When Worlds Collide #27: Who Wants to be…a Quizmaster?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 5 August 2012

Quizmaster Nalaka Gunawardene engages audience with open questions at Serendib Quiz on 29 July 2012. Photo by Saman Weeraratne

“All the world is a quiz, and all the men and women merely players.”

That’s how the late Magnús Magnússon, host of BBC television’s long-running quiz Mastermind, once summed up his line of work. He believed that everything in the world was matter for a quiz. As a quizmaster for over two decades, I heartily agree!

Quizzing, also known as general knowledge (GK), is an established mind sport where players engage in a friendly tussle using quick wits and sharp memories. In recent years, it has evolved its own world body and global rankings.

The origins of quizzing go back to ‘pub quizzes’ – the impromptu testing of trivial (mostly sporting) knowledge over a drink in that quintessentially British setting for socialising. Bar tenders often had to arbitrate in disputes. Teachers, librarians and journalists were soon co-opted for expert help.

After a while, pub quizzes started attracting people who wouldn’t normally turn up at a pub. It was estimated in 2009 that over 22,400 British pubs had a weekly quiz night.

Over the years, quizzing as an entertaining format has been widely adapted elsewhere – from schools and churches to businesses and professional groups. Trivial Pursuit, a quizzing board game invented by two Canadian journalists in 1979, has sold over 80 million copies worldwide.

But it was radio and TV that really globalised quizzing through popular formats of infotainment programming. I grew up in the 1970s listening to Brain of Britain on BBC World Service radio. It has been running since 1967, and the TV equivalent Mastermind started in 1972. They are both ‘classic’ quizzes where players compete entirely in the spirit of enquiry; winners receive glory but no cash prizes.

Why bother?

Some of the world’s most ardent quizzing enthusiasts are found in India, where Neil O’Brien introduced it at a Calcutta church in 1967. As with cricket, quizzing on the subcontinent thrives at all levels: schools, colleges, corporate and social circles, and in the broadcast media.

Quizzing has been a popular programme type on Lankan radio and TV for several decades. Recently, reality quiz shows like Who Wants to be a Millionaire have renewed interest in this activity.

Despite this popularity, quizzing still baffles or bemuses non-players. Why bother with seemingly trivial information, they ask. And why do quizmasters tease people with ‘pedantic themes’ and ‘heaps of knowledge not worth knowing’?

“To my mind, there is no such thing as knowledge not worth knowing,” BBC’s Magnússon once explained in one of his quiz books. “All knowledge, however esoteric or trivial-sounding, is worth knowing; and quizzes celebrate that knowledge and stimulate the quest for further knowledge.”

He labelled quizzing as ‘serious entertainment’, a pastime whose purpose can be as serious — or light-hearted — as one wishes.

Like chess, quizzing appeals to all ages and cultures, but many players tend to be studious youngsters. Yet only a handful of quiz kids continue their passion beyond school, and even fewer get to be compilers or quizmasters. I’ve been lucky to persist for three decades — and to have played every role in the game.

When I take the floor as quizmaster – as I did last Sunday, compiling and hosting a new live event named Serendib Quiz – an inter-generational ‘transmission’ of sorts is at work. Let me explain.

In my early years, I had the privilege of understudying with two of the finest quizmasters in Sri Lanka: Shelton Wirasinha and Gunaratne Abeysekera. Both were erudite men with an astonishing depth and breadth of knowledge, even if they had different backgrounds and styles.

Quizmasters who were grandmasters in their game: L to R – Magnús Magnússon, Shelton Wirasinha, Gunaratne Abeysekera

Working with giants

Shelton Wirasinha (1923 – 1985) was an educator par excellence, the kind who nurtured young minds to blossom into their full potential. As Sri Lanka’s first TV quizmaster, hosting the trail-blazing Dulux Do You Know on Rupavahini from 1982, he set the tone and standard for this genre in the nascent medium. He was ebullient and chatty, a friendly guide to the wide world of knowledge.

Gunaratne Abeysekera (1934 – 1992) was a veteran broadcaster hailing from a family of artistes. He was just as amiable, albeit a bit less outgoing than Shelton. After hosting radio quizzes for years, he presented the first all-Sinhala quiz on Lankan TV, Soyamu Pilithuru (1984).

The duo compiled their own questions, which set them apart from announcers reading out someone else’s. After facing their fine ‘deliveries’ for years as a quiz kid, I became their junior associate in researching and compiling quizzes.

I stood on their giant shoulders when, at 23, I compiled and hosted my own weekly quiz show on Rupavahini in 1990. Two decades on, I still draw inspiration from them — and Magnus M.

Alas, they are all gone now.

Every quiz has its own intricacies, and each player is unique. We twenty first century quizmasters must maintain the game’s time-honoured practices while adapting to changing audience and media preferences. In doing so, we sometimes make worlds collide!

I favour a relaxed and colourful setting in my quiz shows: we don’t need to look solemn just because we’re dealing with serious topics. Shelton donned batik shirts when most quizmasters wore dark suits. I take it to the next level with my bright, self-coloured T-shirts. A few years ago, after plenty of arguments with orthodoxy, I even got school kids in a quiz show to swap their white uniforms for dark T-shirts.

Other changes are more than skin deep. It’s a challenge to indigenise quiz content while retaining universal flavour, and even harder to avoid cultural biases and political minefields.

Asian quizzing used to blindly ape western formats and mostly cover western knowledge. Anant Pai, the founder publisher of India’s hugely popular Amar Chitra Katha comics, reportedly started that venture after watching a TV quiz where Indian children could reel off the names of Greek gods — but didn’t know anything about India’s own pantheon.

I’ve had my share of hilarious answers given by contestants utterly clueless about their own heritage. I keep a straight face when that happens: a quizmaster can’t be condescending.

In any case, we shouldn’t equate mere knowledge with intelligence. Quizzes only test participants’ memory and recollection powers. In contrast, measuring intelligence quotient (IQ) is a specialised process. While many excelling in quizzing are also highly intelligent, quiz performance is not by itself a measure of a higher IQ.

Girl Power Rising

Despite this, many people mix up the two. When I hosted an inter-school TV quiz some years ago, its promoters (an advertising agency) used images of Einstein, Tagore and Steven Spielberg. And when I pointed out the complete absence of women, they threw in Marie Curie for gender balance!

Girls and women haven’t been too active historically in quizzing, but that is now changing. For the first time in Sri Lanka, the winning team (named Invictus) at last week’s Serendib Quiz comprised a majority of women. And no, they weren’t token players.

There is also no direct link between educational attainment and quiz performance. A London taxi driver once beat academics and professionals to become win BBC Mastermind (1980). Housewives have outsmarted eggheads.

What about the future of quizzing? That’s a separate topic, but our mind sport’s ‘IBM Moment’ has already happened — some 14 years after ‘Deep Blue’ turned the world of chess upside down.

Watson competing with all-time champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter

In early 2011, the long running US quiz show Jeopardy pitted two of its most successful competitors against an IBM-built supercomputer named Watson (all disconnected from the Internet). After three tensed episodes, Watson beat his human rivals hands down: the news excited some quiz players and alarmed others. (Watch below, or at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxU1Pg-80as&feature=related)

Can they build a machine to mimic quizmasters too? I’d dearly like to know!

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
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2 Responses to When Worlds Collide #27: Who Wants to be…a Quizmaster?

  1. Pingback: Quizzing in Sri Lanka: ඔබ දන්නෙහිද ගැන ඔබ දන්නෙහිද? | Quiz World (Pvt) Ltd

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