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The rise and rise of the TV quiz show

Benjie Goodhart / 13 July 2015 ( 01 March 2021 )

Why do quiz shows pull in the huge viewing figures? We answer the $1m question and take a look back at the history of television quiz shows.

Man watching TV eating popcorn
in 1938 Spelling Bee, TV’s first knowledge-based competition was broadcast

You might not realise it, but we are living in a golden age. An age that, for millennia to come, our descendants will speak of with awed reverence when, in many ways, humankind reached its apogee. Its perfect moment. The acme of human achievement. We’re talking, of course, about the golden age of TV quiz shows.

With brilliantly creative, amusing, intellectually challenging formats, ranging from the traditional (Mastermind, University Challenge) to the inventive (Pointless, The Chase, Only Connect) to the adversarial (Fifteen to One, Eggheads, The Chase again!), there is something to suit all tastes. Unless you hate quiz shows, of course, in which case, well… you’re just wrong.

The quiz show has been a TV staple since grainy footage of some posho with a tux and a cut-glass accent first beamed out from Alexandra Palace. In 1938, TV’s first knowledge-based competition was broadcast – Spelling Bee, in which a panel of guests were asked to spell various words, and then, um… were asked to spell more words. Riveting.

Post-war watching

With the Second World War interrupting the progress of televised entertainment (another reason to despise Hitler, were one needed) it wasn’t until the Fifties that the quiz show became a TV staple. Well-funded by advertising, ITV – the new kid on the block – was able to offer prize funds on its shows, and thus Take Your Pick and Double Your Money became two of the biggest hits on the box.

Early prize funds were relatively meagre: The $64,000 Question, for example, in fact only offered a prize of 64,000 sixpences (which would have made for a slightly less glamorous title). The biggest prize on offer was £1,000, on Double Your Money. In 1959 a young, up-and-coming footballer named Bobby Charlton won the top prize. (The series also featured a young Maggie Smith as a hostess.)

Not everyone was enamoured with the quiz show, however. The 1962 Pilkington Report, set up to assess the value and future of broadcasting, was particularly sniffy, arguing that such programming encouraged consumption, exploited voyeuristic tendencies, rewarded trivial knowledge, and offered little more than ‘watching one man in a large arena being baited’.

Challenging stuff

Fortunately, broadcasters didn’t listen. That same year, the peerless University Challenge began – a show in which contestants seemed to be able to answer questions about Greek linguistics one moment and neurochemistry the next. The ensuing decades saw the debut of long-running classics Ask the Family and Mastermind. By the Eighties, quiz shows were everywhere. So much so, that a concerned government placed a prize cap of £6,000 on quiz and game shows.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a cap on bad ideas, and so keen were broadcasters to find the new hit quiz that, over the next decades, we were subjected to some terrible formats. There was the bizarre Going for Gold, which featured contestants from across Europe answering questions in English; Space Cadets, a sci-fi quiz; a quiz about religion called, naturally, Heaven Knows; another about punctuation, Never Mind the Full Stops; and even a quiz show about sex, entitled Carnal Knowledge.

Making millions

The prize restrictions were lifted in 1993, and prizes immediately began to mushroom, culminating in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and, today, The Million Pound Drop. And yet, for all of their money and razzamatazz, these quiz shows are not popular with real quiz aficionados. For many, the intellectual rigour of shows like Mastermind and University Challenge trumps the more obvious temptations of the big money shows. Today, with those shows being joined by the likes of The Chase, Pointless, Eggheads and the re-launched Fifteen to One, there seems to be a move away from the lure of the lucre to a world where a quiz show isn’t made attractive by the amount of money on offer, but by interesting formats, well-thought out questions, and the thrill of the game.

With questions getting harder, and formats getting ever more inventive, there’s never been a better time to be a fan of TV quizzes. Whether you like to pit yourself against the contestants (and who among us can deny having had a frisson of smugness when answering something on University Challenge), bask in their encyclopaedic knowledge, or simply watch the drama unfold, as far as TV quizzes go, this is indeed the golden age. Or, in Greek, the Chryson Genos, as University Challenge contestants would doubtless tell you.

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 phonym 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 disulphate.

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 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, 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.

Certain episodes and characters have passed into UC folklore. In 1975, a Manchester University team featuring journalist David Aaronovitch answered Che Guevara, Karl Marx and Leon 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.

TV quiz show timeline

1938 Spelling Bee

Just four episodes were made of spelling game show Spelling Bee, the first ever game show, which was broadcast on live television and radio in the UK. Contestants competed against known television stars of the era.

1940-1998 Truth or Consequences

This long-running American game show mixed quiz questions with ludicrous stunts and was inspired by Victorian parlour game Forfeits, making a quiz show and game show combined. In most cases the questions were so absurd they were impossible to answer, and even if there was a chance at getting it right contestants would intentionally give silly answers just for a chance to have a go at a stunt. The hybrid show would also include surprise guest appearances for the contestants, such as having far-flung family flown in.

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 £1000 on the Treasure Trail.

How many players are there in an association football team? A:11

On what date is U.S Independence day? July 4th.

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 children only.”

Why should father come last in the Birkenhead Drill? A: It’s the name of the policy ‘women and children first’.

Of which countries are the following the national airline? Iberia (Spain) Aeroflot (Soviet Union) Sabina (Belgium), KLM (Holland) 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 World War II.

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 Fifteen to One

Fifteen contestants, presided over by no-nonsense headmaster William G Stewart and 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 6th February 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 number one followed by 100 zeros is known by what name? Googol, megatron, gigabit, nanomole

2000-2012 The Weakest Link

Sarcastic leather-clad dominatrix 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.

In sport, participants are matched against each other according to their body weight in which of these: Boxing or badminton? A: Boxing

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 US’ 50 states still officially sanctioned the death penalty? 38, 18, 8

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 The Girl with the 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

The worst quiz show answers

Q: Which king succeeded Henry VIII to the throne?
A: Henry VII.
Worryingly, this answer was given by David Lammy MP on Celebrity Mastermind.

Jamie Theakston: Where is Cambridge University?
Conestant: Georgraphy isn’t my strong point.
JT: The clue is in the title.
Contestant: Leicester?
(Beg, Borrow or Steal)

Anne Robinson: Of which hot drink is ‘eat’ an anagram?
Contestant: Hot chocolate?
(The Weakest Link, BBC1)

Anne Robinson: The action of which Shakespeare play takes place between dusk on January 5 and dawn on January 6?
Contestant: A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
(The Weakest Link)

Anne Robinson: In science, what is botany the study of?
Contestant: Bottoms.
(The Weakest Link)

Anne Robinson: Name a selection of small, highly coloured sweets known as Dolly . . ?
Contestant: Parton.
(The Weakest Link)

James O’Brien: How many kings of England have been called Henry?
Contestant: Well, I know Henry VIII. So, um, three?
(The James O’Brien Show, LBC)

Anne Robinson: Who is the only Marx brother that remained silent throughout all their films?
Contestant: Karl.
(The Weakest Link)

Bamber Gascoigne: What was Gandhi's first name?
Contestant: Goosey?
(University Challenge)

Les Dennis: Name something a blind man might use.
Contestant: A sword.

Les Dennis: Name a singer who is known by one name.
Contestant: Michael Jackson


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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