Monday, 19 October 2015

Round Britain Quiz

A power-hungry citizen; the rent paid in kind by a 12th-century Scottish farmer; and Hollywood Brit ... all sound the same but are spelt differently. Who (or what) are they and why should the lattermost's catch-phrase be appropriate to Round Britain Quiz?

Regular listeners to radio's longest-running quiz will recognise the question style: three cryptic crossword-style clues providing the link to an overall question. And, in typical RBQ style even if you know the answer the trick is, according to one-time exponent of the quiz Irene Thomas, that "it's really a matter of thinking aloud. If you know the answer and say it straight out, it's no fun. You have to amble towards it, and the fun always come when you get lost on the way".

A new series of Round Britain Quiz kicks off today on BBC Radio 4. Starting in 1947 its five-years older than  Brain of Britain, but its roots go back to a wartime cultural exchange between the US and the UK. Here's my brief history of RBQ, which, quite neatly, fits into three parts.

Part 1 The Hale Years

In  April 1944 the BBC's North American Service and the American Blue Network (formerly part of NBC) launched a joint programme called Transatlantic Quiz. The quiz consisted of a chairman and two team members who "traded questions between London and New York with the idea of testing one team's knowledge of the other's country. Some of the questions were cryptic, but many were plain general knowledge." The chairman in New York was Alistair Cooke whilst back in London it was Lionel Hale (both pictured below). Cooke had already appeared in a similar venture the previous year, a transatlantic discussion programme called Answering You

Transatlantic Quiz featured some well-known participants such as David Niven, Peter Ustinov and Joyce Grenfell. But the unlikely star was Professor Denis Brogan, a man who "could identify the most obscure political quotations, or plumb the shadiest depths of American literature." In July 1945 home listeners got a chance to hear the quiz when the Light Programme started to broadcast it. It ran for as further six years, ending its run in 1951.

Meanwhile in 1947 the Light Programme was looking for a similar UK-based quiz and in November Round Britain Quiz was launched, This set the basic programme format for the next fifty years. Each week the two-person London team took on a two-person team from one of the regions -  Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the West, the North and the Midlands. There were two chairmen, with the London team it was always Lionel Hale (he remained with the programme for twenty years) and with the regional teams Gilbert Harding. Like its predecessor the mainstay of the London team was Denis Brogan, like Hale he put in a twenty year stint. Others on the London team included Hubert Phillips and Cedric Cliffe. Long-time participants for the regions included Jack House and Sir James Fergusson in Scotland and Welsh novelist Wyn Griffith. Following Gilbert Harding's death in 1960 there were a number of short-term replacements before Roy Plomley became the regular second question-master.

Inexplicably following the 1968 series Round Britain Quiz was dropped from Radio 4's schedule. It would be a five years hiatus.

Part 2 Revival and Expansion into Europe  

RBQ's revival was due, in part, to the persistence of a former contestant Irene Thomas (pictured left), the Queen of Quizzes long before Daphne Fowler came onto the scene. Irene, a former Brain of Britain winner , had joined the programme before the end of its 1960s run as one of the London team. Apparently she wrote some "nice but persistent" letters to Radio 4 controller Tony Whitby to bring the programme back. He agreed and assigned the production to BBC Manchester under the guidance of Trevor Hill. The programme returned on 1 April 1973.

Hill recalled that he slightly tweaked the format which saw the introduction of more cryptic "verbal crossword" questions that have become the programme's trademark. "I discovered ... that it was no use for one person to set the questions, however inventive and amusing they might be, and then for another person to pose them. When contestants are seeking clues and guidance the quizmaster has to know all he can about the background in order to 'feed' the teams and often to get their minds working on another tack so that they see the common link between one part of the answer and the other parts".

Setting and asking the questions at the London end was Professor Anthony Quinton and with the regions it was Jack Longland, at the time well-known to listeners for Any Questions and My Word!  The regular London team consisted of Irene Thomas and Professor John B Mays - can their ever have been so  many professors on the same show since the days of The Brains Trust? Later Irene's team mate was Eric Korn.

Jack Longland left the programme in 1976, to be replaced by Gordon Clough. Familiar to Radio 4 listeners for PM and The World at One, Gordon contended that RBQ was "one of the hardest jobs I have to do in radio. I have to aim at creating questions which contain at least one part that the audience at home can answer without too much trouble". 

