What connects Helen Mirren with Lancaster City Quiz League?

John Wilsher.
John Wilsher.

What connects Helen Mirren and Lancaster City Quiz League?

The Prime Suspect star once headlined a TV show inspired by its writer’s time in the league!

In 1979, ITV Playhouse featured “The Quiz Kid”, starring Mirren as well as the late Michael Elphick. The TV play was written by John Wilsher – credited as J. C. Wilsher – who was a researcher at Lancaster University and played in the league. Wilsher, who went on to have a glittering career writing for popular series including The Bill, New Tricks, Torchwood and Death in Paradise, talked to Cherry Canovan about his quizzing memories...

When did you play in Lancaster City Quiz League?

I played for The Brown Cow in the 1971-2 season.

What was it about playing in the league that you liked?

I was a postgraduate studying history at Lancaster University. The Brown Cow, where I used to drink, wasn’t a particularly ‘student’ pub, and I liked spending an evening out of the atmosphere of the Bailrigg campus, which we used to refer to as ‘Toytown’.

Are you a good quizzer? What are your areas of strength and weakness as far as quiz topics are concerned?

If General Knowledge had been an academic subject, I might have ended up as a professor. I have a good memory and a bit of a magpie mind – I pick up and retain facts about all sorts of subjects.

Having said that, history and literature were probably my strong points; I was useless on sport.

How did your interest in quizzing develop?

I was recruited into the quiz by the Brown Cow manager, as far as I remember. I probably stuck out like a sore thumb as a university type – long hair and a beard, in those days – and they wanted to beef up the team in more academic areas. I was known as Charlie (still am, in some circles), and the team captain used to describe his line-up as “Three working fellers, and Charlie”.

What was your finest quizzing moment?

As I recall, we came top of our division and got promotion.

Given that your experience in the league inspired your writing, it presumably made quite a strong impression on you. Can you tell me a bit more about that?

I think what interested me, and what The Quiz Kid was meant to be about, was the different notions of ‘knowledge’ in the quiz league and in my university world – for the league, it had to be about facts – answers were either right or wrong. At the university – at least in the humanities and social sciences – we made a bit of a meal of epistemological questions, how you could know anything, whether facts were already tainted by ideological biases, and so on. And on. A degree of mutual incomprehension is always a source of comedy.

Do you have any quiz-related anecdotes that you could share with us?

When we were playing at home against a team largely, or entirely, composed of teachers from the grammar school, their captain had a habit of saying “Oh yes, of course, we knew that, really,” whenever they got something wrong. Our captain muttered, a bit too loudly, “If he says that again I’ll thump him!” Purely in jest, I’m sure. They left rather rapidly at the end of the evening, and we received an official reprimand for threatening violence.

When did you leave Lancaster, and what are you doing now?

I got a job with the university, in the autumn of 1972, which meant my relocating to Kendal. I moved to London in 1977 and have spent most of my time as a freelance writer, mostly in radio and television drama.

Are you still involved in quizzing?

Once a year I take part in a fundraising quiz in South London. We haven’t won for a while.

What is your favourite quiz question?

The one that used to come up again and again was, what was the stage name of the person christened Marion Morrison? You can see why John Wayne changed it…

Is there anything else you would like to add about Lancaster City Quiz League?

When I went to Kendal I said I’d go on playing for The Brown Cow, but after a couple of months I dropped out because of the travel; I think I let the lads down a bit, and if there are any still around, I’d like to apologise.