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Date: 17/01/17

Asking Round

Regular readers will know of my deep disillusionment with the British Broadcorping Castration in its current incarnation: with its less than honourable rôle as the State Broadcaster (and I recommend this film on how the BBC's coverage of the independence referendum in Scotland bordered on the thoroughly dishonest); the cowardice of its management since the imposition of a totally alien and inappropriate 'management culture' upon it by the ideological obsessives of the early 1990s (memorably eviscerated by Dennis Potter in his 1993 MacTaggart Lecture); and the losing sight of its creative purpose (tackled with wit by Armando Iannucci when he gave the MacTaggart Lecture twenty-two years later).

There are, however, times when even I must state that there are some worthwhile porgammes which only the BBC could provide, especially nowadays on radio, where all those stations which were set up in the seventies and eighties under the rubric of 'Independent Local Radio' are now no longer independent (because they are nearly all owned by two or three huge conglomerates), no longer local (because those corporations have centralised presentation in two or three locations) and may only still be radio by the skin of its teeth.

One such programme is Y Talwrn, which I've riffed on for Transdiffusion, and which started its new season last week. And another has just completed its most recent run.

Round Britain Quiz (or RBQ to aficionados) was first broadcast in 1947 and originally featured teams of what would then have been called 'eggheads' (as opposed to nowadays, where they would be referred to as "artsy-fartsy so-called 'experts' who don't know how real people like us in the scum-press-reading classes live, so what good are they?") from the 'regions' of The Sacred Realm taking on the London team at tackling cryptic questions which required both a wide range of knowledge and the ability to think - to use Flann O'Brien's phrase - at a slight angle to the universe.

I think that I was about seventeen when I first started listening to it, back in the days when Anthony Quinton was the chairman and the London team comprised the wonderfully-named John Julius Norwich and Irene Thomas. I listened more regularly later, when the task of tormenting the teams was shared between the broadcast journalist Gordon Clough and the author Louis Allen. After Clough's death in 1996, the programme returned with a new - solo - chairman (another mainstay of The World At One, Nick Clarke) and a change of format whereby the six teams (South of England, North of England, Midlands, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) would meet each other in a round-robin over the course of twelve programmes.

Following Clarke's hideously early death in 2006, the broadcaster and journalist Tom Sutcliffe took the reins, taking - in my view - two or three years to settle in, but who has gone on to make the job his own.

Whatever the format, the basic idea has remained intact; in each programme, each team is asked four questions, one each of which is based around music or sound clips, and the questions are marked out of a total of six points depending on how many clues or how much nudging the chairman has to provide. Here is an example from the last programme of the latest series just to give you a taster:

"How might the battle of 1066, the Fonz, Bach in the movies, Wilson of Walmington, a suave cricketing thief, and a reluctant hitch-hiker, find themselves on first-name terms?"

To which the answer is 'Arthur': Arthur Hastings, companion of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot; Arthur Fonzarelli being the full name of the character played by Henry Winkler in Happy Days, Arthur Bach, the character played by Dudley Moore in the hit film Arthur; Arthur Wilson - as played by John Le Mesurier in Dad's Army; Arthur J. Raffles, the eponymous 'hero' of E.W. Hornung's short stories; and, finally, the hapless Arthur Dent, central figure of much of Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy.

To be able to answer effectively means being in possession of what used to be called 'a well-stocked mind' allied to the ability to make connections. When I first started listening to RBQ, the questions seemed intimidatingly erudite, requiring - if not a classical education - then certainly a working knowledge of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable and recondite sections of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Latterly, however - and perhaps reflecting some general trend in society as a whole - popular culture has featured more prominently, but still with an admixture of what Terry Pratchett called 'white knowledge', which he defined as being that knowledge which you pick up without realising it.

This will always be attractive to those of us who fancy ourselves as cultured or - to use what is now a deadly word in the English-squeaking world - 'intellectual'. It certainly appeals to me, and in the weeks that the programme is running, I will go to the RBQ website to read the questions in advance of listening to it on the iPlayer, seeing if I can figure them out and then seeing how well the teams do. Rather like with the less fiendish of cryptic crosswords, one can get a great feeling of satisfaction from getting the answer right, especially when the question has partly or completely baffled the contestants. In these times, one must take one's ego boosts wherever and however one can find them.

It is only by such programmes - rarities now even more than they were in past days - that the BBC saves itself from my total scorn, and one wonders how such series survive the anti-intellectual (and even anti-thought) thrust of most of the media.