Here are a couple of recordings from the mid-80s. From 19 August 1984 this first programme features Irene Thomas and Eric Korn on the London team and Patrick Nuttgens and Paddy Fitzpatrick representing the North. Asking the questions are Gordon Clough and Louis Allen, who replaced Anthony Quinton between 1983 and 1991.

I recorded this edition on 26 September 1985 when the competing team for the Midlands was John Julius Norwich and Peter Oppenheimer. The London team had a fearsome reputation for winning, but here the Midlands team, and in particular Peter Oppenheimer, show their mettle.    

Such was the success of the revived Round Britain Quiz that it spawned two spin-offs. First there was Round Europe Quiz (3 series 1977-81) with Irene Thomas and John Julius Norwich representing England taking on teams from France, Italy Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark Austria and Poland. Gordon Clough and Anthony Quinton continued in their inquisitorial roles. Producer Trevor Hill recalls that the idea came from network controller Ian McIntryre who asked him to widen his quiz horizons. "needless to say each European I saw had to have, in the first instance, a very good knowledge of the English language plus the ability, when I tested them, to take part in and enjoy that essentially English pastime of doing crossword puzzles."    

The second spin-off was our old friend Transatlantic Quiz (7 series 1976-86). Again it was populated with the usual suspects: a London team of Irene Thomas and John Julius Norwich, questions posed by Louis Allen and Anthony Quinton (later Gordon Clough). In the States the team was Brendon Gill and, for the most part, Shana Alexander.  

When the 1995 series of Round Britain Quiz came to an end it dropped off the schedules. The death the following year of Gordon Clough seemed to finally have put paid to the programme's return.

Part 3 Slimmed Down but Not Dumbed Down

But you can't keep a good quiz format down and in 1997 RBQ returned reinvigorated and with further tweaks to the format. Gone was the resident London team, they now had to compete on an equal footing like everyone else. Gone indeed was Irene Thomas ("I loved every minute of it" she told Sue Lawley, "I could have gone on doing it all the time"). This slimmed down version now had just one question master, Nick Clarke who was not expected to devise the questions himself. There was some debate as to whether the questions had been dumbed down with Roland White noting in the Radio Times that "the pool of knowledge has been widened". Listening again to the 1980s editions I'm inclined to agree with him.

Nick Clarke's tenure lasted until 2005 (he died the following year) when again the programme's future hung in the balance. It did return, of course, from June 2007 with Tom Sutcliffe now posing the questions.

Tom is back at 3 pm today when Round Britain Quiz returns with Scotland and Wales competing.

And the answer to the question posed at the start of this post, culled from a Radio Times article written  by Nick Baker in 1985, refers to a power-hungry citizen, think of Citizen Kane played by Orson Welles in 1941 film. The rent paid by Scottish farmers was called, assuming you know your Gaelic, as Cain. That Hollywood Brit is one Michael Caine (who back in 1985 had yet to return to live in the UK). All of which should lead you to his supposed catchphrase "Not a lot of people know that", though he has denied ever saying it.

The UK Game Shows website lists some of the Round Britain Quiz question masters but then they didn't have the benefit of the estimable BBC Genome, The full list is as follows:

Lionel Hale 1947/1949-68
Gilbert Harding 1947-60
Leonard Sachs 1948
Robert McDermott 1948
Philip Hope-Wallace 1948
Peter Watson 1949
Howard Marion-Crawford 1957
Lionel Gamlin 1957
Stephen Potter 1960-61
Kevin Fitzgerald 1961
Edward Ward 1961
Michael Flanders 1961
Roy Plomley 1961-68
Patrick Harvey 1962-66
Anthony Quinton 1973-82/92-95
Jack Longland 1973-76
Gordon Clough 1977-95
Louis Allen 1983-91
Nick Clarke 1997-05
Tom Sutcliffe 2007-

Transatlantic Quiz by Lionel Hale in The World Radio and Television Annual (Sampson Low, Marston & Co 1947)
Alistair Cooke: The Biography by Nick Clarke (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1999)
Over the Airwaves by Trevor Hill (The Book Guild 2005)
Riddled with clues by Nick Baker, Radio Times 5 October 1985
Blimey, even I could get that one by Roland White, Radio Times 16 August 1997

BBC Genome website

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