We ask the questions

The quiz show has been around for more than 70 years and has come a long way from innocent beginnings to the ruthless, cash-driven programmes of today. David Self knows the score

One day, back in 1934, listeners to the wireless (the word "radio" was not yet in general use) heard a strange new programme. It consisted simply of a man putting questions to the listeners - and encouraging them to write down the answers and send them in to the station. In return they would win a wonderful prize: vouchers for powdered soup. So was born The Symington's Soups Film Star Competition Programme, which lays claim to being the first quiz programme to be heard in Britain.

The word "quiz" is of uncertain origin. One suggestion is "Qui es?" - "Who are you?" - the first question in Latin oral exams in old-time grammar schools. Jane Austen used it to mean "an odd-looking thing"; it was also used to define a droll or eccentric person. Later it came to mean a practical joke. Its first use meaning a question-and-answer game seems to have occurred in the US in 1891 and, by the end of the 19th century, US teachers were using it as a verb meaning to question a pupil or class orally.

The word gradually came into general use, on both sides of the Atlantic, in the early years of the 20th century. The new popular newspapers began to carry puzzles and "quiz corners" - but it was only with radio and later television that the word (and activity) gradually turned into the entertainment that now permeates pubs and clubs across the country and, at the same time, dominates television schedules. In one venue it represents a bit of home-spun fun; in the other, it embraces verbal abuse and naked greed.

In 1934, there was no television and the BBC had a monopoly on all domestic broadcasting. It also had an aversion to anything remotely populist. As early as 1926, an internal memo had decreed that "the broadcasting of competitions should be carefully considered. The Board of Governors is, in principle, not in favour of competitionsI and under no circumstances is more than one a month to be held". It was therefore left to the continental commercial stations which were beamed back to Britain to risk such daring new ventures, and it was Radio Luxembourg which broadcast the Symington's Soup programme. Listeners had to collect their entry forms from grocers' shops, fill in their answers while listening to the programme - and then post off the completed form. Not only did it promote the sales of packet soup; it was one of the first forms of audience research. By trumpeting the numbers of listeners who entered, the radio station was able to convince other advertisers of the advantage of sponsoring radio programmes.

Eventually the BBC succumbed and its first quiz is believed to have been on the Children's Hour programme in November 1937. Called "Regional Round", it was presided over by Uncle Mac in what (judging by one surviving recording) was a very gentlemanly and amateurish way. A correct answer from a young lad (who lived in Belgravia) was rewarded with the compliment, "that's absolutely wizard". Very soon after this, the first BBC quiz for adults was broadcast. The technically ambitious Transatlantic Quiz used short-wave links to unite its two teams. In the US, the question master was Alistair Cooke; one British contestant was the actor David Niven. After the war, it shrank in scale, but its format of using teams in different locations can still be heard on Radio 4 as Round Britain Quiz.

Broadcast quizzes gained a new popularity during the Second World War. Even as early as Christmas Day in 1939, the BBC broadcast the imaginatively titled A Competition from "somewhere in northern France", with a team of British soldiers playing against their parents back home. Pre-programme hospitality led to the live programme very nearly being taken off air when the servicemen's answers threatened to reveal their location to the enemy and when one of the team fell under the table and was noisily sick.

Immediately after the war, one particular quiz proved a social landmark. Produced by the BBC's North Region and hosted by the one-time newsreader and "northern personality" Wilfred Pickles, Have a Go became the most popular quiz of all time. At the height of its success, each edition was being transmitted five times a week and was heard by well over half the population.

Originally a simple quiz, it came from a different "homely" location each week - a working men's association, a village hall, a pensioners' club. The questions were basic; the prizes tiny - a shilling (5p), a half crown (12.5p) and a jackpot that invariably consisted of an odd amount of shillings and pence. Correct answers were greeted by Pickles turning to his producer, Barney Colehan, with the early catchphrase, "Give him the money, Barney".

Gradually the introductory conversation with each contestant (complete with Pickles' regular questions such as "Are yer courting?" and "Now tell me, 'ave you ever 'ad any embarrassing moments?") began to dominate. And so, with Have a Go, Pickles not only popularised the quiz, but invented the chat show. This was the very first time "ordinary" members of the public were heard, live, on air, in unscripted conversation. In this unlikely medium, vast previously unheard segments of the population began to articulate themselves to a national audience. The airwaves were no longer the preserve of the educated middle classes: the quiz show had become an agent for social change.

The infant BBC Television Service introduced a variety of celebrity panel games in the early 1950s, but it was with the opening of ITV in 1955 that the quiz took hold of the schedules. From its start, every Friday, three quarters of the available audience was watching Take Your Pick - formerly on Radio Luxembourg. Quiz inquisitor Michael Miles asked the contestants three simple general knowledge questions. He then gave them the key to a box which might contain a dried prune or a star prize. They could also win five shillings (25p) if they avoided saying yes or no during a rapid-fire conversation.

