Quizmaster with that elusive common touch

Sat, Jan 14, 2012, 00:00

Bob HolnessBEFORE BRITISH television and radio quizmasters became increasingly raucous and sarcastic, Bob Holness, who has died aged 83, saw the role as that of a rewarder of knowledge rather than ringmaster of a hysterical circus.

Indeed, one of the worst mistakes one could make with Holness was to refer to any of the many quizzes he conducted as game shows.

In his unostentatious clothes, he resembled a jovial and thoughtful golfing companion rather than a smirking media man and always made a point of sympathising with losing contestants.

Blockbusters, the TV quiz for 16 to 18-year-olds but aimed at a much wider audience, consolidated Holness’s popularity and also brought him cult status in Britain.

In the programme, he posed questions, the answers to which began with a letter of the alphabet chosen by contestants from a honeycomb grid.

A favourite contestant wheeze was to tease him by asking, “Can I have a P please, Bob?” or even “Can I have U?” Holness, who said that he always recognised the “little snigger” in the contestants’ voices, took all this in good part, knowing it helped build audience figures to more than six million.

A variant of a show first screened in the US, Blockbusterswas the most popular programme Holness conducted. Produced by Central, it was first broadcast in the UK in 1983 and ran for 10 years in various regions on the ITV network, before being taken up by Sky – with Holness still as quizmaster – for a short run. Variations of the show followed, hosted by Michael Aspel and Liza Tarbuck.

Holness was born in Natal, South Africa. When he was young, his family relocated to Britain and he was persuaded by his father to become a printing apprentice. He took up a printer’s job in South Africa and joined a repertory theatre in Durban within two months of arriving. After he and his wife Mary started a family, they decided to move to Britain.

It took them a few years to save enough money for the tickets and when they arrived at Southampton, it was with virtually empty pockets.

The British actors he had met in South Africa had spoken with great enthusiasm about the booming television industry there.

Within three weeks of approaching companies, Holness was put under contract by Granada in Manchester. After three years he moved south, buying a modest house in Pinner, north-west London, which remained the family home for over 30 years.

Over the years, he worked as a reporter, interviewer and announcer for TV programmes such as World in Actionand Todayand radio shows, including the unscripted Late Night Extra. He had a long association with BBC Radio 2.

Once Blockbustersput him on the path to celebrity, he became recognised as a master of the quiz show genre and in the 1990s he was seen presiding over Raise the Roofand Call My Bluff.

His wife Mary and their children, Carol, Rosalind and Jonathan, survive him.

Robert Wentworth John Holness: born November 12th, 1928; died January 6th, 2012