Pointless: how are the 100 people polled & other questions

How do they choose the 100 people polled on Pointless? What counts as a Mastermind specialist subject? 7 geeky game show questions…

It’s all very well for game shows to sit there and ask all the questions. How would they feel if we turned the tables and started to interrogate them? Then the quizzing shoe would be on the other foot.

(Potential ITV pitch “The Quizzing Shoe”: two teams of professional cobblers answer trivia questions on the history of footwear for a chance to win their choice of shoe worn by a member of the opposing team. Suggested hosts: Imelda Marcos, P.C. Boot from The Shoe People, Elizabeth Shue.)

Here are our best attempts at answering seven questions we’ve long wondered about some of the UK’s finest game and quiz shows…

1. How do they choose the 100 people polled on Pointless?

If a lady with a clipboard in a shopping centre corners you and demands that you list as many winning Eurovision entries or words containing the letters ‘cat’ as you can in the space of a minute, she’s either lonely or a serial killer. What she isn’t is a researcher for the BBC’s Pointless.

Ad – content continues below

Redshift Research, a London-based market research company has conducted all of the Pointless surveys online since the show began in 2009. They identify people to take part in a range of research surveys using their Crowdology online tool and pay them for the time they spend filling in questionnaires. The key thing, according to host Alexander Armstrong is that the people polled aren’t aware they’re answering Pointless questions. “You can’t ‘apply’ to be one of the 100 people because that would then affect the outcome.”

2. Why are Oxford and Cambridge allowed to enter multiple teams on University Challenge?

Despite Oxford and Cambridge making up under 2% of the total UK student population, since University Challenge began around 50% of all finalist teams have been Oxbridge colleges. It’s not only due to their book smarts that the likelihood of an Oxbridge team ending up in the final is so great, but also the fact that Oxford, Cambridge and the University of London are allowed to enter multiple teams in the same series.

It’s all down to those universities’ federal systems. As the Executive Producer of University Challenge explains here

“… the Universities of London, Cambridge and Oxford enter teams for their constituent colleges because those colleges operate as broadly autonomous teaching institutions. Students apply to be taught by a specific college within the Universities and generally take all their lectures, tutorials and seminars at that college […] A university such as Durham also operates a collegiate system but this is largely a matter of student welfare and accommodation, not teaching, hence that university applies as a single entity.”

Does that ruling give those universities an unfair advantage over other institutions? Jeremy Paxman would say no, the 1975 Manchester University team would say yes. 

In 1975, said Manchester team (including a young David Aaronovitch) used their appearance on University Challenge to protest the show’s elitism. Aaronovitch explains in this video:

Ad – content continues below

“University Challenge, at that stage, firstly didn’t let any polytechnics or colleges of further education, who are of course our proletarian brothers and sisters in struggle, and also, they let all these people on from all the different Oxbridge colleges so that Oxford and Cambridge had about forty teams between them, whereas Manchester University only had one, so this was proof that it was an elitist institution, if you like a kind of ideological arm of the state apparatus, and therefore we were entitled to take action against it.”

The Manchester troublemakers’ idea was to answer ‘Marx’, ‘Lenin’, ‘Che Guevara’ and so on to every question, though as Aaronovitch recalls “Actually, we only knew about five or six revolutionary leaders, so we ran out of that after a while”.

In a University Challenge episode broadcast on the 5th of August 2013, Paxman refuted a formal complaint made to the BBC about the perceived bias in favour of Oxbridge, saying: 

“It does not stand that collegiate universities have an unfair advantage under the current system of selection. In fact, one could make an opposing case based on the fact that the colleges have a demonstrably smaller pool of students from which to select their team compared to larger universities which don’t operate under the collegiate system.”

That’s us told then.

3. Which specialist subjects are and aren’t allowed on Mastermind?

According to the Mastermind page on a popular online encyclopaedia, the following five specialist subjects were vetoed by the show’s producers (there’s also a longer list here), though as no specific explanation is provided as to why they were ruled ineligible, we’ve provided our best guesses in brackets.

Ad – content continues below

– Routes to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth (too dull)

– Cremation practice and law in Britain (too morbid)

– The Banana industry (too broad)

– Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement (too narrow)

– Perfect squares from 992 =9801 (too discriminatory against imperfect squares)

It seems to be largely a question of getting the perfect ‘Goldilocks’ scope for a subject, which can be neither too broad nor too narrow. The guidelines for Junior Mastermind, for instance, state that specific periods of history are acceptable while ‘Ancient History’ is not. A specific season or number of years would be required to narrow down the range of potential questions for a sports team. A series of films such as The Lord Of The Rings would be considered, while a single film or book (apart from, say, The Complete Works Of Shakespeare) would not. 

