Brain of Britain



Franklin Engelmann (1968-72)

Ian Gillies (1972, second round onwards)

Robert Robinson (1973-2008)

Russell Davies (stand-in, 2004, 2009, host 2010-)

Peter Snow (2007)


Adjudicators (usually silent): "Mycroft" (Ian Gillies, 1973-2001), "Jorkins" (Kevin Ashman, 2002-7)


BBC Radio 4, 16 January 1968 to present

Bird Brain of Britain: BBC Radio 4, 7 May 2023


Radio's premier clever-clogs quiz show, originally spun-off from a segment in What Do You Know?.

Four contenders gather, and the presenter asks a question of each, continuing until they get one wrong - that question's open to the other contestants on (silent) buzzers. There's a point for a correct answer, five in a row gains a bonus mark, and ten seconds are allowed for thought. Highest score after half-an-hour wins.

Half-way through each episode is a "Beat The Brains" section, where a listener sets two questions, hoping to stump the panel on one, and win a book token. Like the main quiz, this interlude was also carried over from What Do You Know?.

According to Ian Gillies' book from the 1980s, each episode was carefully structured, with relatively easy questions to begin with, difficult posers in the middle, and relaxing with more simple questions to end the programme on a high. This structure was relaxed over time, and almost forgotten by the twenty-first century. Two questions each show were accompanied by a musical clue - this changed to three music questions in 2012, and a music question for each contender a few years later.

Until about 2010, ties were broken by bonus questions count double; a five question play-off was available if required. Since then, it's been a single question on the buzzers. An off-air contest may be required to separate high-scoring losers.

Every three years, the annual winners return for a Brain of Brains competition. Every nine years, the triennial champions compete in the Top Brain contest. The Brain of Brains and Top Brain scheduled for 2007 were delayed until September 2008, allowing Robert Robinson to return to the host's chair. "Brain of Brains" has continued to open the series since.

Towards the end of his life, Robert Robinson's health was not good enough for him to participate, despite the show relocating to London on occasion to facilitate his continuing contributions. 2007 saw Peter Snow taking up the mantle, along with a few other minor changes: contestants introduced themselves rather than having the host greet them, and were referred to by their first names rather than Robinson's traditional "Mr Jones/Mrs Smith". Also, a production team set the questions rather than one individual, as Kevin Ashman was unable to travel to Manchester regularly. Robinson returned for the 2008 series, but was again absent in 2009, with Russell Davies standing in. In August 2010, Robinson announced that he would not be returning, allowing Davies to officially step up to the the role of host. Robinson died in August 2011, and a tribute was paid prior to that autumn's first show.

Brain of ...where?

For over half a century, Brain of Britain was organised strictly along regional lines. When it began, Brain of Britain was organised with one or more heats for each of the BBC's regions - London, the Home Counties, the Midlands and East Anglia, the West of England, South of England, North of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Originally played by three contestants in all rounds, the 1950s series took over nine months to complete. From 1961, they'd settled into a format - four contenders in the 14 heats, three in the 9 second round matches, three in the 3 semis and the grand final. It still took seven months to find the champion. Sounds most confusing for the casual listener, but the Home Service would thumb its nose at casual listeners.

By 1974, a more coherent structure was in place. The top two from each regional heat made the second round, the top two from these second round matches made the semi-finals. As late as the mid-80s, Brain of Britain was a fixture for the audience. The final - the 29th weekly programme in a marathon series - would always have one person from the London area, one from south England, one from the Midlands and North, and one from the rest of the country.

The series was cut back to 17 episodes in 1989 - eight contestants from London, South England, Midlands and East Anglia, North West, Yorkshire and North East, four came from a combined Wales West and Northern Ireland region, and four from Scotland. Twelve heat winners were geographically seeded into semi-finals, four runners-up competed for the last place in the final.

Geographical zones were abolished for the 2006 series, contenders are now placed into heats based on availability. Three or four heats each year, and at least one semi-final, have been recorded at the BBC's studio in Salford since the early 2010s.

Until 1973, the finalists would play one or two challenge matches each year. Brain of Brains and Top Brain took priority, but in other years the top three might face stars of Today or comedy show I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Wonder if they might revive that idea.


John P. Wynn


Regular Series

Those listed for 1954-1967 are winners of the Brain of Britain segment of What Do You Know?

