Quizzing in Sunderland gets a very good score

In 2016 I climbed to new heights of fame when I appeared on Channel Four’s afternoon quiz show Fifteen to One.

By The Newsroom
Tuesday, 18 June, 2019, 05:00
Fifteen to One host Sandi Toksvig.

I can recommend the experience. Even if you’re hopeless at quizzes you are guaranteed a couple of free nights out in Glasgow (the show is recorded there) including meals, travel and accommodation. They really look after the contestants and Sandi Toksvig is now a close personal friend of mine.

Well I met her.

Wearside quizzer Mark Walton captains his team to win the series of Only Connect, hosted by Victoria Coren Mitchell.

I didn’t do badly, but didn’t win either. It was only when watching the show months later that I realised the same bloke had nominated me five times. Rotter.

The producers attempt to have as wide a demographic spread as possible. So contestants backstage will meet people from all over the United Kingdom. My 14 opponents were a decent lot; although I didn’t have much in common with them.

One competitor’s opening conversational gambit in the green room was: “My fiancee produces drama on Radio Four.”

I appreciated the social effort he was making, but he really was telling the wrong bloke.

The Blue Bell in Fulwell. A hotbed of quizzing.

However, there were one or two others who, probably unknowingly, wore rather condescending expressions when I told them where I was from.

It was met with the witless rejoinder: “Sunderland? And you’ve read a book? Ha! Ha!”

But it wasn’t all side-splitters. After my elimination following a question about hydrochloric acid, I mentioned my lack of scientific knowledge in the dressing room to a gentleman from Hertfordshire.

He superciliously informed me that it was: “A perfectly easy question for anyone who could scrape a pass in O level chemistry.”

I pointed out that it wasn’t quite so straightforward for those of us who had only occasionally attended school. There were two other responses that I kept to myself.

The first would have been to point out that I had answered more questions than him; and that his own inability to name even a single member of The Clash was quite shameful for a man with his education (which he had mentioned more than once).

The second response would have been to duff him up. But that would only have provided false confirmation of his prejudices about people from Sunderland.

I also had to consider that a punch up the bracket would do little to deter him from nominating me on the next show.

Not for the first time, I was left to wonder how on earth such (almost by definition) informed individuals could retain such absurd misconceptions about Sunderland.

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We are accustomed to people not knowing that the city is home to the National Glass Centre, beautiful parks, miles of sandy beaches and a hypnotic view of the North Sea. But joking, faux-surprise that Wearsiders have far-ranging general knowledge isn’t only not funny. It’s a complete fallacy.

Sunderland is actually something of a quizzing powerhouse.

Central to this claim is the Sunderland Quiz League, formed in 1972. Among its participants are some of the best quizzers in the country; some of whom compete internationally (and that isn’t a joke).

It’s a team competition, but among the individuals therein is a Mastermind and Brain of Britain series winner, as well as a number of others who have reached the latter stages of those shows plus Pointless, Round Britain Quiz, the aforementioned Fifteen to One and Only Connect (among the league’s male participants, Victoria Coren Mitchell is generally thought to personify womanly perfection, along with Kirsty Wark and Elizabeth I).

No one in the league is ever likely to appear on Supermarket Sweep. Not through snobbery, but because of a reluctance to run up and down the aisles.

The best team and winners of four of the last five league titles is Newbottle. So nobody likes them. I participate myself for the Ship Isis, but am not one of the leading lights, even in a distinctly average team.

By normal quizzing standards, I think I’m pretty good. But in the Sunderland Quiz League I have aspirations of mediocrity: sitting there, attempting to appear knowledgeable while someone else answers a question on Franz Kafka, as I hope to be thrown a bone with a question about Coronation Street.

Even then, the better players know as much about soap operas as they do about the Ottoman Empire or nuclear fission (whatever that is). They will berate themselves for only knowing four species of cactus. The questions are deliberately tough.

This all happens in Sunderland remember. “And you’ve read a book? Ha! Ha!”

Ha ha indeed. The league is revered and among the best in the UK, as regularly proven in inter-league competitions.

On and off, I have also been involved in pub quizzes for many years. While there are only so many people who will compete in elite leagues, the standards set in the humble pub quiz is remarkably high in Sunderland.

Nevertheless, the real joy of the pub quiz is provided not by the cleverer-clogs, and certainly not by the modest prizes on offer (a friend of mine once won 30 metres of dental floss in the Museum Vaults). The fun is provided by the teams who know they won’t win, but don’t care. They’re there to enjoy themselves.

There is a huge difference between uninformed and unintelligent. This is why we hear some gloriously bad pub quiz answers that are simultaneously daft and clever. One recent offering came in the Blue Bell in Fulwell.

The question was: “What is the sign language used by on-course bookmakers known as?”

The correct answer is tic-tac. But the correct answer was nowhere near as gratifying as: “Horse code.”

So we’re in a good position to ignore snide comments from unqualified people who are only vaguely aware of this city. We’re a knowledgeable lot in Sunderland.

Not only that, even our wrong answers are brilliant.