Why I love Daphne from Eggheads

Daphne Fowler left Eggheads some years ago after a long, successful quizzing career. Here’s why she’s an inspiration…

In April 2002, Daphne Fowler and Chris Hughes formed part of a quizzing supergroup assembled by The Guardian. For a bit of fun, the newspaper set some of the country’s top trivia buffs loose on the greater London pub quiz circuit to see what havoc they could wreak.

The “dream team” cut a swathe from Clerkenwell to Hampstead, only coming unstuck on a foray to the King’s Head in Rochester where they lost the win by a single point. Having failed to recognise the theme tune to Beverley Hills 90210, they filed onto the minibus home and drove away from the week’s lone defeat. Somewhere along the A2, a dejected then-out-of-work Hughes told his teammates “I just wish I could turn all this garbage in my brain into something that matters.”

Quizzing, as a rule, isn’t seen as something that matters. Retaining and recalling obscure and popular facts is, as the board game title suggests, a trivial pursuit, a party trick for swots and show-offs. It’s not as though being good at quizzes will actually get you anywhere.

That depends on where you want to go.

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In 1988, Daphne and Bernard Hudson, a secretary and factory machine operator from a council estate in Weston-Super-Mare attended the Olympic Games in Seoul. 

“I have to say it was the best holiday I have been on” writes Daphne on her personal website. “We had front row seats for all the athletics, the shopping was brilliant, the South Koreans were wonderful to us, especially when they realised that my husband was disabled.” 

The trip was the prize in the grand final of new television quiz show Going For Gold. Daphne had clinched her victory by correctly identifying Robert Mitchum as the Hollywood actor born in 1917 Connecticut who married his high school sweetheart. 

That once-in-a-lifetime Olympics holiday took on added significance for the Hudsons when Bernard sadly died of cancer six months later. “I took plenty of photographs for which I was so grateful” remembers Daphne. “Once again thanks to a quiz, I had wonderful memories to look back on.”

Two years earlier in 1986, thanks to another quiz, Daphne and Bernard had filled in their Right to Buy application and purchased the house in which they raised their five children. The prize money, almost £23,000, was won by Daphne in a special Australian ‘Ashes’ edition of Sale Of The Century. It couldn’t have come at a more useful time for the Hudsons. Soon after she and her husband returned from Australia, Bernard had suffered a debilitating stroke. 

“The stroke was waiting to happen as my husband had already had two minor ones” writes Daphne “but thanks to the quiz winnings , we were able to manage. I shall never cease to be grateful to Grundy for inviting me to go to Australia as it changed my life.” Plans for a new car were scrapped and the cash was redirected to making adjustments to the family home to enable Bernard to get around more easily.

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It was the UK version of Sale Of The Century three years earlier in 1983 that had provided the Hudsons with a family car, something they lacked at the time. By maintaining a steady lead throughout and correctly answering Nicholas Parsons’ question about the composition of an atom, Daphne brought home a new yellow Mini that remained in the family for twenty years.

Necessity was what fuelled Daphne’s determination when it came to quizzing. She likens herself in those days to a “hungry boxer”.

“I always put my success down to the fact that I needed the prizes as we never had any spare cash;” she writes “my husband was never in the best of health and we had five children to support. Lack of money concentrates your mind wonderfully when you know, with the right amount of hard work (and that elusive element of luck), you can win all these wonderful prizes that other people can afford to buy.” 

Just some of the wonderful prizes Daphne has bagged on TV over the years include a posh picnic hamper, 18 bottles of whisky, a 21 inch portable television and an opal ring worth $3000. But it’s not all about that swag life for Daphne, it’s also about the game.

In 1997, she was one of only six women in its then fifty-year history to win BBC Radio 4’s Brain Of Britain. The prize there—a silver salver—has pride of place in Daphne’s lounge, but her victory as a working class woman in a quiz dominated by male winners was the real trophy. 

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“Everyone knows that Grannies who live on council estates are not likely to succeed” Daphne writes of her Brain Of Britain win, “it is usually a middle class chap who is a solicitor or lecturer etc who does win. No-one was more surprised than me when I won the title.”

She might be humble about it, but there’s nothing at all surprising about Daphne’s wins. Her natural ability and dogged preparation make them practically a foregone conclusion.

We’re talking about someone who, as a child in the 1940s, spent all her pocket money on torch batteries so she could read under the bedcovers. A woman whose brains first won her a place at grammar school and then at university, as one of just five and half thousand young women in the UK (outnumbered more than three times by men at that time) to study as an undergraduate.

Daphne first discovered her knack for quizzing when working as secretary at Nat West and asked to scribe for an accountant’s team in an inter-bank quiz league. Expected only to write down the answers of her male team-mates, it quickly became clear that Daphne was of much more use to the team than an ordinary clerk. As she describes it with endearing humility, she started to enjoy quizzes “as I had suddenly discovered something that I seemed to be better at than other people”.

She wasn’t wrong there. But then, this is Daphne we’re talking about. When is she ever wrong?

Her natural ability wasn’t tested on TV until 1979, when she appeared on the Jimmy Tarbuck-hosted Winner Takes All. It took Daphne’s sons badgering her to apply as a contestant and eventually writing in to ITV on her behalf to tell them “our mum ought to be on your show because she knows everything” before she filled in an application form and was accepted on the show. 

