In praise of UK TV quiz shows

As Only Connect and University Challenge return to the BBC for new series, we salute the geek comforts of UK TV quiz shows…

Never mind A.E. Housman’s maxim that “all human knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use”, no knowledge is really precious until it serves the slightest use watching a TV quiz. If you’ve ever moaned about not needing your schoolboy geometry in the real world, you’ve clearly never experienced the joy of shouting “CARTESIAN PLANE” at BBC Two on a Monday night. 

Quiz shows are a TV comfort blanket for trivia nerds. That instant sliding-into-a-warm-bath relaxation other people experience when they hear the first bars of a beloved soap theme is what the opening ‘dum’ of the University Challenge music does to us. You’re home now, says that music. Wherever you are, whatever’s going on in your life, this is your place, come on in.

Now, quickly, before you take your coat off: what’s the atomic number of lithium and who wrote Meditations In An Emergency?

TV quizzes celebrate what other reality shows disparage and mock. They reward peculiarity and obsession, not popularity and toned abs. While other programmes teach that it’s not cool to care, or to try, or to happen to know the first on-screen words of each Doctor by heart, TV quiz shows applaud you for it.

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They’re a sanctuary for swots, somewhere arcane knowledge and unconventional interests make you part of the gang and not an outsider. You don’t even have to navigate your way into an educational elite to join in; the barriers to entry are only unpredictable scheduling (BBC Four’s The Book Quiz, we hardly knew you) and a button on your remote control.

Once inside, the sanctum of the TV quiz show is safe and mildly utopian, like the Blue Peter garden with quick-fire rounds. The combination of cheap sets, presenters who were probably picked on at school and contestants judged by their abilities alone is a cheering one. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the world would be a much happier place if everyone on TV looked less like a member of The Saturdays and more like a contestant on Only Connect.

(If you’ve not yet had the pleasure of the latter, think of it thusly: if Eggheads is the GCSE of the UK TV quiz world and University Challenge the undergraduate degree, then Only Connect is one of those odd post-doctoral dissertations that you rapidly regret asking people about at parties. It’s top dog in TV quizzing circles. The first time you watch it feels like stepping off a plane in a country where you don’t understand anything. Ten series later, it feels much the same, but you’ll have an inexplicable attachment to one in particular of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Go horned viper.)

TV quiz shows operate by a different morality to other televised talent and reality shows; they’re less meretricious. Just look at the heroes they produce: Kevin Ashman and Daphne Fowler from Eggheads. Richard Osman from Pointless. Gail Trimble and Alexander Guttenplan from University Challenge. Only Connect’s Crossworders… These aren’t fame-seekers lauded for photogenicity, hilarious ignorance or willingness to be subjected to dignity-stripping public humiliation (Trimble, being of sound mind, turned down the photo-shoot offer Nuts Magazine made her when it spotted a brainy woman to knock off her pedestal). They’re just people who know their onions—plus their Latin species, genus, and which colour of them was the title of a Booker T and the MGs hit, probably.

For anyone who doesn’t follow a football team, being a quiz show fan is as close as you’ll come to the community and camaraderie offered by that fandom. Watching your favourite Only Connect and University Challenge teams climb their way up the league tables to compete in quarter and semi-finals while you cheer on their victories and commiserate their losses presses all the same buttons. (If Crossworders merchandise ever goes on sale, by the way, put me down for a scarf).

They even trade players. The UK quiz show world is pleasingly incestuous, from QI host Stephen Fry having appeared for Queen’s College, Cambridge in 1980 to Alexander Guttenplan’s matriculation in Only Connect series four, to the rotating family of quizzing cousins that makes up Eggheads (a show that functions as a kind of elephant’s graveyard for quizzers, where former Masterminds, Brains of Britain and people who said ‘me! I want to be a millionaire’ come to spend their final days in the lustre of CJ’s pomaded hair).

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Likewise, for the jellied-of-thigh and feeble-of-lung among us, pub quizzes provide the team-sports experience without having to even go near a pair of shin pads. You strategise, listen to your captain, and take part in the after-game dissection—“If you knew it was Portugal, why didn’t you say Portugal?”—all for the chance to top the league and get your name on the trophy.

The glory of scoring a winning penalty must be great, but can it really compare to the glory of managing to dredge up from the humus of your brain the name of the actor who played Potsie on Happy Days? Competing in a pub quiz is like playing a football match without the ham-string injuries and post-game communal bath, depending on the pub.

Now that we know crows can use tools, gorillas laugh when tickled, ants go to war and bonobos have sex for fun, it’s increasingly clear that the only thing separating humans from other animals is the art of quizzing. And it is an art. A well-set quiz can have the wit and elegance of a beautifully composed cryptic crossword clue.

UK quiz shows are a geek refuge that cheerlead a different kind of hero to the sob-storied, glamorous wannabes elsewhere on TV. They’re not just about proving whose brain has the best recall or the most esoteric contents, but but also sportsmanship, community, fun, and celebrating people’s idiosyncratic obsessions.

(That, and naming which four US states begin with, but don’t end in, a vowel. GO!)

Below are ten top tips gleaned from years of shouting quiz answers at the telly:

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1. You don’t really have to listen to any question that starts anything like: “Taking any prime twice the rational integer of pi to the ten squared and counting in base 5, what is 7 to the power of 4 divided by the fraction of the interior angles of any irrational triangle?” The answer is 1.

2. Remember to look unsurprised when the answer does in fact, turn out to be 1.

3. When identifying poets it’s usually the Romantics. If there’s a bird in it, try Keats. A sheep, William Blake.

4. The answer “Amino acids” serves well enough for any biochemistry questions not looking for a famous scientist as the answer.

5. Famous scientists are: Einstein, the one Jeff Goldblum played in that film about the discovery of DNA and Professor Brian Cox.

6. Questions based around Monopoly board properties feature surprisingly often, so it’s best to get someone to test you.

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7. The one you always forget is Northumberland Avenue, Pink, £160.

8. Identify any mystery composer as Vaughan-Williams. You’ll be right eventually.

9. Bobby Moore.

10. If you find yourself having shouted the incorrect answer in company, style it out with a nonchalant smile and the words “Oh, I thought they said nineteenth century”.

New series of Only Connect and University Challenge are currently airing on Monday nights on BBC Two.

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