For the buzz: The attraction of quizzes

What’s it like to take your quiz team from a cosy night in the pub to an appearance on tV’s toughest quiz show? Lifelong quizzer Brian Pendreigh has the answer

The night before we recorded Eggheads I had this thing going through my head. It was the chorus line from a song called Knocked It Off.

Eggheads is the long-running BBC quiz in which a team of punters take on a team of expert quizzers, including winners of Mastermind, Brain of Britain and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Knocked It Off is a jaunty old BA Robertson song with a line: “I was standing in the goal line when the ball got crossed; I thought I’ll have a go and shoot it, but I never thought I’d put it away.”

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When I wake up, in the cold light of dawn, I remember that Eggheads are, in the words of presenter Jeremy Vine, “possibly the greatest quiz team in Britain”. They include Kevin Ashman and Pat Gibson, world champions and the two greatest quizzers of modern times. We are a pub quiz side that used to feel quite chuffed if we won down at the Starbank Inn in Edinburgh every now and then.

This is national television, with an audience of more than two million. What if my mind goes blank? What if the words come out wrong, like the person who was asked who painted the Mona Lisa and answered Leonardo DiCaprio?

Private Eye has a column called Dumb Britain featuring the most stupid answers from quiz shows. Presenter: Name a film starring Bob Hoskins that is also the name of a famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci. Contestant: Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

I always say, in any quiz, always guess something, however unlikely – but it’s easier to do that in the pub than on television. There was a time on University Challenge when Jeremy Paxman asked what Cherry Pickers and Cheesemongers were. They are nicknames for British regiments. But “homosexuals” was an excellent guess.

We are fascinated by quizzes. Thousands gather in pubs every week to test their knowledge of everything from The X Factor to Excalibur, while television quizzes have that extra voyeuristic twist, the potential thrill of seeing people making fools of themselves.

That’s where we come in.

The origin of the word “quiz”, like many pub quiz answers, is a matter of debate. There is a story that in the late 18th century a Dublin theatre owner made a bet that he could introduce a new word into the language. Reputedly he hired dozens of local children to chalk “quiz” on walls around town. Everyone was talking about this new word, asking each other what it meant. The first quiz was born. It is a neat wee story, almost certainly untrue.

By the 1920s quiz books were appearing in shops and quizzes proved popular on the emerging medium of radio. American television pioneered the big-money quiz in the 1950s with The $64,000 Question and Twenty-One. Charles Van Doren was a multiple winner who became a celebrity in his own right. Then came the bombshell ... it was fixed. Robert Redford made the film Quiz Show about it.

Back in Britain, television quizzes were more civilised, at least at first. They became part of popular culture. Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies did their own versions of Mastermind. And The Young Ones spoofed University Challenge when Scumbag College took on Footlights College, Oxbridge, including Stephen Fry, whose real-life appearance on University Challenge in 1980 can still be seen on YouTube.

Trivial Pursuit took quizzing into the average home in the 1980s. Then came pub quiz machines, the spread of pub quizzes and on television The Weakest Link and Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, which presented the possibility of becoming a millionaire overnight. Only five people ever won the £1 million prize, including Pat Gibson and Judith Keppel, who are both now on Eggheads.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was real fantasy stuff. An international hit, it inspired the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, as well as the fiendish plotting of Charles Ingram and Tecwen Whittock and his famous cough, signalling right and wrong answers. I know a few people who have won big money on the show, and a few who have lost tens of thousands (and in one case got to the £125,000 question with all three lifelines, gambled and got it wrong). That takes a while to come to terms with.

I grew up doing quizzes. My uncle, Jim Brunton, was on various TV and radio quizzes, including Brain of Britain. In 1986 we both went in for a BBC quiz called Superscot, not knowing the other had entered. We both reached the final, we produced a couple of quiz books together and our quizzes became a regular feature in The Scotsman.

That ran its course and for a while my quizzing was restricted to Trivial Pursuit, which was fun to play over dinner and a few bottles of wine.