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Her first appearance wasn’t a win, though she put up a good fight against opponent Kenneth with a keen grasp of horticulture, statistical graphs, occult symbols and the capital of Surinam. Unlike Kenneth, she knew exactly how many yards of fabric went into making a man’s kilt, and wasn’t fazed in the slightest by being on camera. Daphne happily chatted about being the captain of the Weston Ladies Skittles Team to Tarbie, who was looking resplendent in a pale lemon sports jacket and called her “young lady” throughout.

Daphne showed a similarly game attitude on darts quiz Bullseye in 1982, partnered with husband Bernard whose nerves got the better of him (explaining why at 03:47 in this video, you’ll see Daphne reassuringly touch him full on the bum). They gambled a canteen of cutlery for a chance to win the motorcar star prize and lost, but by then the TV quiz seed had been firmly planted in terra Daphne.

She loved being on camera, didn’t buckle under pressure, and beamed in the face of every patronisingly of-its-time comment about ‘young Daphne’ sitting in her ‘little seat’, answering her little questions. When, on her second ever TV appearance, she turned to face Jim Bowen and he gestured at her chest, joking “Don’t stick them out, I know where they are!”, she kept her cool, smiled politely and correctly identified the judge who presided over the Bloody Assizes in 1685. That’s just how Daphne rolls.

Not that Daphne was above a bit of banter herself. Watch her flirtatious appearance on the Australian Sale Of The Century above, in which she declines to buy a windsurf for $11 but offers to take home “the fella” modelling it in Speedos. When asked on the same show whether her five children were the product of long, cold, English winters, quick as a flash she answered in that sing-song voice “No. Irish husband”. Classic Daphne. 

No pushover, Daphne once turned down a proposition to be the ‘phone a friend’ option on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (a show she believes herself to be on the unofficial black list for, having tried multiple times to enter but never succeeding) to a stranger. He offered her £200 for a correct answer; she told him no dice and asked for a quarter of his total winnings. Years later, Daphne happily agreed to be Des O’Connor’s ‘phone-a-friend’ in a charity match, taking him from £8000 to £16000.

Daphne’s unflappable approach quickly established her as a real contender. When another Sale Of The Century contestant fluffed his answer on the start date of the English Civil War, presenter Nicholas Parsons commented “I bet Daphne knew”. Daphne did know: 1642.

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How did Daphne know? A combination of natural ability and sheer hard work. Meticulous preparation for every appearance more often than not led to a victory. She taped shows from the television and made copious notes on ‘banker’ questions and formats. She practised buzzing in early with her answer (as any quizzer knows, a fast finger can be the difference between misery and glory). And most importantly, she revised her socks off.

Daphne is a grafter. That’s why they should put her face on stamps. When things don’t go Daphne’s way, she doesn’t carp and whinge, she gets down to business. In 1988, having passed the audition to appear on Going For Gold, the BBC failed to send the promised follow-up information about the format the quiz would take. Daphne’s solution? To apply for audience tickets and drive down to London with her son to sit in on early recordings and make notes.

Realising that famous dates were key to Going For Gold, she set about revising as many as she could. 

“By this time I was walking to work to save money,” she writes “so I dictated 2000 dates on to a cassette and listened to it on my Walkman going to and from work. And it worked!”

It worked to the tune of that all expenses paid trip to the Seoul Olympics. 

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“Determined Daphne” was her nickname on the Australian version of Sale Of The Century, and it’s hard to think of one more suitable. She was so determined to succeed in her return for the ‘World Championship’ version of the Melbourne quiz that she learned from chatting to the question setter which specific encyclopaedias they used as a reference. Back home, having located the same editions in her local library, she revised there every day after work for three months.

“I knew that given the opportunity I could make some more money for my family and in any case, I didn’t find the revision a chore – in fact, as far as I was concerned, it was preferable to cooking any time!”

When it came time to retire the cassette walkman, whenever Daphne came across a new fact or key date, she entered it in a question and answer format into a computer database designed for her by one of her sons.

That kind of preparation paved the way in 2002 for one of Daphne’s crowning trivia achievements: correctly answering all forty questions in the Fifteen To One final without allowing the other contestants a look-in. “Question or nominate?” William G. Stewart asked Daphne forty times. “Question please” Daphne replied forty times, never once forgetting her manners. Only a wrong answer in a previous round stopped her from achieving the show’s maximum score possible of 433. 

When the call came in 2003 for Daphne to appear as one of the Eggheads expert quizzers, alongside former “Dream Team” pal Chris Hughes, and Kevin Ashman, Judith Keppel and CJ de Mooi, it was the start of over a decade of regular television appearances and a new late-in-life career.

In 2013, when Eggheads moved production from London to Glasgow, travel logistics and family commitments made it too tricky for Daphne to continue. She bowed out with pride, leaving behind a legacy as a fan-favourite, the connoisseur’s choice of opponent.

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And that’s why I love Daphne from Eggheads. This self-described “Granny from a council estate” used her wits and determination to create extraordinary opportunities for herself and her family. From a generation of women taught that that showing off was one of the worst things they could do, Daphne showed off her remarkable mind time and again and brought home the cheques and luxury oriental rugs to prove it.

Join me then, in toasting this Minerva in a cardigan, a formidable force and my hero.

To Daphne: she turned all that wondrous garbage in her brain into something that matters.

Try Daphne’s Daily Quiz, here.