A Question of Genius



Kirsty Wark


BBC Scotland for BBC Two, 16 March 2009 to 4 June 2010 (45 episodes in 2 series)


Tough daytime quiz show in which contestants will battle through various elimination rounds before facing the titular "question of genius" (shades of The 64,000 Question there, perhaps) for a cash prize.

Canaletto, the fifth turtle

There is a new pool of contestants each week, and each day eight of them appear in the televised stage of the competition. Although a qualifying round is alluded to, we are left to guess just what form this takes. Drawing lots? Answering "Who am I" questions read out by a laconic Irishman? Racing around a giant obstacle course dominated by a series of giant red foam balls? Whatever it is that takes place off screen, it results in eight players reaching the first round proper.

It's like The Price is Right never happened.

A Question of Knowledge (series 1) / A Question of Speed (series 2) - Kirsty Wark reads out a question, the first person to buzz in with the correct answer then gets to choose the "level" (1 to 5) at which to receive a further question on the same subject. Get it right and they are credited with the appropriate number of points. Get it wrong, and the question is thrown open to the other players. The first six players to reach five points proceed; the other two go back in the pool (unless it's Friday). In the second series, six players start and five go through, starter questions are worth one point and follow-ups are on the buzzer.

Who is the King of the Castle?

A Question of Attribution - Ace Alan Bennett TV play about the spy Anthony Blunt, with James Fox and Prunella Scales. Would make a promising title for an antiques quiz perhaps, but nothing to do with this show, which continues with...

A Question of Judgement - Starter questions, and choice of level for the point-bearing follow-up as before, but this time the answering player also has to choose an opponent to play against for the points. The first four players to reach 5 points go through, while the other two are cast casually back into the pool for the next show (unless it's Friday). Again, there are minor changes for the second series: starter questions are now worth one point and the qualification to proceed is six points.

A Question of Knowledge (series 2) - A recycled name for a new round. Starter questions worth one point again, but now the player who gets the starter, gets up to three solo follow-up questions on the same subject, worth 1, 2 and 3 points respectively, and they keep going until they get one wrong. The qualification to go forward is 7 points, which means a player can go through in one go if they get the starter, and then all three subsequent questions correct.

A Question of Time - A 1986 hit single by Depeche Mode, and a good title for the next round, combining as it does the twin concepts of "questions" and "time", but not in a David Dimbleby way. Alas, not actually used, so we're stuck with calling it...

Player 3 has buzzed in on this question.

A Question of Pressure - Each player in turn gets 60 seconds to accumulate as many points as possible. For each question they are given the category and must choose the level they want. If they get the question wrong, or pass, then the first player to "buzz in" gets the chance to answer and thereby "steal" the points. Actually, the whole buzz/steal thing is done quite well: the other players can "buzz in" at any point in the question, and the reason for those quotation marks is that the "buzzers" do not, in fact, buzz, but silently light up the score in front of the "buzzing" player. To prevent speculative buzzing, a wrong answer from the buzzing player wallies them for what remains of that 60 second period. Neat. The two best scorers go through, the other two are cruelly tossed aside and return to the pool of despair for the next show (unless it's Friday). The second series has exactly the same gameplay, but rounds are 90 seconds rather than 60, and the winner proceeds straight to the Question of Genius.

A Question of Upbringing - The first of twelve novels in Anthony Powell's masterpiece of pretentious literature, A Dance to the Music of Time. Of little relevance to this or any other quiz show though, unless by some amazing coincidence your upbringing were to somehow provide you, sequentially, with the answers to a series of questions leading to a big money prize. Nah, no-one's going to believe that.

A Question of Strategy (series 1) - The final two contestants go head-to-head. Kirsty reads out a category, and the players use keypads to indicate the level they wish to play at. The person who bids higher gets the question, to themselves, at that level. A wrong answer means that the other player gets a question at the lower level they chose. If both players bid the same, the question is asked on the buzzers. So as Kirsty Wark says, the round isn't just about bidding high, but also about bidding tactically. (Which isn't quite the same thing as strategy, so what's wrong with calling it "A Question of Tactics", eh? Huh? Well?). Anyway, the first player to ten points (though in the first few shows, it was fifteen) goes through to the endgame, the other blah blah Friday.

