The News Quiz
Begun as a frippery, only intended for one show, The News Quiz is now in its 61st season, its 30th anniversary, and still going as strong as ever - if not stronger.
The format began literally as a one-off. Some bright spark in Radio 4 thought it would be a wicked wheeze if the then-editors of the two biggest satirical publications of the day, Alan Coren of Punch and Richard Ingrams of Private Eye, were to go head-to-head in a quiz show about the news.
Ingrams was the ferocious satirical killer of the day; Coren less openly rabid, more conversational and witty – and the style of their magazines fitted them perfectly. The balance of the two team captains and the original host, Barry Norman, was also perfect for the times.
It was edgy, but not too much; and this has been its forte ever since.
The News Quiz essentially does one thing: it makes amusing puns about the news which allow the stars - variously politicians, journalists and comedians – to take the mickey out of current affairs.
It has a second string to its bow, which is to be one of the few areas in which Radio 4's newsreaders can get a laugh, reading out bizarre quotations culled from the press by stars and audience, and just about keeping a straight voice while doing it.
The remarkable thing about The News Quiz is not its length but the effort that the BBC seem to have gone to in order to change the format, and, with Zen-like skill, not changed it at all.
After Barry Norman launched the format, the role of chairman was taken over by Barry Took – and in this period the show transcended from daring new form to old guard almost seamlessly. Took was the perfect chairman for the show - witty and absolutely ruthless himself, with a keen eye for a killer pun.
Under Took's chairmanship the show made it to TV in 1981. Perhaps it was the fact that it only lasted two seasons which made the BBC, compulsive even then about messing with winning formulae, want to tinker with the quiz.
In 1995, Took was dropped, and Ingrams, Coren and other staples such as Bill Deedes were asked not to be regulars. The effort was made in order for the show to be less stuffy and traditional, to allow it to compete with younger formats with younger presenters and regulars in other quiz shows that were more cutting edge.
Changing Took for Simon Hoggart and bringing in new blood made the stuffiness lighter and sharper.
Like other Radio 4 formats, it has become a darling of younger performers. Team captains such as prickly and sardonic Francis Wheen and regulars like Andy Hamilton, Jeremy Hardy and Alan Coren (still going strong) have constantly kept it fresh and funny when other formats have disappeared. With the departure of Hoggart and the ascendance of Sandi Toksvig to the chair in 2006, the show has once again got a new lease of life.
The influence of The News Quiz has been enormous. Its transferal to TV might not have worked, but it directly influenced the creation of Have I Got News For You (still considered by connoisseurs inferior to the radio product), and, indirectly, the enormous rise in comedy quizzes such as They Think It's All Over and Never Mind The Buzzcocks. You can either praise or blame it for that.
And yet the format is still virtually the same.
It's unfortunate that because of its topical nature, The News Quiz is hard to re-broadcast; but listening to shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s, you hear the same things.
Ridiculously phrased pun-based questions, sharp wit and irreverent sacrificing of sacred cows, and newsreaders desperately trying not to laugh as they read out insane pieces from local newspapers.
The News Quiz remains exactly what it has always been, and yet has changed as the style of comedy has changed – remaining edgy, but not too much.
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