Q. What inspired the modern quiz? A. WWII

The BBC used quizzes as an educational tool as part of the war effort

 Magnus Magnusson, the original presenter of the BBC TV quiz Mastermind, which was inspired by a producer’s memory of being interrogated in  a German prisoner-of-war camp. Photograph: Getty Images

Magnus Magnusson, the original presenter of the BBC TV quiz Mastermind, which was inspired by a producer’s memory of being interrogated in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Once upon a time, there were no cash prizes. When I was writing my book, The Joy of Quiz, I imagined that to find the origin of the hobby I would be going back at least as far as the Victorian era. But quizzing was not on offer in 19th-century parlours: too much effort to come up with a range of questions that will suit everyone present (and to check that the answers are kosher). Far simpler to have another round of charades.

No, quizzing did not begin, on this side of the Atlantic at least, until the second World War. The BBC used quizzes as part of the war effort: Agricultural Bee checked whether land girls were digging correctly for victory, while Air Raid Wardens’ Training Bee pitted city against city to see which was better prepared for a Blitzkreig. As the titles suggest, the very idea of Q&A-as-entertainment was a novelty, explained to audiences as “knowledge tests on the principle of a spelling bee”.

Quizzing was really a classroom-style test for adults: the notion of prizes never even occurred to those in charge – and those austere origins can still be felt today.

Mastermind, for example, was quite literally a creation of the second World War. It was devised by a producer who had been plagued with nightmares about the three years he had spent as a prisoner-of-war, sitting under a bright light in an intimidating chair being asked for his name, rank and serial number.

Those nightmares ended when he changed rank to occupation and serial number to specialised subject, and a broadcasting warhorse began. But Mastermind also maintains that knowledge-for-its-own-sake wartime spirit.

Outside these isles, there is no such thing as a quiz show that’s so hard the viewers are exultant if they get a single correct answer and where the contestants play for nothing more than kudos and a glass bowl. It’s a source of immense pride and very manageable budgets (apart from the host’s fee).

And our third and final lesson comes from the statement hastily issued by the Who Wants to be a Millionaire? producers during what became known as the Lunula debacle.

In June 2001, Ireland appeared to have briefly lost its mind. In newspapers and pubs, the conversation was about a small piece of gristle. Instead of operating on their patients, heart surgeons were to be found on the television and the radio discussing cardiac valves.

You’d think someone had died. But the reason for these urgent discussions was... a dodgy quiz question.

It was from a show called Who Wants to be a Millionaire? For the benefit of younger readers, this was a popular quiz where contestants gambled on increasingly large jackpots. Or at least, they did until the global crash, when they realised that it was wiser to leave with a small but tidy cash sum, refused to gamble... and excitement levels plummeted.

The dodgy multiple-choice question had been put by Gaybo to a contestant called Shane O’Doherty, and it was: “where in the human body is the lunula located – the heart, fingernail, eye, or ear?” Mr O’Doherty was smart enough to realise that he didn’t know the answer, but he knew a man who did. He used his “Phone-A-Friend” option to ask a science teacher friend, who immediately replied: “heart”. Mr O’Doherty repeated it and waited to be told he had won £125,000.

Now, there is indeed, in the human heart, a tiny bit of gore shaped like a moon’s crescent and so named the “lunula” since the 19th century. The problem was that the human body has sundry other crescent-shaped bits and bobs which have also been called “lunulae”. The answer on the card (also correct) was “fingernails”. Someone had omitted to check whether all the “wrong” answers were wrong. And Mr O’Doherty was denied his six-figure sum and had to leave the studio floor.

The show’s producers, in their rush to defend Gaybo, were unintentionally dismissiv eof his role. “It’s nothing to do with him. Gay has absolutely nothing to do with the questions. He’s just the presenter.”

Of course, you can understand the desire to protect Gay Byrne from scandal. But a less cobbled-together announcement might have afforded Byrne a little more dignity than “just the presenter”.

No quiz host, of course, knows the answer to every question he (or, nowadays, on rare occasion, she) asks. But no quiz host is an idiot. Mark Goodson, who created many shows including The Price is Right, was himself right when he described the job as like “conducting a witty conversation with a complete stranger while at the same time driving a car with twelve gears backwards down a mountainside”.

It’s the host who gives a quiz its personality, who makes the contestants feel secure or, during the “nasty quiz” era of the 2000s on shows like The Weakest Link, insecure. Not to mention timing, gravitas and pronouncing all those tricky technical and foreign words. In Byrne, Millionaire had a host with a pedigree going back to Jackpot, in the very first week of RTÉ programming. “Just the presenter”, indeed.

But, you might be thinking, enough of the bigger picture. Remind me again what happened to the luckless Mr O’Doherty?

The show did the decent thing, or at least appeared to. He was allowed to return, but couldn’t add to his jackpot without answering a question – an unsurprisingly arcane question, as it turned out – about the Dublin-born Olympic gold medallist who became a Nationalist MP for South Kerry.

After five minutes of rumination, he mumbled: “My wife was quoted somewhere as saying she’d leave me if I got this wrong” and got a ride back to Knocklyon with his £125,000. This was, of course, the only correct response.

And that medallist? Why, it was John Pius Boland, of course. Of course.

  • The Joy of Quiz by Alan Connor is published by Penguin
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