Guest blog: Memories of working as a BBC puzzle-setter

The logo for quiz programme All in the Mind, which ran on BBC Two in the 1990s.

Have you ever wondered who writes the questions for University Challenge? Or how the brain-teasers on Only Connect are devised? Barbara Midgley, a professional puzzle-setter, gives a snapshot of her time on the BBC’s 1990s quiz programme All in the Mind and invites you to try your hand at some of her puzzles. 

After compiling puzzles of all descriptions for newspapers and magazines, I found it a challenge, but a delight, to devise puzzles to engage both TV contestants and audiences. 

Mention the title All in the Mind, and thoughts might now turn to the psychology-based BBC Radio 4 programme, and not a BBC Two lateral thought quiz programme.
 On 14 March 1994, this intelligence-based game show was launched, running initially each day for a week. It was successful enough for a second, slightly tweaked, series of 28 programmes to be commissioned, on a weekly basis, starting on 27 September 1994 and ending on 19 July 1995.

I was one of the puzzle devisers for the second series, and I had been asked to be on standby, should there be another series. All in the Mind was one of the first feel-good factor game shows scheduled in a teatime slot. It was a show for the whole family, as the teams were formed of three teenagers (usually from sixth forms) playing against three professionals. It was billed as a cerebral challenge, pitting youth against experience. There was even a puzzle set for audience participation, making it an all-inclusive quiz show. 

Puzzle One - Identification Parade

Answers at end

There was nothing particularly high-tech about the format, but there are plenty of quiz shows that still successfully follow the same model. Brain-power was the essential tool. The teams sat on each side of the presenter – Alison Holloway (a familiar face at the time, having risen from local broadcasting to an eclectic mix of mainstream programmes). Puzzles were shown to each team, and to the audience at home. We mustn’t forget the buzzer, used, as ever, when each answer was reached.

Usually 10 points were allocated to the fastest individual, and in team rounds, on a sliding scale against the clock. Teams were tested in a variety of ways. One round involved observational and memory skills. The contestants would be given about a minute to look at a picture, often a cartoon scene. Then they were asked questions about what they had seen. A few of the later programmes experimented with a practical challenge, such as linking words or shapes together in jigsaw fashion. The greatest novelty was the use of an electronic pen in the “maze” round. Each team had a pen, which they used to trace a path through the maze on their screen as quickly as possible.

Puzzle Two - Visual Perception

Answers at end

The lateral thought puzzles were the mainstay, and were subdivided into the categories: logic, wordplay, visual perception, mind-teasers and sequences. This was where I played my part, as I was lucky enough to devise puzzles for all the categories. Of my 61 puzzles used, only four weren’t solved. There was a rigorous editorial process, hence a high proportion of rejections, which frustrated some compilers. I was fortunate enough to have only a handful rejected. As a former teacher, I think I hit the spot!

The remit was that a puzzle should be of reasonable proportions in case it needed scaling to fit the screen. All puzzles were to be solvable in about 40 to 45 seconds, except most Mind Teasers, which demanded quick-fire answers. Once material was submitted, a simple tick, cross or question mark was given to each puzzle. The material was passed down the editorial line, and if it got two ticks, it was on its way to being copied onto yellow paper - In other words, to become part of the script used for recording. It was double-checked against the answer and notes written for “Mick” in Graphics, indicating colour choice, and presentation details.

Whether I was the only one to hand-draw the puzzles, and use a typewriter, I don’t know, but it was no barrier. A few years later, you stood no chance of selling puzzles if you couldn't offer them as “print ready” in various computer-driven formats.

Puzzle Three - Word Play

Answers below

Puzzle Four - Mind Teaser

Answers below

The heads of schools were approached and three pupils chosen. There was a mix from England, Wales and Scotland.
The adult teams were varied, ranging from computer analysts, to housewives, estate agents, the police, and tour guides. Perhaps the production company thought teams of “unknowns” from the general public needed an injection of familiar faces: thus a sports team with Adrian Moorhouse, Victor Ubogu, and Paula Radcliffe faced the “elite” of Lockleaze School, Bristol.

Three cross-party MPs, including Gyles Brandreth, locked horns with Wycombe High School students. Northampton School for Girls’ team faced a team of celebrities, namely Nick Owen, Violet Berlin, and Tom O’Connor, all of whom had already had experience of game shows. Nick was the original host of Sporting Triangles in 1987; from 1992 to 1996, Violet was the co-host of the video games series Bad Influence!; and Tom O’Connor hosted his own game show, Crosswits, from 1987 to 98. The celebrities won this round and to the delight of the girls, gave them their “Game Gear”, from a choice of personal organiser, pocket TV, or portable games machines.

At the end of the second series, the two highest scoring teams, Silverdale School Sheffield, (who beat the Solicitors in the first round), and the Financial Advisers (who beat Haybridge High School Birmingham), met in the final. The financial advisors got the highest score, but both teams won trophies. With more animation and CGI, this game show could hold its own today, as the format isn’t dated. I say, bring back this show!

All puzzles provided courtesy of Barbara Midgley


Puzzle One: Identification Parade - MAX has a green bow tie. In order, from left to right, they are MILLY, MOLLY, MITCH, MAX, and MANDY.

Puzzle Two: Visual Perception - A is Yellow, B is Green

Puzzle Three: Word Play - CAR TRUCK BUS: The connection is transport

Puzzle Four: aGO ATlantis


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