Top of the Form



Wynford Vaughan-Thomas (spring 1948, semi-finals in 1964)

Richard Dimbleby (autumn 1948)

Lionel Gamlin (autumn 1948 - 1949)

Robert MacDermot (1949 - 1964 second round)

John Ellison (1950 - 1973)

Kenneth Horne (1964 final - 1966)

Tim Gudgin (1967 - 1986)

Bob Holness (1974 - 1976)

Paddy Feeny (7 episodes in 1977, 1979 - 1986)

John Anthony (1978)

(Main UK series only: see Trivia for overseas and special editions)

Scorekeepers included: Joan Clark


Light Programme (later Radio 2) 1 May 1948 - 26 December 1969 (342 episodes in 23 series + 14 specials)

BBC Television, 25 April 1953 and 27 February 1954 (2 episodes)

Radio 4, 26 September 1970 - 1 December 1986 (255 episodes in 17 series + 3 specials)

as Around Europe with Top of the Form, 18 April - 23 May 1950 (5 episodes)

as Scandinavian Top of the Form, 12 May - 23 June 1951 (7 episodes)


Legendary long-running contest between two secondary (read: grammar) schools.

Each series was run in a knockout format with the curious feature that both teams would answer questions from their own school, with the two locations linked by telephone lines. A different question master asked the questions in each site, with the action constantly bobbing back and forth between the teams throughout the programme.

Teams would consist of four players from different school years, with two marks for a correct answer and (for some rounds) one mark on offer if it was passed over to your opposite number in the other team.

Most of the appeal lay in seeing the pupils give well-meaning but misguided answers to basic questions, such as the girl who thought that "soft soap" was a type of detergent rather than flattery. In of themselves, the questions give an excellent indication of the knowledge currency of the day. For instance, a 1961 round on "recent words and phrases" asked the pupils for the definitions of such cutting-edge concepts as a photo finish, a barbecue, an astronaut, a cover girl, a documentary, denier, fellow travellers (Communist sympathisers) and apartheid.

It transferred to television as, logically enough, Television Top of the Form.

Theme music

"Marching Strings" by Marshall Ross, performed by Ray Martin and His Concert Orchestra. Emerson, Lake and Palmer's recording of Aaron Copeland's "Fanfare For The Common Man" was used for the last few series.


1948 The Royal High School, Edinburgh (Boys)
1949 The Academy, Elgin (Boys)
1950 Robert Gordon's College, Aberdeen (Boys)
1951 Morgan Academy, Dundee (Boys)
1952 The School for Girls, Bangor
1954 Grove Park School, Wrexham (Boys)
1955 Newtown High School (Boys)
1956 Sutton Coldfield Grammar School for Girls
1957 Wycombe High School (Girls)
1960 The Grove Park Grammar School for Girls, Wrexham
1961 Archbishop Holgate's Grammar School, York (Boys)
1962 Hull Grammar School (Boys)
1963 Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, Cambridge
1970 Wyggeston Boys' School, Leicester
1971 Cheadle Hulme School, Cheshire
1972 County Girls Grammar School, Newbury
1975 King William's College, Isle of Man
1976 Macclesfield County High School for Girls

This incomplete list has been constructed from Radio Times billings. Can you help to complete it? Let us know.


Kenneth Horne had to take over from Robert MacDermot due to his death mid-series; he would himself die shortly after he presented his last series. John Ellison also died "in post", shortly after recording the final episodes of the 1972-3 series but before they went out.

The show was generally billed as "Round the British Isles with Top of the Form" until 1960.

The first series only had competitors from London schools, and girls' schools didn't appear until the 1949 series.

Questions were set by Tom Williams (1948-61), Dennis Yates (1962-63), Roy Smith (1964-79), Paul Livesey (1979-84), Nigel Richardson (1980-86), Paddy Feeney (1981-84), David Self (1985-86).

Long-serving co-host Tim Gudgin was best known as the bloke that read out the Full Time scores on Grandstand.

Contestants on the show included the actor Hugh Grant who represented Latymer Upper School, and Labour politician Hilary Benn who appeared with Holland Park School.

Many BBC light entertainment producers cut their teeth on this show. Some - such as Paul Mayhew-Archer, John Fawcett Wilson, and Geoffrey Perkins - went on to make many radio classics. We've no idea what happened to the 1978 producer, Griff Rhys Jones.

Former producer Paul Mayhew-Archer recalls that when an increasingly irate technician was trying to get the Post Office telecommunication lines to work, it wasn't realised that, while the lines weren't working to his eyes, the pupils in the Kent school hall could easily hear him swearing like a docker.

Special editions

Top of the Form was more than an annual knockout tournament. Many special editions and short series took place under the show's banner.

  • Scotland versus France (28 December 1948)
  • Around Europe With Top of the Form (5 episodes, 18 April - 23 May 1950): John Ellison and David Lloyd James hosted challenge matches between teams from the UK and the Continent.
  • Scandinavian Top of the Form (7 episodes, 12 May - 23 June 1951): Robert MacDermot and Wynford Vaughan Thomas hosted; these matches went to Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Denmark.
  • England versus Germany (21 January 1952)
  • BBC-tv editions (25 April 1953 and 27 February 1954): presented by David Lloyd James and Robert MacDermot (see also: Television Top of the Form)
  • Top of the Form for Canada Day (1 July 1953): Reid Forsee from the CBC joins John Ellison
  • Champions versus British Overseas Army on the Rhine (10 January 1955)
  • Finalists versus continental schools (16 and 23 January 1956; 14 and 21 January 1957; 2 and 9 January 1960)
  • Anglo-Swedish Schools Quiz (28 May 1962): Folke Olhagen of Swedish broadcasters SR and John Ellison
  • Television winners vs Sound winners (29 December 1962; 29 December 1963)
  • Top of the Form First Class Challenge (4 episodes, 28 December 1969 - 3 February 1973): John Ellison and Patrick Maguire. A co-production with Radio Telefis Éirean, against the winners of their First Class programme.


Many quiz books were published.


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