Wednesday 6 April 2011, 19:08
Many A Slip: Eleanor Summerfield (left) and Isobel Barnett
Part 2 of Russell Davies's history of radio quizzes and panel games, Let's Get Quizzical - Brains, Pickles and Slips cries out for one of those showbiz family trees that Pete Frame created for the world of rock music in the 1970s.
This pot-pourri of wireless rivalry includes full-length episodes of such classics as 'Many A Slip' (with Eleanor Summerfield and Isobel Barnett, pictured above), 'Have A Go', 'The News Quiz' (the never previously broadcast pilot) and 'Twenty Questions', plus extracts from 'Top Of The Form', 'My Word', 'The Law Game' and 'Round Britain Quiz'.
The family tree would be revealing because of the various intriguing connections between performers, producers and creators. Take 'Many A Slip', for example. In this programme, contestants had to spot mistakes in passages written by its inventor, Ian Messiter, best known for creating 'Just A Minute'. Panellist Eleanor Summerfield was an actress and the wife of Leonard Sachs, host of what to 21st century eyes and ears now seems an odd hybrid of television and music hall, 'The Good Old Days'. That was produced by Barney Colehan, who worked on 'Have A Go' with Wilfred Pickles and was immortalised in the catchphrase, "Give him the money, Barney!"
Eleanor's 'Slip' cohort, Lady Isobel Barnett, made her name in the TV panel game 'What's My Line?' (chaired by Gilbert Harding - see 'Twenty Questions') alongside magician David Nixon, who also starred in 'Many A Slip'. That show's Musical Mistakes Man Steve Race went on to host 'My Music' with Denis Norden and Frank Muir, both of whom also turn up in 'My Word'... and so on... and so on...
Wilfred Pickles in a 1946 recording of Have A Go
'Have a Go' was something of a phenomenon in its time. Part quiz, part chat show, one-time newsreader Pickles would tour the country meeting the locals and "presenting the people to the people". It started in 1946 - long before Local Radio, before phone-ins, before anyone had ever heard of "audience interaction" - when everyday voices were still only rarely heard on the wireless. The show ran for 21 years and at its peak had some twenty million listeners. How many limbs would a station controller sacrifice for those sort of figures now?
In Part 1 of 'Quizzical' Russell referred to mild-mannered Wilfred Pickles as a herbivore, while the more irascible Gilbert Harding was described as a carnivore. And it is perhaps difficult to envisage Harding getting the best out of the good people of Ramsbottom. But with the more media-savvy panellists on 'Twenty Questions' his inability to suffer fools gladly worked well. And, with the benefit of hindsight, he can be seen as the pioneer of a more abrasive era of broadcasting. Harding gave a famous interview to John Freeman in the TV series 'Face To Face' during which the gruff mask melted away as he wept while recalling the recent death of his mother. We are rarely as one-dimensional as Received Wisdom suggests.
Drawing of Gilbert Harding by Feliks Topolski
But what ultimately is the appeal of the quiz/panel game? Why do they endure? It seems to be less about who wins and loses, about how many points are gained or questions answered correctly and more about the relationship between the participants and listeners. Paul Mayhew-Archer, who went on to co-write 'The Vicar of Dibley', worked on 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue', 'Many A Slip' and 'Top Of The Form' during his time as a radio producer. He says in Brains, Pickles and Slips that success in this genre "isn't about knowledge or information ... you feel you know these people like friends ... it's like a warm bath".
So dust down the loofah and join us for a nice, long wallow on BBC Radio 4 Extra at 9am and 7pm on Saturday 9th April.
Nick St George is the co-producer of Let's Get Quizzical.
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