Brain of Britain is the granddaddy of all broadcast quiz shows where the contestants are chosen from anyone who wants to apply. It started life in 1957 under the name “What do you Know?” and adopted its current title in 1967. Its long-running chairman was the late Robert Robinson. Peter Snow took over for a short while when Robinson was ill but, following Robinson’s death in 2008, the current chairman Russell Davies was appointed.
So why am I telling you all this? The answer is that earlier this week Margaret and myself went to the first Brain of Britain recording of 2014 at the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House in Central London.
We’ve enjoyed being in the audience of a variety of radio programmes at the BBC over the last two years. We are now well into double figures. To participate, it is simply a matter of getting onto the BBC’s mailing list and then apply for tickets for programmes you would like to see being recorded or, occasionally, being broadcast live. Of course, you are not always lucky but we’ve found that patience is a virtue! And it’s all free!!
The majority of programmes we have attended have been at the BBC Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House. When we went to our first event you had to queue in the street, before getting inside the building via the main entrance to Broadcasting House and through security checks. From there you were escorted down to a small number of reception rooms with inadequate seating. As the start time approached, there was a mad scramble to get to the head of the queue in order to get seats near the front and closer to the action. All in all, a fairly unsatisfactory process. Now all has changed for the better.
As you walk up Regent Street from Oxford Circus, the familiar art deco outline of Broadcasting House dominates the middle distance. It’s only as you get closer that less familiar features start to appear. To the right of the old main entrance there is now a large open pedestrian courtyard and lots of glass. The Radio Theatre is to the left of the main entrance and a hundred yards or so up Portland Place. And as you walk along that side of the building, the old architecture moves into a modern style with sharper lines and more glass. A very effective transition from old to new.
The security staff at the audience entrance, were remarkably friendly and, although we were both carrying small bags, just waved us past the scanning system. Then our tickets were checked and a numbered sticker attached to each. These numbers are important as the lower their values the earlier you will be called in to the theatre and hence get a seat nearer to the action. We had arrived early and got numbers 38 and 39 which is great.
Next we are directed into the Media Cafe which is large and airy, with plenty of seats and tables, and two coffee bars. Soon we’re seated at a long table with coffee, wine and croissant. One side of the cafe looks out over Portland Place which tonight is a rather dreary sight due to cloud and the rain. By contrast, the other side is completely glass and looks into a massive atrium with open-plan newsrooms on balconies overlooking a hive of news-gathering activity at all levels.
Time passed quickly and soon people were starting to migrate towards the door leading to the theatre. This is the only point at which the new, slick system breaks down. We old-timers know that we will be called into the auditorium by ticket number but, inevitably, there are those for whom this is a first time experience and the British passion for forming a queue takes over. Except that the layout of the room doesn’t lend itself to queue forming so instead, a large but cheerful crowd forms, pressing ever closer to the exit.
To keep us entertained, the BBC has installed a massive screen which is showing the News Channel. It’s coming up to 7 o’clock and time for the weather forecast. A weather girl appears standing in front of the familiar screen covered in a map of the UK and weather symbols. All quite normal until we look through the glass on our left and out into the atrium and there she is, large as life, waving her hands and pointing at the symbols. We really are at the heart of live broadcasting.
At this point one of the audience management staff appears and starts calling people into the Radio Theatre. The first people to be called are special guests, including friends of the contestants – we are just the hoi polloi. Still, our magical low numbers are soon called out and we are ushered into the auditorium. There isn’t a choice of seat but we are lucky to be in row six and right in the middle. You couldn’t do better. And in contrast to the modern Media Cafe, we are now back in the original art deco part of the building. Very stylish.
On the stage the participants are already sitting at their seats. To the left are three men in dark suits and ties chatting to each other. It takes you back to days of the good old BBC when everyone was dressed in best bib and tucker to “appear” on radio. By contrast, to the right are seated the four contestants, dressed in normal smart-casual clothing and all looking decidedly nervous. Their minds are obviously focused on their ordeals to come and the whole situation is not helped by the arrival of us, the studio audience.
And so on with the show. The producer comes onto the stage, goes through the usual housekeeping rigmarole about what to do if there’s a fire, and asking the audience to refrain from talking and coughing. We are also told that they will be recording two programmes tonight, numbers 8 and 10 in the current series. It being brain of Britain, shows are recorded around the country and we’re told that number 9 will be recorded in Manchester to give some geographical mix.
Russell Davies, the Chair and Questionmaster, is introduced. His flowing, flamboyant locks belie the rather quiet personality which emerges. He often mumbles, and, as the programme proceeds, it’s clear that he is mostly reading from his script. He seldom looks squarely at the audience, so his quips have a scripted feel as well. I’m sure Robert Robinson had a much more personable presence. The other two “suits” are the adjudicator to our left and, to our right, the rather pleasant and jolly scorer-cum-general-assistant to the chair and signaller-to-the-crowd when applause is needed.
To add a bit of verisimilitude, the signature tune – part of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – is played and the chairman introduces the quiz. Each of the four contestants is asked to introduce themselves; their name, where they are from and their occupation. There are three men and one woman. They are now looking a lot more relaxed than when we entered the studio.
And so the questioning begins. If you want to know what the questions were then you’ll need to listen to the programme when it is broadcast. We weren’t told when that would be but my guess is 26th January on BBC Radio 4. Sufficient to say that, to us at least, they were the usual mix of “I know that answer” (very infrequent) to “I haven’t a clue” (all too often) interspersed with “I have an idea” and “I don’t even understand the question”. But despite being a little humiliated by our lack of knowledge, it’s all good fun.
Although the four contestants are competing against each other for one place in the next round, they give the impression of being mutually supportive. It’s almost as though they are operating as a team. They even congratulate each other when one of them answers a particularly difficult question. Indeed, around the middle of the contest, proceedings are interrupted for a couple of esoteric questions sent in by a listener. The contestants are asked to work together as a team to come up with answers. As almost inevitably happens, the answers prove elusive and the question setter is awarded a book token prize.
The scores are read out at the end of each round but there are no scoreboard displays so, as a member of the audience, you only have a rough idea of the score as the contest progresses. What does become clear is that the scores are really rather close. And when it comes to the end of the contest we’re all amazed to hear that three contestants have scored the same number of points whilst the fourth has scored one more. What a tight contest.
After a 10 minute break it’s time to start the next edition. The contestants, again three men and one woman, look far more at ease than the first set. Maybe they’ve been able to watch the recording of the first episode and realise that the audience is on their side.
The quiz gets under way and it is clear that this will be a different contest. The contestants still support each other but a little less enthusiastically. As individuals they seem more committed to being the one who wins. The scores are soon climbing, fast for some and more slowly for others. And by the time the last question is asked, there is a clear winner.
So now it’s all over. We were both completely quizzed out and there was only one answer – a serious drink. So we head to Nicholson’s The Clachan behind Liberty’s, one of the best real bars in the West End and kill off a few more of our obviously diminished brain-cells.
What’s going to happen if Scotland decides to go for independence in the referendum later this year. Of course the only people who get a vote are those currently living in Scotland, regardless of their actual or ethnic nationality. The millions of emigre Scots get no vote in the matter. Alex Salmond seems keen to break all ties with anything that emanates from London. So will Brain of Britain have to become Brain of England, Wales & Northern Ireland or Brain of The New UK (2014 model). The mind boggles. Yet another thing that Wee Eck shows no signs of having really thought through.