Weaver's Week 2001-04-10

Weaver's Week Index

10th April 2001

Iain Weaver reviews the latest happenings in UK Game Show Land.


The death has been announced, at age 81, of quiz show contestant Irene Thomas. A one-time chorus girl and commercial jingles singer who left school at 15, Thomas won several prestigious BBC radio quizzes, including Brain of Britain and Brain of Brains.

In January 1961 Thomas was listening to a radio quiz programme while recuperating from a mastectomy. Surprised by how many of the answers she knew, she resolved to have a go herself. Soon, as she once said, the loss of her breast was partly compensated for by the discovery of her brain. Thomas answered an advertisement for the Brain of Britain quiz — and ended up winning it later that year.

Seven years later she became a panel member on the Round Britain Quiz, a position she then enjoyed for almost 30 years. She had applied to join the panel on several occasions, but had been consistently declined. She kept the producers' rejection letters in a file marked "Lovely Replies". Eventually a last-minute illness among the all-male team created an urgent vacancy which she slipped into without hesitation. After her first broadcast the men disappeared to the (all-male) Garrick club, leaving Thomas to go home by bus. As she later recalled, they made that mistake only once.

The dauntingly erudite Round Britain Quiz enjoyed enormous popularity but was dropped by the BBC in 1996 after the death of Gordon Clough, one of the question-masters. When it reappeared a year later, it had jumped a generation and was fronted by a new breed of presenter in Nick Clarke. She spent 22 years on the show, answering questions such as: "A Roman one added to an alternative was a dedicatee of Beethoven's. Adding nothing gives the French recipient of a theologian's amatory epistles. Explain." [1]

Thomas also appeared on other radio and television quizzes, including Round Europe Quiz, Transatlantic Quiz, Ask Me Another, Mastermind, Criss Cross Quiz, Crossword On Two, My Word, the Gardening Quiz, Who Said That? and X Marks The Spot.

Thomas always maintained it was just luck that she happened to know what a hatchment is — the first question she was asked on a radio quiz. Thereafter her warm voice and lightly worn erudition established her as one of the BBC's most popular contributors on a variety of programmes. She claimed never to swot up or study encyclopaedias; instead she merely absorbed what she heard and saw going on around her.

As an only child growing up in the Middlesex suburb of Feltham, Irene Ready, as she was born, was studious and pale. Little "Reen" was greedy to learn and taught herself to read long before she went to school; by the age of 10 she was absorbing everything she could find, from Jane Eyre to her grandfather's copy of Diseases of the Horse. She learned the piano from the age of eight and by 13 was playing with a semi-professional concert party called "The Mayfairs".

In her autobiography, A Bandsman's Daughter (1979), Thomas described her origins: "Very few people seem to admit to coming from my family's class, which I suppose could be described as Upper Working. It has no glamour. It pays its bills as they flutter through the letterbox. It rinses its empty milk bottles. It still avoids hire-purchase whenever possible. It provides NCOs in time of war, and bank clerks and shop assistants in time of peace."

Educated at Ashford County Grammar School, she sailed through her exams but missed out on university because of the war. "Sometimes I think I'd have liked to have known the atmosphere at Oxford or Cambridge," she said. "But what would I do with a degree?" In 1987 she was awarded an honorary degree by the Open University.

Thomas worked for a short time in the Inland Revenue and was married at the age of 19, but the war, throughout which she served as a fire officer, swept away both the Revenue and marriage.

She became a member of the postwar chorus at Covent Garden, where she took part in Purcell's The Fairy Queen and later sang minor roles such as a bridesmaid in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. It was there that she met her second husband, Eddie Thomas, a former teacher and by then a bass- baritone member of the chorus.

Irene soon opted for more commercial climes, including singing the jingle for a Smarties advertisement. She also became one of the earliest of the Black and White Minstrels, although she revealed the truth behind the colours used for monochrome television: "Our faces were painted green," she said, "which showed up dark on screen." She was a quick sight-reader, and her work also included sessions with the Mike Sammes Singers and the George Mitchell Glee Club. Her voice can be heard as backing on numerous records and films.

In retirement she was president of a music festival in Chiswick and a stalwart of her local church. But she never lost her mental agility, as she explained recently: "It's a lovely feeling. When you see a certain date in history, say 1815, and suddenly you can also visualise the paintings and the costumes of that time, and hear the music in your head and read the literature. The earlier in life you start being able to make these connections the better off you are."

The epitome of the civilised Englishwoman, on hearing of the formation of the Polite Society in 1986, Thomas was immediately in touch to lend her support, and became the organisation's first patron. She also wrote a regular column for Women and Home magazine from 1982 until 1999 and answered letters from people let down by reference libraries.

One of her favourite questions from the Round Britain Quiz was: "Who killed Keats, Byron, Dryden, Elgar and 254 others?" [2]

Irene Thomas, quiz panellist, radio and television personality, and singer, born June 28 1920; died March 27 2001. She is survived by her husband whom she married in 1950. They had no children.

[1] A Roman one is "I"; an alternative = "else"; this gives Beethoven's music for Elise - "Fur Elise". Nothing = "o"; Rousseau's relationship with Sophie d'Houdetot inspired his novel "La Nouvelle Eloise".

[2] Thomas knew the answer immediately: "I had a friend with a BYRon (297) telephone number; it's the old London exchanges, killed by the Postmaster General."

(Condensed from obits in the Telegraph, Times, Guardian last week.)


In store now is a pair of Weakest Link Things.

First on the agenda is The Weakest Link Quizbook. It's a quizbook, containing questions, in the format and (broadly) of the level of the television show. Perfectly honest marketing, but it's selling more on the show's cachet than the content. Eight quid or so from book stores.

Also, there's The Weakest Link Magazine. As a 5 quid magazine, it's atrocious. A double-page picture from the first Champions' show, an interview with Ms Robinson, a non-scary double-page poster, a six-page behind the scenes, and how to apply details.

But wait (as they say on infomercials,) there's more! One and a half pages of stickers, primarily based on *those* voting calls. Some even have a picture of Annie on them. There's also an A4 cardboard mask of Robinson, *and* a handy plastic bag.

But that's not all! The bit that makes it worth the money is the (card) board game. 1208 questions in a pocket-sized quiz book, including advice on exactly where to PUT the stress to totally CONFUSE the poor contestANTS. There's also a horrifyingly complex semi-circular board, with the Champions' money ladder, and some cardboard tokens to push out and move along the board.

Die-hard fans will already have worked out how to run (T)WL using pen and paper, or a laptop (or even palm-top) computer. For the more casual fan, this will be a real selling point. It may even pull the rug from under a real board game.

For this alone, I'm impressed with the magazine. The mask and stickers are an extra frippery.


Phillip Schofield makes a welcome return to game shows this summer. Schofield presented ITV's variety show with a quiz element TALKING TELEPHONE NUMBERS in the mid 90s, and is best known as the sidekick to Gordon T Gopher on children's favourite GOING LIVE. He's been in the London musical DR DOOLITTLE for some years, but returns to the BBC next month to host WINNING LINES. Previous host Simon Mayo will be concentrating on his daily show on news and sport network RADIO FIVE, and can't return to the Wonderwall. We'll see whether Schofield will be Wonder-ful or a complete wall-y in due course. My money's on the former.

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