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Shortlisting for Brain of Britain

Friday 15 March 2013, 12:47

Paul Bajoria Paul Bajoria Producer, Brain of Britain

The outcome of Monday’s Brain of Britain final is one of the most eagerly anticipated of recent years, with all eyes on one man – Barry Simmons. Here, producer Paul Bajoria explains how it all came about.

Brain - Getty

Almost the only thing that’s predictable about Brain of Britain is that it’s completely unpredictable. A lot of people ask us how we select the contestants for the show - which is now in its 60th season - though not all of those years have been with the current team at the helm, I hasten to say. The process begins with the applications - still around five for every available place, which must say something about the enduring appeal of a tough, no-nonsense general knowledge quiz. It’s an intriguing time for the programme team in late summer when the applications are sifted: between us, we’ve been involved in broadcast quizzes for long enough to recognise several of the names on the application forms. You’re not allowed to take part again if you’ve ever been Brain of Britain champion; anyone else is welcome to re-apply, provided they wait five years between appearances to give others a fair chance. Having taken part once, a surprising number of contestants decide to return - to see if they can improve on their last performance, or simply because they enjoyed themselves.

As with many fields, once you start to learn something about the world of the quiz enthusiast, a whole culture opens up of which you previously knew nothing. Each year there’s a handful of applications from people who love quizzes so much that they play them all the time, appearing in quiz leagues and weekly pub quizzes and even international competitions. They may have won money on TV quiz shows; they may have appeared on Brain of Britain before; if you could see their faces you might recognise them from an old edition of Mastermind or Fifteen to One. They’re part of the fabric of Brain of Britain, alongside the IT consultant or student or book dealer or retired teacher or supermarket checkout operator who has always fancied having a go and decided this year to throw caution to the wind and apply. Everyone has to undergo the same audition, which aims to replicate the general level of difficulty of a typical heat as well as giving us a useful picture of the spread of a candidate’s knowledge. Forty-eight contestants are chosen, who inevitably represent a wide range of backgrounds and levels of experience. Once the recordings begin - and this is where it gets really fun and really unpredictable - the experienced quiz player is sometimes beaten by the amateur.

Brain of Britain 1968 Brain of Britain finalists Ian Porter, Michael G. Jones and Ralph Raby (holder of the title Brain of Britain 1968)

When we saw that Barry Simmons had applied for Brain of Britain 2013, we discussed whether he should be allowed to compete, and we realised almost immediately that there’s no sensible reason why not. Barry’s an experienced quiz player who reached the Final of Brain of Britain in 2008 - though, as it happens, he came last. Since then, he has built up his quiz CV to the point where he was invited to apply for, and won, a place on the resident team on BBC2’s Eggheads quiz. Many of his fellow Eggheads are former Brain of Britain or Mastermind champions, or both. Small wonder that, after the requisite five-year gap, Barry was determined to go for the prize! When we offered him a place, we had a conversation to ensure that he realised a poor performance in the programme might harm his reputation. Barry was happy to take the risk, which is a mark of the man. Brain of Britain is no walkover: you get, on average, about twelve utterly unpredictable questions of your own, plus a chance to score bonuses on other people’s if your trigger finger is quick enough. As soon as you get one wrong, your turn ends. Many an accomplished quizzer has crashed and burned.

The fact that Barry’s in the Final is perhaps no surprise to some: it’s a matter of considerable relief to Barry, who, I hope he won’t mind admitting, was as nervous as any contestant I’ve recently seen. In terms of the UK’s quiz rankings he’s not even the highest-placed player in the Final, though he is of course the most recognisable. Whatever anybody says, everyone involved in the show - production team, fellow contestants, and Barry himself - well know that the outcome is no foregone conclusion.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I think it is a marvellous contest. It leaves me feeling inadequate but long may it continue. Nothing but respect for the competitors. Any chance you could publish a full list of winners? Many thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    This seems, to me, a desperate justification for the inclusion of a 'professional' quizzer in an amateur event. I suspect that Mr Barry Simmons earns his living through quizzing or through his reputation as a quizzer. Brain of Britain is a longstanding original and hugely entertaining programme. Its appeal resides in the extraordinary and broad knowledge of the amateur contestants who present themselves, not in those who earn their livings poring over lists and facts. Sorry Mr Bajoria, but I am not convinced by your argument. Michael Clancy

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I'm with Clancy on this, though what really puzzles me was the attempt to hide Mr Simmons' current profession in the first place; in each of his appearances he introduced himself as a former IT manager.
    Thank you,
    T. Oxford (former paper boy).

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Agree with both Clancy and Oxford. Former IT manager for Chloride/Shires at Guiseley near Leeds, but not for a long time; I believe he's been making his living from quizzes for more than 5 years, which for me makes him a professional. It is obviously easier to accumulate a large knowledge base if all you do all day is read through lists of data, so not really surprising that he won, is it! Not a worthy winner in my view; please don't do this again!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I find it sad that people think that occasional appearances on a quiz show make one a 'professional'; they must have quite silly notions of the money involved. Perhaps they wish the Olympics were to have remained as depicted in 'Chariots of Fire', featuring only amateur chaps of a certain background?. Mr Simmons is not a 'professional' quizzer, and I rather doubt anyone could be afforded this title without irony. I am delighted that the BBC recognizes this and permitted Mr Simmons to participate.


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