Dictionary corner prepares.

A Question of Sport - Now you're talking! An evergreen quiz format with broad appeal but unfortunately for Kirsty Wark, a different show altogether.

The host is released for the final round. Bring on the Wark!

The bit before the Question of Genius which doesn't really have a name (series 1) - It's time to decide how much the titular Question of Genius will be worth, and this is done by means of a 90-second accumulator round. The last man, woman or beast standing (and at this point, both they and Kirsty emerge from behind their respective desks to stand on what we might as well call the hotspot) is given a choice of two categories for a level one question. Get it right and the same happens for level two and so on, get it wrong and they remain at that level until they jolly well do get one right. The level reached in 90 seconds determines the available prize fund:

  • Level 1: £500
  • Level 2: £1000
  • Level 3: £1500
  • Level 4: £2000
  • Level 5: £5000

This game is completely absent from the second series, in which the Question of Genius is worth £100 per point scored by the player in A Question of Pressure, but the player gets to return the following day.

A Question of Lust - Nope. Depeche Mode again.

The Question of Genius - Phew, we got there. One question, on a subject nominated by the winning player. If they don't know, they can go for multiple choice (4 possible answers) for half the prize money. After a very long and tedious pause, we find out whether they've won, and in the first series we were also shown the leaderboard, on which winners are ranked according to the money won and the speed with which they reached that level in the bit before the Question of Genius which doesn't really have a name. It's like Beat the Nation all over again.

Now for the most important question: is it any good? It might be a bit easier to judge the format on its own merits were it not for Kirsty Wark's rather awkward presentation, which is professional, but never feels natural. Would it have hurt to learn the intros to the various rounds rather than very obviously reading them? And why the random inquiries about whether a contestant is confident about answering questions on a given subject?

As to the format, we find ourselves rather distracted by the metagame of spot-the-lift. We've seen a lot of daytime quizzes, and the creators of this show clearly have, too. Almost every element seems to bring another show to mind, from Going for Gold to Sudo-Q. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's unavoidably the case that the show adds up to less than the sum of its parts. The attempts to talk it up as a "tough" show are also rather silly. Why can't a daytime quiz just be fun, and still have a decent prize? To top it all off, the "Question of Genius" itself doesn't even fit in to the show - because the contestant's chosen subject only comes in to play in the last five minutes, it doesn't feel like the logical culmination of the quiz, but something rather tacked on. It would help if the specialist subject were to be used for an individual round in the main quiz, and not just read out by a voiceover ahead of the second round (another element that didn't feel quite right - perhaps because it meant we effectively got two sets of contestant introductions, which was just plain weird. Plus, why did we suddenly get a voiceover for this bit? Why didn't Kirsty Wark do it, or the contestants introduce their own subjects? This bit at least was fixed for the second series, with the contestants introducing their subjects at the beginning).

Kirsty Wark doing her Angela Rippon impression from Masterteam.

On the plus side, it does have more playalong value than a lot of recent quizzes, and the "Pressure" and "Strategy" rounds (one of which survives in the second series) can actually get quite exciting. If only the presentation played up the game's strengths rather than overegging the "tension", especially in the endgame, then this could be a fun little quiz. But it's not quite there.


Alan Tyler and Jon Murphy


In the first series, everyone wore those tiny little microphones that hook over the ears. In fact, we wouldn't be at all surprised if in years to come, that was the thing people remembered about the show. "What was that show where everyone had little hook-over-the-ear-type microphones? I think it was hosted by Emily Maitlis..."

If you squint carefully, there's a mike visible on the right.

Apparently, the unseen qualifying round was simply questions on the buzzer, and the first eight to get one right go through. So now you know.


Pam Thomas

Web links

BBC programme page

Wikipedia entry

Opening titles from the BBC Motion Graphics Archive

See also

Weaver's Week review


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