I started doing pub quizzes in the late 1990s. One night we went to our usual pub for a pint after badminton and there was a quiz on. Then we found a more interesting quiz and went regularly every fortnight. Our team changed over time and we were joined by Mark Gaffney, who I knew through tennis. He suggested we put in for Eggheads, not long after it started in 2003.

However, for most of our regulars the quiz was really just an excuse to go along to the pub and have a few drinks with mates. It was 2009 before Mark and I began looking for other people who were up for appearing on TV. We applied for Eggheads in January 2010, auditioned in May 2010 and were shortlisted. We then had to sit back and wait. Or rather, every week we went out and did a pub quiz. We visited a lot of pubs, quizzed under the name of The Dude Abides (a reference to the film The Big Lebowski) and won more than we lost.

In the meantime I reached the semi-finals on Mastermind. Mark and I went on the STV quiz Postcode Challenge, along with my son Ewen and Max Thomson, who would be in our final Eggheads line-up. We set a record score and went home with £5,000. Channel 4 put together an all-star team for a programme called Quiz Trippers. They came to Edinburgh and we beat them. If we were to win on Eggheads we would probably be the first team to win three different TV quizzes.

We are competitive. Most of us play or played tennis and other games, sometimes in front of an audience. And I guess television provides a chance to show off. Most quizzers, both in pubs and at a more serious level, are male, though I noticed a few weeks ago at Ye Olde Inn in Davidson’s Mains that the majority were female. Quizzers are certainly not all male, overweight, middle-aged couch-potatoes. One of my quizzing friends is also into motor racing and is off to climb Everest soon.

We recorded Eggheads in Glasgow way back in January 2011 under the name Tramlines. It is nicely ambiguous – in doubles a shot down the tramlines is a good shot, in singles it is out. Just a few weeks ago I did the Brain of Britain radio quiz, though amazingly it is scheduled to go out on the same day. Quizzes? They’re just like buses really.

On Eggheads there are nine possible quiz subjects and four come up in any one programme. The challengers play the Eggheads in a series of individual rounds. The loser is out, the winner rejoins their team for the vital final round on general knowledge.

We divided the subjects between the five of us, obviously hoping that David Gow, our scientist, could answer on Science. But we did not know the subjects in advance, so we all had to be ready for a number of possibilities. The worst case scenario was something along the lines of David having to do History, and then Science coming up after he had played.

In the individual rounds we got to choose which Egghead to take on. They have a pool of seven from which five will play in any one programme. Man for man, they are better than us. But for what it’s worth our strategy was to be that we would take on their strongest players in the individual rounds in the hope of knocking one or two out before the final round, where the remaining players get to confer on answers.

Even a team that loses every individual round will have one player left for the final round of three questions, with multiple choice options. It decides the whole quiz and anything can happen there. There have been times when the Eggheads have got one wrong in that round and the challengers have made a couple of lucky guesses and won the whole thing. Recently a team won it by guessing the correct surname for the fictional character Trilby, even though they thought Trilby was a man. It’s tougher if it goes to tie-break questions with no multiple choice.

To return to the football analogy, Eggheads is like a penalty shoot-out, but without the actual game first. Over 90 minutes they would beat us without a doubt. In a penalty shoot-out they are still better, but there is a chance, a slim chance. Jeremy Vine is great, saying that unlike other quiz shows there is no time pressure, we have as long as we want to answer.

Half an hour and much indecisiveness later he is gently insisting that we are going to have to give an answer some time. I can’t say what happens, obviously, but we didn’t expect to win, we did it for the fun of it.

If this was a movie we would now cut to a scene later that same evening when we reconvened in The Water Line in Leith and did the pub quiz there. And, yes, we won that one. Was that the second leg in a glorious double? Or was our earlier quiz a heroic failure? Is this the point where Knocked It Off plays once more on our imaginary soundtrack?

You’ll have to tune in to find out.

Brian’s team appear on Eggheads on Monday, BBC2 at 6pm. Brian is also on Brain of Britain on Radio 4, on the same day at 3pm.