Appearing on University Challenge was terrifying – now I’m setting the questions

“What is the title of the semi-autobiographical novel published in 1963 by an American-born writer under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas?”

“Although she died young, the French composer Lili Boulanger produced a significant body of vocal and instrumental works with great impact in the music world. Here’s the Women’s Philharmonic performing one of the last pieces Boulanger completed. Which season is being celebrated here?”

“Your bonuses this time are on the screen star Rinko Kikuchi, described as a go-to Japanese actress for hipster auteurs …”

These are questions which made me smile. The first I was asked on the general knowledge quiz Brain of Britain (answer: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath); the second on the music quiz Counterpoint (answer: spring; the piece was D’un Matin de Printemps); and the third began a set of bonuses on University Challenge.

Each reminded me why I was there – to reinforce the importance of including more women in the cultural canon by greeting them with a cheery and confident correct answer, rather than a dismissive “pass”.

They are also the sort of questions I write myself. I recently worked as a researcher on University Challenge, producing many of the picture and music rounds for the forthcoming series, which begins tonight. There’s a tough balancing act to this job between introducing new topics to the canon without alienating the contestants and the viewers at home. That’s why I love those three questions, because they rewarded my knowledge while simultaneously being guessable and introducing the named women to those who had not heard of them before.

My style of setting questions draws on my experiences of competing on quiz programmes – which have been mixed. I represented Trinity College, Cambridge on University Challenge in 2019-20 while I was a student, and it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, not least because it was around the time I was diagnosed with complex PTSD. I found the studio and pressure of filming particularly difficult at that time. Of course, there is an adrenaline rush to being in the hot seat, in the moment when impulse pushes the buzzer and your brains flies into action. It’s a thrill. But overall, I found myself frustrated by the emphasis on subjects that lay outside my interests, and the downplaying of the significance of women within academic study. Competing on University Challenge made me realise that I quiz not to perform knowledge, but to acquire it.

Lillian Crawford appearing on Mastermind in 2021
Lillian Crawford appearing on Mastermind in 2021 Photograph: BBC

Mastermind is a programme which encourages this practice, which is why I decided to apply in 2021. Before appearing on the show, contestants choose five specialist subjects to prepare, before answering questions on one topic in the chair. My selections were all women in different creative arts whom I wanted to share with viewers, starting with Plath. However, when my first question came, and I didn’t know the answer, my heart sank. I had assumed I knew everything about her, having given a paper on her letters at a conference and written an essay on her death for BBC Culture. Yet I didn’t know the title of one of her high school homework assignments, or which publication had first printed Circus in Three Rings. I felt as if I had failed in my mission. That I had failed her.

In retrospect, those questions were superficial. They didn’t account for engagement with a subject, merely the retainment of facts. And I hadn’t failed in what I set out to do, which was to bring prime-time attention to an author I love deeply. After all, most of the women I am most interested in and enthused by exist beyond the limits of the canon of things we are expected to know, often by virtue of being female.

Now, for the most part, I have given up on quizzing. Creating questions, finding ways to both introduce new subjects and reward pre-existing knowledge, has proven more fulfilling for me. Broadening one’s general knowledge is a great means of developing empathy and understanding – to be more open-minded in life, as in quiz.

Quizzing isn’t just about getting the right answer. I hope that when someone hears a song or sees a painting they like on University Challenge, they will investigate the artists further, and I believe many do. When watching at home, there is no pressure to recall names at speed, and they can be written down to research online later. I may be optimistic, but if this is how I watch quizzes, there must be others who do the same.

Indeed, this is the means by which many of the contestants have acquired such a variety of knowledge in addition to their own specialisms. As a child, it was through watching BBC Four that I expanded my knowledge beyond the school curriculum. Without its documentaries, I might never have heard of Plath or Boulanger, both of whom I went on to study. Indeed, I discovered many of the subjects that fascinate me through cultural programming on television and radio, and that knowledge was tested by challenging quizshows such as Mastermind and University Challenge.

It is a great shame then that, while those programmes retain primetime slots on the BBC and attract about three million viewers a week, BBC Four has been relegated to archival status, with significant reductions in arts and cultural programming. How are future generations going to gain access to those forms of knowledge if there aren’t accessible means of exploring them through our media?

Having worked on University Challenge and appeared on several quizzes, I’m planning to turn my hand to other things. But I will continue to watch them, and occasionally participate in the odd quiz, just in case something interesting comes up that I haven’t encountered before. So pay attention to those starters for 10 – if you don’t already know the answer, you might learn something new.

  • Lillian Crawford is a freelance writer

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