July 18, 2024

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‘You can’t argue against a computer’: has the pub quiz lost its soul? | Pubs

‘You can’t argue against a computer’: has the pub quiz lost its soul? | Pubs

The Hooden Horse is a utilitarian new-ish build pub located in a retail park on the fringes of Margate. It can’t be many people’s idea of a destination boozer but this changes around 8pm every Wednesday, when the place is enveloped in quiz mania. Local radio presenter Mark Cridland has hosted proceedings for the past seven years. “Some weeks it’s 13 teams, or it might be 30,” he chuckles from a corner table as he runs through a last-minute checklist, tucked away from the rapidly filling room. “We have our regulars who are hardcore quizzers. They’re the ones who will let me know if I mispronounce a word.”

Every week, thousands of broadly identical scenes can be observed across the country, from the south coast to the outer fringes of the Highlands; from A-road chain pubs to the most idiosyncratic locals. These offerings range from casual to rabidly competitive. Some, such as Cridland’s, are often both. My trip to Thanet was one of several night-time visitations around the country, trying to chart the future of a very British institution. What sort of health was the pub quiz in? How did it work? And what did the apparently inexorable rise of professionalised pub quiz companies mean for a pastime more traditionally associated with homespun volunteer spirit?

The pub quiz occupies its own specific corner of the British psyche. It is, after all, almost universally regarded as an invention from these isles. Some of the most reliable pub historians trace things back to late-1950s Merseyside and Lancashire, when about 4,000 people became involved in the organised quiz leagues that sprang up from Bootle to Southport, although the Guinness Book of Records makes mention of a night in Yorkshire dating from 1946. The Liverpool Echo of 30 October 1963 carried an interview with a Mr Jack Robinson, “one of the men who has been on the Merseyside quiz scene since it started”. “It’s a jolly good way of enjoying yourself,” said Robinson, “and learning at the same time.”

Burns and Porter, the first mass-market pub quiz company, was founded in 1976 and soon dominated the nascent industry, producing a string of successful books and providing their services to the BBC. This was, as pub historian and author of the reference book Played at the Pub, Arthur Taylor, has noted, also the tail end of the first era of wildly popular quiz programmes on British TV.

Sharon Burns and Tom Porter were savvy marketers who pitched their wares as an easy way to boost trade on the quieter nights of the week. It was, as it has remained, an easy sell. Cheap to host, quizzes attract a regular clientele of dedicated and often obsessive regulars. Dr Patrick Chaplin is the avuncular chairman of the Pub History Society. He explains some of this enduring appeal. “You get the really serious people, the anoraks, but it can just be something you enjoy as a team. There are so many different aspects to it. There’s the clever buggers who want to win and those who just want to have a good time and a few beers.”

For a few months in late 2022, my Wednesday nights were taken up with the quiz at my south London local, as part of a small and quietly competitive regular team. What had started as a pleasantly noncommittal excuse for a midweek drink with friends had ratcheted up a few degrees of intensity. The quiz was perfectly pitched: hard enough to serve as a challenge, yet accessible to the point where victory was a realistic prospect (we won twice, in faintly dramatic fashion). But something changed, for me at least, with the departure of our regular host, the drag artist Kate Butch. It wasn’t that their replacement wasn’t any good, or that the content of the quiz had declined. But something had shifted, a slight tilting in the vibe that led to our visits becoming less frequent.

There are, perhaps, no hard rules to what does and doesn’t make a good pub quiz. Much depends on personal preference, although most of the devoted quizzers I spoke with tended to run through the same list. Fairness is critical, as is a robust mixture of questions and the sense that a degree of passion and thoroughness had gone into its composition. The last point is particularly important. Whether they came from professional companies or lone quizmasters, lazy, cookie-cutter offerings were to be abhorred.

pub quiz
Illustration: Jason Ford

And the host is a crucial factor. Jennifer Woodbridge runs the regular night at Vinoteq, a Dover wine bar. She is also the partner of Mark Cridland: “I want people to talk, to become mates. The whole point is getting people together.” Diplomacy can be just as important as any finer feelings. “I’ve seen Biros thrown [and] people threatening to throw pints in faces,” she laughs. “There can be a lot of gloating and sulking.”

