A Journey in Several Movements, in which The Author ventures into uncharted territory
In A Capital Day Out and A Farey Tale (amongst other recent entries) I mentioned that I would be taking a trip to Manchester. I decided not to give too much away beforehand, for fear that everything would go supine. (This lovely term came to me via Veiled Vicki, who pointed out that ‘supine’ is the technical term for ‘lying flat on one’s back.’ (Or, as she put it – ‘tits up!’)
In the event, the entire journey and its associated shenanigans passed without a hitch, which is why I am currently sitting in the Holiday Inn at MediaCityUK, at stupid o’clock on a Saturday morning, drafting a blog which I probably won’t finish until Sunday at the earliest. To those of you who subscribe to my Twitter feed, I can only apologise. You may experience a slight twinge of déjà vu when you read this. Don’t worry, it’s just a glitch in the Matrix.
[A digression. After a few minutes of incredibly inaccurate two-finger typing in the small hours of Saturday, I realised that I’d finally achieved my target of 120 wpm. Unfortunately, only about a quarter of them were real words, so I put this entry on hold for the time being. It will probably be Sunday (at least) before it’s finished, so please don’t be confused by the sudden change of narrative tense.]
FIRST MOVEMENT: On My Radio
This story began about a year ago, when I emailed the BBC to request an application form for Brain of Britain. This longest-running of all quiz shows was inviting competitors for its sixtieth season, which goes on the air next month. One night, after listening to the repeat, I decided that two minutes sending them a quick email wouldn’t be a waste of time or energy. I went for it. And promptly forgot all about it…
On June 12th I was checking my emails when I found one from someone named Lizzie Foster, with the subject heading Brain of Britain 2012/13. A good six months had passed since I sent the first email, and it took a few seconds to register while I was scanning my inbox. But it was there, in black and white:
Please find attached the application form for the new series of Brain of Britain. Please could you complete and return it to me, either by email or post, by Friday the 6th of July.
The little blurb below the message revealed that she was the show’s assistant producer, based at the new MediaCity UK in Salford Quays. However, I was in Aberdare Library at the time, and their bloody useless computer wouldn’t open the .docx file. I had to save the attachment to my USB drive, take it home, open it using LibreOffice, and then print it out. Anyway…
I had to be honest when the form asked ‘Have you taken part in any other broadcast quizzes’ and answer Yes. Almost exactly twenty-one years ago, I travelled to London to appear on the now-defunct Channel 4 TV show Fifteen-to-One. I’ll tell you that story some other time. For now, I’ll show you the full line-up, together with the show’s host William G. Stewart.
I’d also had a pretty decent stint on BBC Wales’ morning quiz Elimination a few years later, winning the weekly final. Since then I’d been limited to watching TV, listening to radio, playing for various teams in the old Cynon Valley Quiz League (also defunct), and of course the odd pub quiz now and then. But I decided to have a shot anyway.
My pal James E. had appeared on The Weakest Link a while before. We’d both tried to get onto Glamorgan’s University Challenge team for 2010/11, but thanks to the Circumlocution Office we’d had to withdraw our names. The team didn’t qualify in the event. I watched James’s TV appearance in the pub one afternoon. He seemed relaxed and confident, and had a good initial round, emerging as the strongest link. The Ann-Droid didn’t even pick on him for being Welsh. (A while before he went to Glasgow for the recording, he asked me how he should respond if she started her nonsense. I told him, ‘Just say “Yes, I’m Welsh – but at least I’m not fucking ginger!”‘)
However, in the second round he completely lost his nerve and crashed and burned. I could see he was gutted as he walked away from the arena. I emailed him later that day to offer my sympathy. I knew exactly how he felt. I’d made it into the final three on my TV appearance, then a couple of questions from way out of left-field finished me completely. Brain of Britain would be a different matter. To adapt a well-known film tagline, On radio, nobody can see you cry.
On the afternoon of July 11, I was doing a bit of research in Aberdare Library when my phone rang. I answered it while walking to the staircase, so as not to disturb anyone. The caller was none other than the aforementioned Lizzie Foster. She sounded quite young, and was very cheerful, friendly, and chatty. I carried on walking while we talked, and made my way outside the building so that we could chat normally.
She was contacting the applicants in turn and auditioning them by phone. She explained that she’d ask me a number of questions, and then tally up my score at the end. I wasn’t up against the clock – she was just making an initial assessment at this stage – and I wouldn’t be told my final score. Everyone gets the same questions to eliminate random variations, and not telling us if we’re right or wrong rules out any chance to cheat. That makes sense. If James had applied as well, then I could have fed him the right answers and researched the ones I’d had wrong, to give him a leg up. (Or, conversely, given him false information to sabotage his efforts.)
The audition seemed to last for ages, and I can’t remember many of the questions. One involved the Rhondda Valley, and I remember saying that if I climbed the hill above the library I’d be able to look down at it. I was horrified at dropping points on both of the questions about books. Then again, I’ve never read J.K. Rowling and don’t intend to start any time soon. The other one was about some chick-lit thing I’d never heard of. Don’t shoot me, I’m only the retired Academic Bookseller!
After we’d got the questions out of the way, Lizzie and I chatted for a while, and she asked me where I’d like to go if I qualified for the show: London or Salford. Without a second thought I said, ‘Salford!’
I explained that I’ve been to London hundreds of times, but Manchester was unknown territory. She asked me a few more general questions before we said goodbye. Then I returned to the library and Steven asked me what had been so important that I’d dashed off, leaving my stuff on the table. When I told him I’d just done a phone audition for Brain of Britain he was really pleased, and asked me to keep him posted on my progress. I told my other friends as well and got several messages of support. Then the waiting started…
I was in the library on the Wednesday after the August bank holiday weekend, checking my emails as usual, when I found this:
Just a quick email to thank you for taking the time to audition for Brain of Britain and to let you know we’d like to offer you a place on the forthcoming series.
Your heat will take place in Salford. As yet we have no recording dates confirmed, but we’ll be in contact as soon as we have pinned down our schedule.
Many congratulations and we’ll be in touch to confirm the dates as soon as we can.
With best wishes