Ad – content continues below

More information on the process for the original show is shared here by former contestant Chas Early. Specialist subjects cannot be repeated too closely together on the show, so to be eligible, yours needs not to have recurred recently, nor to be too similar to a subject used of late. As Early writes “My first choice of topic – the drummer Keith Moon – was blackballed as someone had answered a round on his band, The Who, in the not-too-distant past.”

Subjects deemed too esoteric are also out, we learn. And the personal tastes of the Mastermind research team may also have something to do with the decision, as Early continues: “My second choice, 70s TV programme The Sweeney, was deemed “too difficult to research” presumably because no BBC staffer was willing to sit through all 52 episodes of the show. On the other hand, they seemed perfectly happy for me to pick American TV series The Wire – I suspect there were some fans among the research team for that one.”

4. What was the deal with the Blockbusters hand-jive?

Growing up in the late 80s, we all knew someone who claimed to have started the Blockbusters hand-jive, whether it be a mate’s big brother or your neighbour’s cousin. Akin to the old ‘I was the Milky Bar Kid’ chestnut, it was the urban myth of its day. 

The sixth-former who really did start it, apparently bored after sitting through several episode tapings in a row, is purportedly identified in this video, which captured the first instance of the Blockbusters hand-jive for posterity in 1986:

Years later, the entire audience got in on the act:

Ad – content continues below

Until eventually, even the production crew joined in, as you can see in this lovingly compiled tribute to dearly departed presenter Bob Holness:

Why did you only see it on Friday’s episodes? The audience were asked to save the hand-jive for the final recording of the day’s five episodes, hence its broadcast appearance only at the end of each week. 

And how was the audience so well-rehearsed in the moves? That was down to Sir Bob, according to this reminiscence from past contestant Amanda Brewerton from Kilnhurst:

“Rather than disappear off to his dressing room during breaks in filming, he’d chat to the contestants and he’d be the one teaching everyone the hand-jive.” Bob Holness, we salute you.

5. Why has the prize money never gone up on You’ve Been Framed?

Though not really a game show, you can win money to the tune of £250 on You’ve Been Framed if you’re  lucky enough to capture on video an over-excited labrador clotheslining a toddler with a wagging tail or the Angel Gabriel falling off the stage at a school Nativity play.

The rub for viewers is, that £250 hasn’t changed since the show started airing in 1990. It was £250 then and it’s £250 now, inflation be damned. We asked You’ve Been Framed’s current producer Chris Thornton, why that’s the case, and whether there had been discussions about increasing the cash to a more 2016-appropriate sum. 

Ad – content continues below

Here’s what he told us:

Our companion shows around the world operate their clip fees in a different way to us, and we occasionally discuss whether or not we should be looking to fall in line with what they do. 

For example, on America’s Funniest Home Videos (our parent show) they don’t pay per clip, but the audience pick one clip every series to win $100,000… imagine that! A hundred grand just for a flash of a grandad’s boxers as he drops his trousers at a wedding.

But we keep coming back to the same question – do our viewers want to see just one clip win a staggering amount of money, or would they rather that every clip shown won a little something? We still think it’s the latter – in Britain we like all our losers to be winners.

That, or they’re just a bit tight. You decide.

6. What’s the story behind the Egyptian hieroglyphs on Only Connect?

Currently airing its twelfth series, Only Connect revels in its status as the toughest quiz on television, asking only the most esoteric questions. It’s fitting then, that contestants don’t just select question A, B or C on the quiz, they opt for an Egyptian hieroglyph (selecting from symbols representing water, lion, twisted flax, the eye of Horus, the horned viper and two reeds). 

Ad – content continues below

The Egyptian hieroglyphs were introduced at the behest of quizmaster Victoria Coren after series three. Why? Here, we refer you to our chums over at Mental Floss who answer that question in depth here, with reference to this Victoria Coren blog post. It involves some midnight inspiration, a mocking web comic and the show’s characteristically dry sense of humour…

7. Has a contestant ever appeared on the same UK game show twice in disguise under a false name?

Admittedly, you’ve likely never asked yourself this, but the answer is so brilliant you’ll wish you had.

Professional quizzer and fact-compiling author Trevor Montague is infamous in quizzing circles for breaking Fifteen-To-One’s no-returning losing contestants rule by re-applying to appear on the show in disguise under a false name

After suffering an early defeat on his first appearance in 1990, Montague re-applied to Fifteen To One in 1992 as Italian freelance writer “Steve Romana”, disguising his appearance with earrings and slicked-back hair. He didn’t win that time either, but was invited back to appear on the programme as himself in 1997. This time he did win the grand final, taking home a vase worth £3000 as his prize. 

The job was a good’un until a viewer spotted the facial similarities between Montague and Romana during a repeat run of the series and reported the anomaly to Channel 4. Montague, who maintains it was all intended as a joke, was stripped of his rule-breaking grand final win and ordered by a court judge to pay damages.

The rights to his life story are still up for grabs, if you’re interested Mr Spielberg.

Ad – content continues below