

A: Freddie Grisewood in 1938. The quiz in question was 'Spelling Bee', in which contestants had to spell words correctly. It was one of the few happy consequences of the Second World War that it took 'Spelling Bee' off air, making the world safe for more sophisticated entertainment.

Q: Match the answers to the quiz shows: a) Shane Ritchie, Steven Redgrave, 'Ask the Family'; b) 'Mansfield Park', Greater Antilles, Synoptic Gospels; c) Rubric, Holocene epoch, avocet. 1 'University Challenge'; 2 'Wipeout'; 3 'Fifteen to One'.

The Platonic quiz question is one that combines arcane knowledge with enough raw material for a good guess. For example, on the day I watched a question about the shamrock appeared in University Challenge and The Weakest Link, slightly differently dressed in each case. If you want the question to be more difficult, ask which trifoliate clover was adopted as a symbol of the doctrine of the trinity by St Patrick; if you want the nine-year-olds to have a chance, ask which three-leaved plant is the emblem of Ireland. Quizzes naturally play to the strengths of their target audiences, which can induce a hall of mirrors effect at the cheap and cheerful end. Wipeout began with a round called "Auntie's Games" - in which contestants had to distinguish BBC game-shows and quizzes from ITV productions - and continued with "Camp Entertainers", regrettably not a round about famous closet cases, but one in which you had to identify which celebrities began their careers as Butlins Redcoats. Answers in quizzes generally offer a genetic marker as to their intellectual level, but you have to be careful - sometimes the answer is daytime and the question exclusively specialist. The concept of "kinetic energy", one answer in University Challenge, is general knowledge but few, apart from a physics student, could get to it by means of this route: "A particle when at rest has total energy m0c squared, where m0 is its rest mass, and when moving has a total energy mcsquared, where m is its relativistic mass. Which property of the particle is equal to the difference of the two total energies?" This was followed by a question to which the answer was JR Ewing, thus demonstrating a grasp of the full gamut of student experience. Not all knowledge is reliable either - the daytime quiz shows offer a universe in which Will Self is a poet ( Fifteen to One) and someone called Milton Obutu was the former ruler of Uganda (Anne Robinson in The Weakest Link, revealing that she's not nearly as smart as she thinks she is).

A: a - 2, b - 3, c - 1.

Q: Which quiz show offered a genuine Corinthian alabastrum as its top prize? And what is an alabastrum?

The first British quiz show to offer cash prizes was Take Your Pick in 1955, one of ITV's first hits. Contestants could win five shillings if they avoided saying "yes" or "no" during a minute of intense questioning. Double Your Money offered a more substantial £1,000 but no British show was allowed to offer more than £5,000 before the relaxation of prize money rules in 1993 allowed for a cash explosion. There is little doubt that there is a direct ratio between the size of the prize and the level of viewer empathy. The sight of a man on the brink of throwing away £32,000 and looking smug about it (as occurred on Who Wants... the other night) is usually enough to get the most deeply bedded of couch potatoes hopping around the room in helpless anguish. The fate of an engraved Bohemian wine goblet depicting the Crystal Palace will not generally create the same turmoil, however elevated it makes the show's producers feel to offer objets d'art rather than filthy lucre. Money alone won't work, though: The American show Greed was cancelled after one season despite offering $2.2m as its top prize.

A: ' Fifteen to One', William G Stewart's elimination quiz, the most upwardly mobile of the daytime shows. An alabastrum is an alabaster container for perfume.

Q: In which social gathering would you be likely to find a parish tree warden, a school bursar, a petrol forecourt cashier and a media studies graduate?

Competitors don't always have to be competitive. A kind of genial sodality rules in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, where the cash pie is big enough for everyone to get a slice. But in shows that depend on elimination the strain can tell. The Weakest Link is the most explicit about the Darwinian struggle for supremacy that emerges in such shows - and the best place to look if you want your entertainment salted with vindictiveness and paranoia. "I felt as though there was a female mafia going on there," whined Simon, after his sudden death. Later, Jeremy was foolish enough to confess to nominating a fellow player simply because she had nominated him in an earlier round and "it was getting personal". She held a casting vote and changed her mind about her nomination, and booted Jeremy out. The triumph of the will took a different form in Fifteen to One, where Bill McKaig, a minister in the Church of Scotland, forgot all that stuff about Christian charity and declined to pass a single question over to his two fellow finalists. He answered 40 questions in succession correctly, earning himself a maximum break, a gasp of surprise from William G Stewart and looks of ill-concealed loathing from the poor saps at his side.

A: The Weakest Link.

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