Starter for Ten: In which I discover the perfect quizmaster

On Saturday I read David Nicholls’ comic novel, Starter for Ten. It’s set in the 80s, and is about Brian, a young man who is earnest, lower middle class and a University Challenge fan. He gets into university (Englit) and makes it onto the University Challenge team. He also falls rather stupidly in love.

Nicholls is capable of being really funny. This, a few pages into the novel, was one of the passages that had me giggling and made me want to continue with it:
I think it’s fair to say that I’ve never been a slave to the fickle vagaries of fashion. It’s not that I’m anti-fashion, it’s just that of all the major youth movements I’ve lived through so far, none have really fitted. At the end of the day, the harsh reality is that if you’re a fan of Kate Bush, Charles Dickens, Scrabble, David Attenborough and University Challenge, then there’s not much out there for you in terms of a youth movement.

A few pages later a character is described as “carbuncular”. I was sold.
However, I think I’m just not cut out for comic novels where the protagonist (particularly a first-person protagonist)’s cluelessness is the butt of most of the humour. This was my major problem with Sidin Vadukut’s Dork, when I read it earlier this year. As with Robin Verghese, I spent most of the novel being irritated by Brian’s various idiocies. Even when he is being treated horribly by the woman he is supposedly in love with I’m hard pressed to sympathise – serves him right for being shallow and uninteresting. It’s a pity; as I said above, Nicholls is incredibly funny.
My other problem with the book is that there is not enough University Challenge in it. Quiz shows in general are things that make me happy, but UC is just special. The BBC does not broadcast it in India and this is something that makes me miserable on a regular basis. (I’ve tried asking friends in the UK to record each season for me. They refused to believe I meant it.) I could have dispensed with a good portion of the actual plot of the book if it were replaced with people answering questions.
Starter for Ten was made into a movie, Starter for 10, a few years ago. I have never seen this movie. But it has Rebecca Hall in it (and also Benedict Cumberbatch from Sherlock; this will become important) and is therefore presumably worth my time.
Another movie that involves education and a quiz show is St. Trinian’s. I’m not entirely sure how to excuse my love for this film – I’m inclined to think that anything that brings together Ronald Searle, delinquent schoolgirls, Stephen Fry, and Rupert Everett in drag cannot be a bad thing. I own all the older St Trinian’s films and they are a constant source of joy to me.
In St. Trinian’s a team of schoolgirls competes in a quiz show called School Challenge so that they can get into the National Gallery for nefarious purposes. Stephen Fry is the quizmaster of School Challenge, and he is excellent. Fry does, of course, have a long history with the quiz show.
Fry is soon to appear in the role of Mycroft Holmes in the sequel to last year’s Sherlock Holmes.
In Starter for 10 the quizmaster (Bamber Gascoigne) is played by Mark Gatiss. Gatiss plays Mycroft in the BBC Sherlock (the Cumberbatch version).
I’m not sure that this says anything profound about the character or about quizmasters in general – unless it’s that the sort of actors who look like they could play men who like a sedentary lifestyle and a lot of information also look like they could play men who like knowing things (and often also like a sedentary lifestyle). But it’s a nice little coincidence. It’s obvious that Mycroft Holmes would be the perfect TV quizmaster – if he could bestir himself to show up at the studio.

3 Comments to “Starter for Ten: In which I discover the perfect quizmaster”

  1. I was going to think of something clever and apposite about Fry and Gatiss, but I am apparently unable to. I will, however, remind you that we are speaking of TV in the 21st century. Mycroft Holmes is in your podcast, watching you… ahem.

  2. I suspect even in Victorian London Mycroft Holmes was watching us all…

  3. I'm a former quizzer who was thrilled to find ANY pop culture things dealing with quizzes at all- it used to be at the absolute bottom of the totem pole of 'competitive/cool things to do' when I was in school/college.
    I recommend the Starter For 10 movie, too- it has a young James McAvoy.

    PS: They did try to start up UC in India about eight years ago (I know because I tried out for the prelims). And before that, there was Mastermind India, too.

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