1954 Martin Dakin 1972 A. Lawrence 1990 Jim Eccleson2008-9 Geoff Thomas
1955 Arthur Maddocks 1973 Glyn Court 1991 Chris Wright 2009-10 Ian Bayley
1956 Anthony Carr [1] 1974 Roger Pritchard 1992 Mike Billson 2010-11 Iwan Thomas
1957 Rosemary Watson 1975 Winifred Lawson1993 Geoffrey Colton 2011-12 Ray Ward
1958 David Keys 1976 Thomas Dyer 1994 Ian Wynn-Mackenzie 2012-13 Barry Simmons
1959 Dr Reginald Webster 1977 Martin Gostelow 1995 Ian Kinloch 2014 Mark Grant
1960 Patrick Bowles 1978 James Nesbitt 1996 Kevin Ashman 2015 Nigel Jones
1961 Irene Thomas 1979 Arthur Gerard 1997 Daphne Fowler 2016 Mike Clarke
1962 Henry Button 1980 Tim Paxton 1998 Guy Herbert 2017 John Beynon
1963 Ian Barton 1981 Peter Barlow 1999 Leslie Duncalf 2018 Clive Dunning
1964 Ian Gillies 1982 John Pusey 2000 Mike Smith-Rawnsley 2019 David Stainer
1965 Robert Crampsey 1983 Sue Marshall 2001 Tom Corfe 2020 Graham Barker
1966 Richard Best 1984 Peter Bates 2002 Dr David Jones 2021 Karl Whelan
1967 Lt. Cmdr. Loring 1985 Richard Fife 2003 David Stedman 2022 Sarah Trevarthen
1968 Ralph Raby 1986 Stephen Gore 2004 Alan Bennett
1969 T. D. Thomson 1987 Ian Sutton 2005 Christopher Hughes
1970 Iain Matheson 1988 Paul Monaghan2006 Pat Gibson
1971 Fred Morgan 1989 Barbara Thompson2007Mark Bytheway

[1] At 18-years-old, the youngest ever winner.

Brain of Brains

1956 Anthony Carr
1959 Reginald Webster
1962 Irene Thomas
1965 Ian Gillies
1968 Ralph Raby
1971 Iain Matheson
1974 Roger Pritchard
1977 Tom Dyer
1980 James Nesbitt
1983 Peter Barlow
1986 Richard Fife
1989 Glen Binnie [1]
1992 Mike Billson
1995 Geoffrey Colton
1998 Kevin Ashman
2001 Leslie Duncalf
2004 Alan Bennett
2008 Mark Bytheway
2011 Ian Bayley
2014 Mark Grant
2018 John Benyon
2021 David Stainer

[1] Mr Binnie finished second to Miss Thompson in the 1989 final, and took her place when she was unavailable to record the Brain of Brains competition.

Top Brain

1962 Anthony Carr
1971 Ian Gillies
1980 Roger Pritchard
1989 Peter Barlow
1998 Kevin Ashman
2008 Mark Bytheway
2018 Mark Grant

Bird Brain of Britain

2023 Kate Humble


"Aaaah." (and other slightly pained cries, as Robert Robinson fills while the adjudicator considers an answer.)

Theme music

Various versions of "Rondo", including that by the fabulously named Waldo de los Rios.


Franklin Engelmann died suddenly after recording the first round of the 1972 series, so reigning Top Brain Ian Gillies stepped up to host the remainder of that run. That was also the last series directly overseen by creator and question-setter John P. Wynn, who had put off retirement to steer the transition from What Do You Know? to Brain of Britain, and had been training Gillies up as his successor. From 1973 Robert Robinson took over as host, while Gillies became lead question writer and started to appear (after a fashion) as silent adjudicator "Mycroft".

The record score on a programme final is 35, although there have been higher scores in earlier rounds. This record is unlikely to be beaten - since it was set in 1981, questions have become longer, pauses for thought are kept in, and the host's anecdotes take more time.

The 1978 series was produced by Griff Rhys Jones.

Former producer Richard Edis explained the show's appeal, "When the audience hear a question to which they know the answer, they feel warm. When they know and the competitors don't, they're positively incandescent."

The 2020 series had to be aired in two blocks - the first six heats in one block and the rest of the series in the other - as a consequence of COVID-19.

For many years, Brain of Britain - like the rest of the competitive quiz scene - was dominated by men. Quizzing became more inclusive during the 21st century, women took part more and won more, culminating in the 2022 final being contested by four women.

When announcing the search for the annual champion, Russell Davies announces one more champion than we note above - the 2019 champion was named as the 66th on air, 65th according to our lists. It is possible - though not certain - that the official count includes the champion of the 1969-70 Television Brain of Britain, whose identity is not known to us.

In 2023, a one-off special, Bird Brain of Britain, challenged four bird experts on all matters avian. It was recorded at The Wildfowl & Wetland Trust's Slimbridge wetland centre in Gloucestershire, and hosted by Russell Davies as usual. (It's unrelated to an earlier "Bird Brain of Britain", occasional television documentaries showing how birds could train themselves to remove toothpicks and operate a seesaw to get peanuts. That was The Krypton Factor for avian superbirds.)


There have been several official quiz books: one by John P Wynn in 1972, another by Ian Gillies in 1986, and a third with Russell Davies credited as author in 2017.

See also


Television Brain of Britain


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