Don't play the humiliation game

Libby Purves

Oh, how I detest The Weakest Link! It baffles me why the education world does not rise in protest against the licensed, poisonous culture of contempt, the demeaning of knowledge, the parody of schoolmarm disapproval!

Well, actually, it doesn't baffle me at all. The education world, quite understandably, is afraid of being cast as humourless, pompous and devoid of smart post-modern irony. The few voices which bleated about the quiz encouraging playground bullying were silenced with just this sort of response. You don't see the humour? Poor you! No, on the whole it is not safe for professors or headteachers to point at a phenomenon of popular culture and go "Yuk!" More trouble than it's worth.

I, on the other hand, am just a simple hack and can say what I want. Even more so because it should be clear that there is no resentment of the ginger dominatrix involved. Personally, in an age when media fortunes come chiefly to the very young, I heartily applaud any trend which enables women journalists of a certain age to become rich by reading off cue cards while looking deeply unattractive. I would not wish to cut off a lifeline that I might need myself when university fees go up.

But I have watched about four, gamely trying to get the point, and hated it. The heart of the problem lies in the trivial dumbness, the cultural nullity, of stupid questions randomly mixed in with real ones. This has bothered me for years in various quizzes, but comes to a head now because of the staged sneery response to contestants who get them wrong. If you couldn't tell Chris Tarrant "Which singer's albums include Listen without Prejudice", he would just giggle. "Ah well, good try, it's all a game." But if you fail in front of Anne Robinson, you're told you have no brain, are the weakest link, and must take the "walk of shame".

But what the hell is so shameful or brainless about not knowing who is the lead singer of the Smiths, or the rules of snooker? Where is the intellectual deficit in not knowing who married the Bee Gee Maurice Gibb, or plays lead guitar in E Street? Like most quizzes now, TWL is rife with questions about the stars of On the Buses, which Lethal Weapon film is which, the identity of the red Teletubby, Claudia Schiffer's hometown and the identity of Michael Jackson's child's godparent (Macaulay Culkin, by the way. I wouldn't lie TES readers to go round all day worrying).

If it were all trivia, this would be fine. There is a certain buzz in being the only person in the room to remember who was the final member of Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich, or which musical "Good Morning Starshine" comes from. At a pub quiz night you can all have a good roar of ironic despair when your team fails to give Giggsy's correct boot size. The problem begins when such questions are randomly mixed up with the kind of real general knowledge that an educated adult ought to have like whether a tench is a fish or a frog, where the San Andreas fault runs, what metal is in a thermometer, or highlights of the canon of great literature and music. And it gets worse when - as in TWL - ignorance of either kind of knowledge is equally lambasted as brainless ignorance.

Last year's football star and the greatest Verdi opera, physics and the cast list of Hi-de-Hi are all jumbled up higgledy-piggledy, in the modern quiz world . Then, to compound the crime, they are all labelled "trivia" together, and you are considered a spoilsport if you point out that while some of them are indeed trivia which will be clean forgotten in a few years, others given equal weight are deeply serious matters about the life of Nelson Mandela or the conquering of disease or cruxes of art and history which changed the world. Pointing this out is bad form: a keen reading of Hello and hours spent dribbling popcorn in a multiplex, are put on a par with the kind of educational effort which enables the respondent to know whether Horace was Greek or Roman, what glass is made of, or where in the Mediterranean you might find Nicosia.

This irritating, value-free dumbing down has crept everywhere; even into school general knowledge quizzes. But even that crassness didn't matter too much until we got Anne Robinson and a flock of imitators, pouring contempt equally on those who don't know celebrity godparents and those who can't work out the square root of 49. "Oh, wake up!...Not very bright, are you? Oh, you got one right - was that a mistake? Threw you out of Mensa, did they...? Pity you worked on your body not your brains..." Dumb, nasty, degrading of the concept of knowledge, not even particularly funny. Yeuch. Oh, how glad I am that I am not a headteacher saying this. I would be mocked to the rafters.

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Libby Purves

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