Last year was a bit of a year for Radio 4 anniversaries; maybe most notably, Desert Island Discs celebrated 70 years on air. But oddly enough, so did another show. Round Britain Quiz, which you may remember vaguely from your childhood, or possibly your parents’ childhood, also reached 70 in 2017. There have been one or two breaks, but this abstruse and, let’s face it, unashamedly smart show has survived the slings and arrows of outrageous Radio 4 controllers. Every year we fret and worry, hoping beyond hope that it will be recommissioned. Every year, I’m glad to say, it is. I say ‘we’ because, for the past few years, I have been part of the merry crew that makes the programme. It’s one of the very best jobs in the world.
Round Britain Quiz is only round Britain because it has six teams from various parts of the island: North of England, South of England, Midlands, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland. Each team is of two, and people tend to be asked back if they haven’t done atrociously. Indeed, when I first took part as a late substitute in 2012, everyone had been asked back for so many years that, at 52, I was the second youngest person there. Producer Paul Bajoria, who masterminds all this with what cricketers call ‘soft hands’, has quietly retired a few teams since then, and I have ceased, with some relief, to be his youth policy. (I am now solidly mid-table in age terms.) I came back permanently in the 2015 series, and this year we recorded almost all of the current series, ten shows, in early October, in a savage burst of two-and-a-half days. My partner on the South of England team is Paul Sinha, a stand-up comedian and quiz nutter with a ferociously good general knowledge. Our last show of this run went out on Monday 15 January at 3 p.m., with a repeat late last Saturday night. It’s not exactly what you would call prime time, but then neither is the show.
For the essence of Round Britain Quiz is not its contestants, it’s the questions. Each of the two teams receives just four questions, one of which is a music or sound question of some sort. That’s eight questions in half an hour, and although that doesn’t sound a lot, I think it’s amazing we manage to pack so many in. Here’s one we had in show three of the current series:
Of human bondage, nine for 57 in 1994, possible predecessors of the Inuit, and the remover of a vile jelly: in which part of the UK will you find them?
You get all four questions on paper at the very start of the show, which is recorded in real time. We had only a few minutes to get to grips with this one, and we did, sort of. Of Human Bondage was written by Somerset Maugham: easy. Nine for 57 in 1994 were the famous test-best bowling figures of Devon Malcolm, after he told the South Africans ‘You guys are history.’ (One of my all-time favourite matches.) So, Somerset, Devon. Paul had a strong inkling that the Inuit’s predecessors were the Dorset people, and he was right. Which left the remover of a vile jelly, which I’m sure you, as an incredibly cultured and rounded individual, will have worked out long before we managed to. We guessed Cornwall (also right) but we didn’t know why. We had to be prompted by host Tom Sutcliffe in the direction of Shakespeare, and I then guessed King Lear, trying as always to sound as though I knew what I was talking about. In which part of the UK would you find them? The south-west of England. For this we got five out of a possible six points, which I thought was fair. Three more questions to go. Bring it on!
The secret to the game, as Devon Malcolm would tell you, is to relax and concentrate. You have to relax because the questions are so hard that the worst you can do is very badly indeed. But listeners seem to quite like that, as long as you are entertaining as you fail. One team, which almost always came last, continued on the show several years after their quiz-by date because they were such good fun. (Everyone wanted to play them. Victory was almost assured.) And even if you do appallingly, you will occasionally pull one out of the hat at the last moment. I’m not sure there is any greater buzz in the world.
Here’s one we had later in the same show. Why might a former Olympic field athlete throw a party, inviting the following guests? A furious Scotsman. An optimistic South African. A Chilean musician. A supporter of the green party resident in West Africa. And a Greenlander who was unable to stay very long.
We didn’t have a clue. Paul pointed out that neither of us could name a single Chilean musician so it was clearly wordplay of some description. But what?
This was our last question, so we had 25 minutes to work it out. After 25 minutes we were no closer to cracking it than at the beginning.
Then I got it.
‘An optimistic South African’ was the Cape of Good Hope. ‘A Chilean musician’ was therefore Cape Horn. And ‘a supporter of the green party resident in West Africa’ was the westernmost point of Africa, Cape Verde.
Paul immediately got the two hard ones. ‘A furious Scotsman’ is Cape Wrath. And ‘a Greenlander who was unable to stay very long’ was that country’s southernmost tip, Cape Farewell.
And the former Olympic field athlete? Geoff Capes.
Bear in mind that we worked this out in absolute silence, because the other team were answering their own question at the time. I punched the air, very quietly.
The teams get on very well, because we’re not really competing against each other, we’re competing against the questions. I have formed good and strong friendships on this show, which I find deeply satisfying. We all love quizzes, which probably helps.
Happily, the listeners like it as much as we do. As a birthday treat, we recorded two shows at the Edinburgh festival this year in front of a live studio audience. They had so many applications for tickets, I think we might do it again. But when one of the teams worked out a particularly tough answer, the audience actually gasped. I’m not sure who were more astonished by this, them or us. We’ve just heard that the show has been recommissioned for 2018, which is splendid news. All I have to hope for now is that I will be invited back…
Marcus Berkmann and Mark Mason quiz each other on The Spectator Podcast.