TV quiz show timeline

Have TV quiz show questions toughened up over the decades? Try these from the past seven decades to find out.

1957-1968 Double Your Money

Hughie Green-fronted quiz in which prize money doubled with every question, and successful contestants had the opportunity to win a then-whopping £1,000 on the Treasure Trail.

How many players are there in an association football team?

A: 11

On what date is US Independence Day?

A: July 4.

1967-1984 Ask the Family

Hosted by Robert Robinson, possessor of the most spectacular comb-over in TV history, this bizarrely enthralling quiz saw two families engage in gladiatorial quiz-combat, with some questions only open to certain family members: ‘Fathers and youngest child only’.

Why should father come last in the Birkenhead Drill?

A: It’s the name of the ‘women and children first’ protocol.

Of which countries are the following the national airline? Iberia (Spain) Aeroflot (Soviet Union) Sabena (Belgium), KLM (Netherlands), Qantas (Australia)

1972-present day Mastermind

Four (or five) contestants, two rounds (specialist subject and general knowledge), one scary black chair, a spotlight, and the most sinister music imaginable (not for nothing is the tune called Approaching Menace). The creator, Bill Wright, drew inspiration from his experiences being interrogated by the Gestapo in the Second World War. Brilliantly spoofed by the Two Ronnies, too.

Which Australian-born opera singer had a peach dessert named after her?

A: Nellie Melba.

Which English philosopher and statesman said “Money is like muck: Not good, except it be spread”?

A: Francis Bacon.

1988-2003, 2014 Fifteen to One

Fifteen contestants, presided over by no-nonsense headmaster William G Stewart (though he did occasionally lighten up) and latterly Sandi Toksvig, arranged in a semi-circle of hate, eye each other up and mercilessly pick off the weakest elements by nominating them to answer questions, until only one is left.

On February 6 1971, where was a golf ball hit for the first time?

A: The Moon.

Of which ship was Edward J Smith the captain when he died in 1912?

A: The Titanic.

1998-2014  Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

A multiple choice format ranging from absurdly easy to fiendishly tricky. The prospect of the biggest prize in UK TV history transfixed audiences of up to 19 million, until people began to tire of Chris Tarrant saying “You don’t want me to give you that.”

(Both £1m questions) Which king was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine?

Henry I, Henry II, Richard I, Henry V.

A: Henry II

A number one followed by 100 zeros is known by what name? Googol, megatron, gigabit, nanomole?

A: Googol

2000-2012 The Weakest Link

Sarcastic leather-clad dominatrix Anne Robinson dispenses questions of variable difficulty and quips of unsurpassed brutality, with the spite level heightened by contestants voting each other off, until only one was left.

Participants are matched against each other according to their body weight in which of these sports: boxing or badminton? (

Do you really need the answer?

In British history, the 17th-century diarist Samuel Pepys had an administrative role in which of the armed forces?

[Clue: It’s not the air force] A: The navy.

2003-present day Eggheads

Teams of contestants do battle with a team of Eggheads, made up of the cream of British TV quizzing talent (see also The Chase) nursing the unlikely hope that they might go home several thousand pounds richer. Less than ten per cent do.

At the end of 2006, how many of the 50 states of the US still officially sanctioned the death penalty? 38, 18, 8?

A: 38

Which British city is home to the RRS Discovery, which took Captain Scott to the Antarctic?

A: Dundee.

2009-present day The Chase

Late-afternoon popular quiz behemoth wherein contestants do battle with unsmiling pantomime-villains-cum-quiz-experts known as Chasers.

The poet Homer called which oil liquid gold?

A: Olive oil.

Who wrote the novel Girl with a Pearl Earring?

A: Tracy Chevalier.

2009-present day Pointless

Bizarrely brilliant show whose object is to score as few points as possible. Contestants must give correct responses to questions with multiple answers, but must choose one that few people, when surveyed, were able to come up with.

Name a European country with a population of under 20 million.

Top answer: Luxembourg, 36. Only pointless answer: Moldova.

Name a tragedy or a historic play by Shakespeare.

Top answer: Macbeth, 57. Pointless answers: Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II, Henry VI Part III, Cymbeline

University Challenge: The great survivor

 Your starter for ten: Which quiz show is the following question from?

‘Common in English but absent in most other languages, the phoneme known as a voiceless dental fricative is represented in the international phonetic alphabet by what Greek letter?’ The answer to that question is theta. The answer to mine, I barely need tell you, is University Challenge.

It is fair to say that there is no tougher quiz on TV. Often, the questions are so baffling, you can find yourself guessing aloud ‘seven’, when the answer is, in fact, hydrogen sulphide.

And yet, despite its all-but-impenetrable difficulty and complete lack of accessibility, it has endured for more than 50 years on our screens (including a seven-year hiatus ending in 1994), making it one of the oldest and most successful TV quiz shows in the world.

The Young Ones

The show’s idiosyncrasies have become part of our popular culture. The phrase “your starter for ten” is ubiquitous, and the split screen team shots, once so revolutionary, are now a pleasing anachronism. The show has spawned a book and film (called, naturally, Starter for Ten), a legendary spoof by The Young Ones as their Scumbag College took on Footlights College, and has played host to luminaries including Julian Fellowes, Sebastian Faulks, Clive James, David Starkey, Christopher Hitchens, David Mellor and Stephen Fry (who both appeared on the programme and the Young Ones spoof!). In 2000, it came 34th in the 100 Greatest TV Programmes, as voted by industry professionals.

A matter of degrees

Certain episodes and characters have passed into UC folklore. In 1975, a Manchester University team featuring journalist David Aaronovitch answered Che Guevara, Karl Marx, Lenin and Trotsky to every question, in the confused belief they were somehow fomenting revolution. In 1971, the University of Sussex scored ten points – still the lowest ever total. (In 1987, University College Oxford scored the highest ever total – 520). And who could forget arguably the competition’s greatest ever participant – Gail Trimble, aka the Human Google.

So what is the secret of University Challenge’s success? Is it that, in an ever-changing world, it is a beacon of consistency? The show’s format has never varied, and in 53 years it has had only two presenters – Bamber Gascoigne and Jeremy Paxman – and three voice-over announcers. Or is it simply this? In the unlikely event of you getting a question right from the comfort of your sofa, there is nothing, but nothing to beat it.


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