Every pub has its own specific level of intensity. Susan Edwards runs the monthly quiz at the White Horse in Brancaster Staithe, north Norfolk, with all proceeds going to local charities. “There’s no pattern to who wins. No team ever dominates but we do have a core of about a dozen people who come every month. It’s a lovely social thing [for] the local community.”The pub quiz is sitting at an awkward moment in its history. During lockdown, Zoom offerings allowed some thin pretence of sociability to thousands across the country and made minor celebrities out of some, such as Jay Flynn, the pub landlord turned online quizmaster who raised £1.3m for charity during the pandemic. The pub quiz remains crucial to thousands of landlords who have struggled through a series of overlapping disasters, from Covid to jacked-up energy bills. In 2020, it was thought that more than half of UK pubs had a regular quiz. A more recent survey suggested that Durham was the country’s pub quiz capital with 24 weekly offerings in a city of 50,000, with Chichester, Wakefield, Salisbury and Preston making up the rest of the top five.

As with many things pub-related, there is a tendency to think in enjoyably hazy cliches. The image of the local quizmaster toiling away at their labour of love, recompensed with nothing more than a few rounds from the bar, is a romantic one. The reality, however, is of a discipline that has been increasingly professionalised. Derbyshire-based Redtooth is the country’s largest provider, with more than 3,000 pubs and clubs a week receiving their weekly quizzes, while a cursory search reveals boutique firms with often desperately corny names, websites groaning under the weight of glowing testimonials. For some, this increasing slickness is pure progress. Questions are usually fresh and well considered. Paired with a capable host, they work as well as anything else, even if some have bemoaned the slow fading of the enthusiastic amateur quizmaster.

Alex Douglas is the founder of Inquizition, the company responsible for my local’s quiz night, as well as dozens of others across London and beyond. An avid quizzer growing up, the musician began writing, and hosting, his first night at the Regent in Balham, south London, back in January 2011. “[It started] as a side hustle,” he says. “It was an exciting time. Other pubs started to want them because they’d heard how good it was.”

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Despite their growth, the format has broadly remained the same. Word puzzles, picture and music rounds, as well as a high-stakes “wipeout round” to close the game. Writing the questions alongside his two business partners is a painstaking process, taking about 60 hours a week between them, before being fired across to in-house verifier Rob, “who we call ‘the robot’, he’s just incredible”. The more venues they’ve accumulated, the higher the stakes: “If there’s a medical question, for instance, you might have a doctor or a nurse in the room. You have to research things so thoroughly. Of course, it has to be perfect but you can’t get too bogged down. It has to be fun as well.”

On a damp Tuesday night in mid-April, I made my way down to a pub about a mile from my local. My partner and I had been meaning to try out the quiz night for several weeks. If not quite a shock, it felt odd to be presented with the latest Inquizition offering. It was as good and evenly judged as ever, though it was hard to shake the slight feeling of deja vu and deflation. All the right questions were being asked, just in the wrong pub. The host felt unfamiliar, as did the setting. We got through it fine, though the cosiness and vaguely conspiratorial feeling of the best quizzes was missing.

This evidently wasn’t the case in Margate. I had wanted to know what kept Mark Cridland coming back, year after year. It was the buzz, although there had been changes during his time in the hot seat. “I’ve seen quite a few places bringing in the online quizzes,” he explained. It wasn’t something he felt much enthusiasm over. “People have told me that it isn’t the same as having a quizmaster. For one thing, you can’t argue against the computer.” At heart, it was a simple format, with simple joys. “People love to argue the toss over anything. It’s a little community, isn’t it? And that’s what pubs are made for.”

This article was amended on 12 June 2023 to correct Susan Edwards’ name.