Ask the quiz master

29th June 2001 at 01:00
Bamber Gascoigne's history website should help teachers and pupils find all the answers, says Harvey McGavin.

It seems you cannot keep a good quizmaster down. Fourteen years after he stopped chairing University Challenge, Bamber Gascoigne is back on our screens. But it is on computer terminals rather than television that the learned elocutor can be found these days as the virtual presence behind Historyworld is a free website made up of more than a million words describing some 4,000 significant moments and their place in 400 interconnecting timelines. Mapping it, exploring its furthest reaches and writing most of those million words is what has kept Bamber Gascoigne busy for the best part of seven years since he saw his first CD-Rom and thought: "What an incredible way of presenting information."

That was the year after his Encyclopaedia of Britain - which weighed in at a mere 65,000 words - was published and he decided his next project would be "the mad concept" of writing the history of the world in digital form.

The mad concept reached completion last week, when historyworld went online. It is remarkably easy to navigate. The chronology of events provides a natural reference point, but the main area of historyworld, which is a narrative encyclopaedia written by Bamber Gascoigne, is constantly cross-referenced, and allows users to choose between headlines, brief tabloid-style summaries or truly encyclopaedic entries. Clicking on the "what, when, where" feature allows you to find out what was going on in the same subject area, place or time as the entry you are viewing.

The second main feature comprises Specialist Articles and Timelines, which will be linked to libraries, museums and heritage sites. Anyone looking up Normans in Britain, for example, would find an entry on Headingham castle in Essex, site of the largest surviving Norman arch in the country, and links to the castle's online brochure. Those in search of medical knowledge can find an in-depth history produced in association with the Wellcome Trust, the first of several planned collaborations with experts in their field.

Perhaps the two areas of most use to schools will be Curriculum in Context and History Club. Curriculum in Context consists of 40 timelines tailored to key stages 2 and 3, with all the peripheral links of the mainstream timelines. But because the website is built around a database, teachers will be able to use the "create and save" facility to make their own customised timelines - a feature other encyclopaedias cannot offer.

In History Club, specially designed software will enable users to add their own stories. The three founder members of History Club are an autobiographical account of travellers in Ireland, the story of a Polish refugee and former Foreign legionnaire living in Yorkshire and Priestlands School in Hampshire.

Priestlands, in Lymington, on the edge of the New Forest, is no ordinary comprehensive. The school's main building is a Grade II listed house built in the 1760s, set in several acres of grounds with lakes, woodland and a walled garden. Pupils collected old photographs, maps and auction notices, researched the stories of its former inhabitants, interviewed local people who were employed as servants there during the 1930s, and re-enacted scenes from Georgian life. The results, integrated into historyworld, will be the first of many such contributions from schools, hopes Bamber Gascoigne.

Despite his background in highbrow quiz shows, he has an unashamedly popular approach to his subject. When deciding what to include he kept in mind a simple test: "I felt there was a real territory called general knowledge - if it rings a bell it is general knowledge. When I used to ask my students a question I always tried to make sure it was general knowledge. When it wasn't they would get very indignant when you asked the question and absolutely furious when you told them the answer. But if it rang the tiniest bell they would say 'oh, God' and sit there racking their brains and when you told them the answer they would say 'oh yes!'" "In a way this is a culmination of all my time as a quizmaster. I took reading out the questions very seriously because I was terrified of being caught out, so I spent a lot of time in encyclopaedias checking questions and rewriting them - probably obsessively."

No Bamber Gascoigne enterprise would be complete without a quizzical element, and the home page of historyworld does indeed feature an against-the-clock game called WhizzQuizz. Your time does not start until the last question has been downloaded (giving everybody an equal chance whatever their computer speed), and the fastest person answering the seven multiple-choice questions correctly is crowned "whizz-ard" of the hour. Bamber Gascoigne set the questions himself and predicts hot competition in the classroom to earn the title. Every answer links to the relevant entry in the encyclopaedia so it has educational credentials.

But mostly it is fun, which as any legendary television quizmaster will tell you, is the secret of a good quiz.

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