On Monday nights, another Luxembourg export, Double Your Money, starred Hughie Green and offered prize money which doubled up until it reached the dizzy total of pound;32. Successful contestants then went on a treasure trail which sometimes won them pound;1,000. Another ITV show, Criss Cross Quiz, was simply a version of noughts-and-crosses. It made headlines in 1957 when it gave away pound;2,360.

The question of prize money cropped up again in 1971. Anglia Television had bought the British rights to an American quiz called Sale of the Century. Every week, in the course of its 25 minutes, Nicholas Parsons asked around 130 questions (I know: from 1976 until its demise in 1984, I set every one of them), grouped in pound;1, pound;3 and pound;5 categories. The three contestants could decide whether to save for the jackpot or spend their money on heavily discounted items in "instant sales": a fridge for pound;15, a holiday for pound;30. What upset the ITV watchdogs back in 1971 was the fact that it "gloated over the high value of its prizes". In the event, controls were imposed on how much a quiz show could give away. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties the maximum was roughly the equivalent of a small car every four shows.

Consequently, if my questions resulted in too many Minis being won, then the pre-recorded shows had to be screened out of sequence to space out the "big" prizes. One month, when there was the danger we wouldn't give away a single car, the testing jackpot question "What is the approximate speed of light in space in miles per second?" was hastily rewritten as "What travels in space at approximately 186,281 miles per second?"

A variety of formats or "star vehicles" dominated the ratings during the Eighties, but by the start of the next decade, there seemed to be a feeling (even among television executives) that such shows were no more than schedule fillers. All that has changed in recent years which have seen a renaissance (if that is the right word) of the quiz show.

For some, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? represents naked greed. The Weakest Link at first seemed a refreshing antidote to the saccharine-like quality of some shows, but deteriorated into a repetitive, sado-masochistic exercise. But for network controllers, these new shows are the building blocks of their schedules. They are also attractive in that, despite apparently large prizes, they are economic to make.

Unlike dramas or comedy shows, the same set can be used week in, week out. A few flashing lights and crashing chords create the atmosphere. Two, three or even up to six shows can be recorded in a day. There is only one performer to pay and, in some cases, the profits from the premium-rate telephone calls that contestants must make in order to stand a chance of appearing come close to paying for the prizes.

The shows are equally popular with the contestants. For some, it is simply a good day out and the chance of a brief burst of fame or even the prize of a glass rose bowl. For others, they are a serious source of money. I have seen one highly competitive punter refuse to leave the studio until she had seen a replay of the show and checked the scoreboard had not cheated her of pound;10. Others resort to more drastic measures to ensure a win - at least one court case is pending.

But just why the sight of somebody recalling irrelevant facts should be so popular with viewers remains a puzzle. Some believe quizzes give the spectator a sense of superiority: it is often easier to answer a question when relaxed in your own home than under the television lights. They also convey an image of an ordered universe in which there is a correct answer to everything. Then there is the "car accident syndrome". We are all secretly waiting for the over-confident competitor to come a cropper whether it's in Mastermind's black chair or when it's their starter for 10. Another intriguing theory suggests that their audiences are drawn mainly from older viewers for whom the concept of a test ("Right, a slip of paper, rule a margin, numbers one to 10 in the margin, your name at the top") is familiar and acceptable from their schooldays.

Bob Holness, the man who hosted Blockbusters and is therefore forever associated with the oh-so-witty question "Can I have a P, Bob?", has recently lamented the fact that prizes are now simply money. "It's turning much more to avarice - the general interest side is fading." His words found an echo in one of this summer's newer shows, The Vault, which allowed contestants to win pound;100,000 not by their knowledge, but by bargaining for correct answers from other contestants. If they still failed, viewers could phone in to grab the "tax free cash in hand, thank you very much". This summer ITV has also served up Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway. Here, in what looks like a blatant attempt to reward advertisers for buying time on the network, contestants do battle for the contents of a commercial break (anything from toilet rolls to a prestige car).

Held in the local pub or village hall, the quiz is the picture of innocence. So too were Wilfred Pickles' treks around the north of England with his wife Mabel ("Mabel at t' table") and Violet Carson (later to be Ena Sharples in Coronation Street) improvising on an out of tune upright piano. The frightening thing is that a once harmless entertainment might have become a significant factor in the development of an avaricious, mercenary and intellectually bankrupt society.

David Self spent 10 years writing questions for quiz shows including Sale of the Century and Top of the Form. He has published a number of books of quiz questions including The 21st Century Quiz Book (Thorsons).

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