Presenting a quiz is far from easy

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

25 November 2017

9:00 AM

It’s a weird sensation getting your child back for an extended period when for the previous decade you’ve been packing him off every few weeks back to boarding school. Obviously, it’s quite pleasant, amusing and enlightening to study at close hand and at length this alien thing that you’ve bred. At the same time, though, they don’t half become a discombobulatingly overbearing presence.

For example, in the old days I would definitely have reviewed Howards End, even though I can’t stand E.M. Forster or the ghastly pinko Schlegel sisters. But now that the Fawn and I no longer have the house to ourselves, we have to fall in with Boy’s viewing schedule, which is largely comprised of quiz shows.

Any quiz show, pretty much. His tastes extend from the most intellectual of intellectual — the painfully abstruse Only Connect, with its horned vipers and twisted sheaves and Victoria Coren with her Sphinx-like smile — to the veritably brainless (but horribly addictive) Tipping Point, where the skill owes less to general knowledge than to judging when to release the disc that pushes all the other discs over the edge, as in that cascade game they have in penny arcades.

Our three family favourites, though —the only ones we can all agree to watch at all times without bloodshed — are the Aldi, Waitrose and M&S of quiz shows: The Chase, Eggheads and Pointless. I’ve probably only space for Pointless this week, so that’s what I’ll concentrate on.

Recently, it celebrated its thousandth episode, which I watched with a mix of joy and disgust. The disgust is a product of my bitterness and seething envy that, unlike Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, there’s never going to be a moment in my life where a giant forefinger points down from the skies and says: ‘YOU have been chosen to present the funniest, most likable quiz show in TV history. You won’t realise this at first. But trust me, soon everyone will adore you — even those who’d hate your politics if they knew what they were — and you’ll never have to worry about your pension.’

My joy comes from the fact that the show is pretty near to perfection. A lot of this, of course, is down to the chemistry between Xander and Richard (as we regulars know they call one another). They make it look so easy, but it’s not, as they helpfully demonstrated when, for the thousandth edition, they swapped roles: Armstrong did the nerdy job of sitting down in front of the laptop and regurgitating arcane factoids in a deadpan voice. Osman took the standing-up role of introducing the questions and schmoozing the guests with dad jokes. Both were absolutely bloody awful.

Pointless, as I’m sure you know by now, is about racking the deepest recesses of your memory to find the most obscure but correct answer to any given question. Say: ‘Sub-Saharan African capitals’. If you watch often enough, as I now do, you find that your subconscious carries on working away at options and strategies and pointless answers even when you’re off-duty. Last night, for example, I woke bolt upright and gasped: ‘Maputo!’ (Though in real life I think I’d probably go for Victoria instead. Or maybe Bamako.)

I wanted to save the last bit of space for Detectorists (BBC4, Wednesday) — now in its third and final series — whose gentle, understated, wistful comedy would never have seen the light of day, I’mconvinced, had it not been written and directed by a bona fide (if accidental) Hollywood star, Mackenzie (Pirates of the Caribbean) Crook.

Despite its apparent cosiness, Detectorists is probably the most subversive sitcom on the BBC, celebrating as it does so many of those quintessentially English things —middle-aged male friendship; pub banter; blokeish hobbies; the sleepy, boring, slightly down-at-heel village; folk music — that your average comedy commissioning editor would reject as the very devil.

Though it does have its broad comedy moments (such as the one where Terry, the chairman of the local detectorists’ club talks of ‘moister conditions leading to deeper penetration’), what elevates it to near greatness is the superb character acting, led by Crook and Toby Jones (Lance), combined with the deft, gossamer-light touches, like the barely audible riff on ‘The Sound of Silence’ that precedes every entrance by the characters nicknamed Simon and Garfunkel.

Two quick quiz questions for you. How does the content of paragraph two link to that of paragraph three? And what musical connection links Detectorists to Game of Thrones?

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