Did postmodernity kill the quiz show?

Once, quiz shows were all about Q&A. Now they’re about ribbing and racountering, and some have dispensed with questions altogether.

Patrick West

Patrick West

Topics Culture

It was the general consensus in the press and among my friends that television this Christmas was pretty dreadful. It was the same old fare again: The Great Escape; the perennial Morecambe and Wise; Ronnie Corbett rearing his head on his customary annual basis; Charles Dickens everywhere; a fatal car crash on EastEnders; and Channel 4 being predictably ‘controversial’ by airing Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and once again shocking absolutely no-one in the process.

I don’t mind that much, I suppose, when this is regarded from a cultural perspective. Christmas is meant to be about tradition – whether this ‘tradition’ be authentic, or a nineteenth-century invention. Complaining about repetitive television during Yuletide is as traditional as moaning about Brussels sprouts tasting horrid, or Christmas adverts appearing on the TV as early as September. And most of all, television repeats allow us to perform that most traditional of Christmas customs, one that has become mandatory this time of year: just moaning for the goddamn sake of it.

But as viewer, I do understand the carping, which is why I didn’t catch much television over the festive period. Except for one programme. It was on the Dave channel. Now, don’t worry, I’m not going to talk about Top Gear again (although I did catch some ‘best of’ compilations on Dave over the past week). Rather, I’m going to talk about the re-runs of QI, the general knowledge quiz fronted by that loveable pedant, Stephen Fry.

The BBC’s QI (‘quite interesting’), which has been going since September 2003, is a microcosm of how quiz shows and panel games have undergone, literally, a ‘quite interesting’ metamorphosis in recent years. It suggests that quiz shows are not really about quizzing people anymore.

Consider the austerity, simplicity and sheer serious-mindedness of older programmes such as Mastermind, Countdown, Fifteen-to-One, or, in the US, Jeopardy, all of which consisted of a basic question-and-answer format (or in the case of Jeopardy, the other way round). For the most part, they also embodied an amateur ethos: the prize in Fifteen-to-One or Countdown was not a wad of cash, but a tacky trophy and, foremost, the prestige of having proved oneself so brainy.

Even when cash prizes were afforded, the rewards were meagre, and in retrospect comical. In Bullseye we had Jim Bowen advising his darts-playing contestant that should he hit double-top he could win £4. In Family Fortunes, the Jones family from Stoke-on-Trent would go back home with ‘double money’ of £254, a teasmaid and a lawnmower. Terry Wogan on Blankety Blank would congratulate the winning contestant on his prize of an all-expenses-paid weekend in Leningrad or loyalist East Belfast.

Quizzing on television has since become less straightforward, less serious and less literal-minded. This can be witnessed in the manner in which the BBC1’s A Question of Sport changed 10 years ago. Under presenters David Vine and David Coleman, the programme suggested to the viewers that the contestants really did want to win. Sure, Emlyn Hughes was always giggling, but that was the whole point of him: he was there to provide light relief, as a counter to his opposite team captain, the lugubrious Bill Beaumont, or the officious Coleman himself.

Ever since Sue Barker became presenter in 1997, A Question of Sport has become decidedly more light-hearted. The emphasis is more on the joshing between Ally McCoist and Frankie Dettori and now Matt Dawson, or about both captains either teasing or flirting with Barker.

This transformation was prompted, I suspect, by another BBC programme, They Think It’s All Over in 1995, an alternative sports quiz show in which points scoring was a decidedly secondary consideration. They Think It’s All Over was basically Have I Got News for You, except it was ostensibly about sport. But most of all, it was about blokes having a laugh. The same format emerged in the 1990s with the music quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks and the comedy improvisation show Whose Line Is It Anyway?, in which the running joke was that the points awarded by Clive Anderson were completely random and meaningless.

Even traditional quiz programmes have begrudgingly begun to follow this trend. As anchorman on University Challenge, Jeremy Paxman now parodies his confrontational, sneering Newsnight persona, often to the amusement of the studio audience; his predecessor Bamber Gascoigne took the whole thing far more seriously. John Humphrys, BBC Radio 4’s feared rottweiler, even indulges in a bit of light-hearted banter with his Mastermind contestants; contrarily, Magnus Magnusson treated that black chair with absolute reverence.

QI has continued this process further. Once more, the points system, or who ‘wins’, is completely irrelevant, and has continued the new custom in which a television quiz’s style precedes its content. It’s about ribbing, anecdote and raconteuring.

It is tempting to suggest that this conforms to the theory of the realisation of postmodernity, in which boundaries are being blurred, in which things aren’t taken seriously anymore, in which programmes don’t do what they say on the tin: quiz-shows in which the answers aren’t important. In Deal or No Deal, they’ve just dispensed with the notion of questions altogether.

But, on the contrary, there is BBC2’s persistently popular Eggheads, one of the most ascetic quizzes on the box. Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?’s name suggests an extreme departure from the amateur spirit, but its format is still in essence traditional. And, of course, in real life, the traditional pub quiz remains as enduring as ever. I should know: I set the questions to the quiz at my local pub (1). (Tragically, I missed out on spiked‘s stunning success in the recent Institute of Ideas pub quiz.) Sure, Stephen Fry, Alan Davies or Jimmy Carr don’t normally turn up at my local, but it can be quite funny, and often quite interesting.

Patrick West is spiked’s TV reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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(1) The Beaconsfield, Facebook

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Topics Culture


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