Memories of a question setter

David Elias was one of the principal writers of questions for University Challenge during the final few series of Bamber Gascoigne's reign, contributing around three quarters of the questions for his final series. Here, he shares a few of his memories of the show during the 1980s.

Like many other question-setters, I began as a contestant, trying to show off my knowledge and possibly win prizes along the way. In 1980, whilst lecturing at what is now Nottingham Trent University, I began setting questions for two Granada TV quizzes, “The Krypton Factor” and an afternoon show “Square One”. For some years before that, I’d been devising quizzes for Radio Nottingham, on shows like “Brain of Nottingham” and “Top Firm Quiz”, experience which proved invaluable in developing a feel for “level” and knowing how to set questions that would be answerable, fair and entertaining.

It didn’t take long for me to wonder if there were other quizzes for which I might write questions, and it seemed logical, as I was working for Granada, to approach that company’s flagship quiz. I’d always been an admirer of “University Challenge”, but had never been able to compete – the show didn’t begin until after I’d left university in 1960, and when I spent a sabbatical year working on an M.A. in Victorian literature at Leicester in the late seventies, it was a year during which Leicester weren’t in the competition. So, I put together a batch of questions that I thought would be appropriate for Bamber Gascoigne to ask, to show that I understood the standard and range of material needed, and passed them on to the producer, Peter Mullings. At that time, question setters never received a credit on the end titles, and for all I knew, Bamber might be writing all his own questions. Very often, too, a show’s question requirements are fully supplied, and there’s no chance for a newcomer to shoulder his way in, but I was fortunate that Peter was looking for another possible writer, as the programme’s two principal setters at the time were both over seventy, and a relatively youthful extra setter (I was just over forty then) would not be unwelcome.

Peter read the questions, and invited me to Manchester, where I had a long, discursive interview in the staff canteen, mainly to check that I’d been a regular viewer of “University Challenge” for over a decade, and remembered the achievements of stars like Susan Reynolds and the elegant Kramer. Once he’d accepted that I had a feeling for the right level of questioning, Peter asked me to start writing questions, giving me a copy of the style sheet and the “approved books” list of about thirty reliable texts like the Encyclopaedia Britannica, Whitaker’s Almanack, Halliwell’s Film Guide, Kobbe’s Opera Book, and the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. All references to books from the approved list had to give page citations, but material found from elsewhere had to be substantiated by a Xerox copy of the source, if possible. Once I sent in a question based on the masthead of the English edition of “Pravda”, which I’d seen when browsing in W.H.Smith’s, and was told sharply that I ought to have bought the paper and sent in either the original or a copy, but we eventually agreed that some items (like the opening credits of “Star Wars”) couldn’t easily be found in printed form. This was long before the Internet could be used as a source of trivial information, and we kept trying to extend the scope of questions to cover a few topics of “pop culture”, mixed in with the classical references. That could occasionally cause problems – whilst Bamber had no problems with esoteric terms from mythology, his pronunciation of Duran Duran amused the students in his audience.

One subject in particular was to be excised completely from questions – Peter Mullings wouldn’t allow any mention of “the Scottish play”, adhering firmly to the old theatrical superstition of never mentioning the title, even indirectly. Once I sent in a batch of postcards from the National Portrait Gallery, showing caricatures of famous actors that I felt would make a reasonable picture bonus, but I hadn’t read the small print on the back of the cards carefully enough – one of the caricatures was of Laurence Olivier, but in the role of Macbeth. The batch of postcards was instantly returned to me, and my gaffe firmly censured. Once I’d settled into the right mould of question-making, however, things ran pretty smoothly, and I was given a rare concession on presentation – instead of sending in batches of questions to be approved, checked and transferred on to the coloured cards used for starters and bonuses, I was allowed to type the questions directly on to cards (pink for starters, blue for bonuses). I had a large stock of these cards, kept in a tin that looked like the Oxford Concise Dictionary, so that when the BBC decided in 1992 to broadcast a “Tribute to Granada” that included a one-off “University Challenge”, I was able not just to write the questions, but to provide Bamber with the customary coloured cards that had long since been discarded by everyone else. (I still have a few dozen left.)

Each year, the programme held two “banquets” at the studios, one on the night of the finals, and one for the show in which the winners competed against dons of their college or university, and these were lavishly catered – I remember three kinds of caviar being offered at one banquet (in small quantities)! Despite being almost as thin as a matchstick, Bamber was a voracious eater at these banquets, replacing the energy expended during recordings. On other occasions, he stoked up beforehand by sitting in the staff canteen with a glass of milk and two packets of four Eccles cakes, eating steadily through all eight of the currant-stuffed pastries. These local delicacies were a huge favourite, and on one occasion, Bamber cheerfully showed me a large and battered leather suitcase, completely filled with cellophane packs of “Real Eccles Cakes”, declaring, “You can’t get these in the South of England!”

At some banquets, winners were presented with crystal goblets from Asprey’s, carefully engraved with the details of their triumphs, but these needed very careful inspection. Often they had to be returned for replacement because the names of competitors or colleges were wrongly engraved, but on one occasion Asprey’s surpassed themselves, engraving “University Callenge” on each goblet. The whole lot had to be returned for destruction and replacement, despite protests from some of the undergraduates that they’d rather keep the “mistakes” in case, as with postage stamps, the errors made their goblets rarer and more valuable.

Today, I still enjoy setting batches of questions (each “batch” contains 35 starters and 25 bonus questions) but not as voluminously or under such pressure as in the 1980s.