PERHAPS alone among the denizens of this success-starved heath I am able to identify with Andy Murray when anticipation levels reach fever pitch in the run-up to Wimbledon.
Allow me to explain. For the past decade and more I have been one half of the Scottish team on Radio Four's devilish programme, Round Britain Quiz (RBQ). Each year my partner, Michael Alexander, and I are subject to the kind of pressure which can only be described as intolerable.
Some cruel and insensitive commentators have accused us of underperforming. Indeed, one pundit associated with another newspaper, who probably couldn't do the crossword in Hello!, often takes the trouble to call and remind me that we have "let Scotland doon. Again".
I dare say Murray has also been subjected to such slights. The effect they have is impossible to measure but is undoubtedly corrosive. Nor is it any use protesting that one is doing one's best, that one cannot try any harder. Of sympathy, there is none.
At least RBQ is recognised as one of most fiendish quizzes on the planet. It is to quizzing what a major is to golf. The questions are cryptic; the competition ferocious; the national gnashing of teeth horrible to behold; the responsibility almost too much to bear.
Here's what happens. Six teams representing the constituent parts of this septic isle gather annually in a country house hotel in the middle of a silent nowhere to battle for the highly prized, non-existent trophy. Each team plays two others twice. The music – a merry jingle by Penguin Cafe Orchestra – plays, we are told to turn over our papers and the first question is asked. A little light editing apart, the quiz is broadcast as recorded. It was less terrifying sitting one's Highers.
On occasion, bolshie contestants have been known to voice their dismay at the marks awarded by the presenter, Tom Sutcliffe. Despite such provocation he has not yet stooped to produce a yellow card, let alone a red one. Nor has anyone tested positively for the use of performance-enhancing substances, such as caffeine. It can only be a matter of time. Rumours that some teams have resorted to training at altitude, which is believed to improve memory, are still to be proved.
What is certain, though, is the seriousness with which many of the contestants approach the quiz. This is another malign symptom of our dog-eat-dog times. In days of yore, a quiz was a diversion, an entertainment, something innocuous with which to while away an empty hour. No more. Like everything else, quizzing has become de-amateurised and commercialised, like darts and dominoes. There are, apparently, professional quizzers who make a living doing quizzes, whose lives are spent cramming facts into their already teeming brains, who can reel off the names of all of Ken Barlow's squeezes as easily as they can those of the spouses of Henry VIII.
Many of them will doubtless be participating in the World Quizzing Championships, to be held in Edinburgh next month. This is the first occasion the event has been held hereabouts which is fitting, given that Gary Grant recently became the first Scottish winner of Mastermind since its inaugural champion, Dundee-born Fred Housego, took the title in 1980.
It was surely Mastermind, masterfully presented by Magnus Magnusson, which changed the complexion of quizzing. University Challenge may be longer in the tooth but it never had such compulsive appeal. Eggheads, The Chase, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?, even –bless it! – Postcode Lottery, are all in its debt.
Housego's specialist subject was the Tower of London, around which he often whizzed in his cab. His triumph and subsequent media career helped transform the humble quiz and make it the staple of every TV schedule. Today he is a member of the London team on RBQ. As I write, I imagine he is pushing weights or sinking pints in furious preparation for the forthcoming contest. He may also be stuffing his face with nutritious facts. How much good will it do him? Who knows? Actually, I do. For the more I try to shovel in, the less there seems to be within recall.
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