What’s in a quiz?

Paul Silcock of the Gardeners Arms, Plantation Road, Oxford on pub quizzes

Let me ask you a question: Do you like pub quizzes? (If you like you can read that last sentence in Ghostface’s voice from the Scream movies, but it won’t make any particular difference to this article.)

Pub quizzes really divide opinion. We have regulars who will desperately stay away from the pub on a Sunday night to avoid our quiz. We also have a host of regular faces we only see on a Sunday night. Because of the quiz. But as much as pub quizzes divide opinion, they also create something. At least if they’re done well. 

There was a pub round my way back in Sheffield that held a quiz every Tuesday night. It consisted of the surly landlord charging you 50p each, dropping your answer sheet in a puddle of beer on your table, and then pinning an A4 sheet of questions to the blackboard by the bar. An hour later he’d rip the sheet of questions down and pin up the sheet of answers. Thrilling it was not. But that’s not the sort of quiz I’m talking about. I’m talking about a proper, well run quiz. They can build something great, but I’ll come to that nearer the end of this column.

Gardeners Arms Quiz Master (and chef) Andy Skinner

It’s not impossible for a busy pub to sometimes get a little faceless. Despite best efforts it’s easily possible for a customer to become a bit of a cog in a piece of machinery. After all, how much interaction is necessary to order a pint? CAMRA members can easily talk for half an hour while ordering a pint, discussing everything from the original gravity to how much better that particular pint used to taste before the independent brewery was bought out by Greene King/Carlsberg/Molson Coors (delete as appropriate), which is certainly true. But for most people, it’s a very simple point-and-pay transaction, and that doesn’t always build a connection. A pub quiz can break down some of that. People feel they’re having more interaction, the quiz master becomes a point of focus, and if you’re not into watching sport, a quiz can work as a similar communal experience.

We’ve been running a pub quiz on a Sunday night at the Gardeners Arms for the last (checks calendar) 18 years now. It’s changed, evolved and eventually mutated into the strange beast that it is now in that time. I’ll give you an example of its strangeness. Over the years the Quiz Master (to give him he’s actual title, notice the capital letters there) has created a couple of songs to introduce the occasional quiz round. And in response to this, certain teams have developed heckles to the songs. Which over the years has seemed reasonably normal to us. However, one new quizzer who had been brought along by an experienced team, and having suffered through a particular rowdy crowd sing-along to the Chain Letters Round theme song, uttered the terrified, “It’s a f*cking cult!” And promptly left.

As an example of a communal experience, maybe that story doesn’t really help my cause, I admit. But for the others in the pub they felt part of something, even if that something could be seen as a cult by some people. 

Paul Silcock at the Gardeners Arms, Plantation Road, Oxford

So as a better example of how a pub quiz can build and maintain this sense of community, we even took the quiz online during the pandemic. Just me and the Quiz Master in an otherwise empty pub broadcasting the quiz live, every Sunday, during lockdown. Partly to give us something to do, but mainly because there was an audience of pub regulars who could, for a couple of hours a week, tune into our irregular nonsense and feel connected to something again. At times we had more teams taking part in a lockdown quiz than we could have fitted in the pub. I’ll be honest, I’m rather proud of that.

I know this can all sound like an advert for our pub quiz (every Sunday, 8.30pm sharp!), but it’s not. It’s about that thing that I was talking about waaaayyy back at the start of this article, that ability for a good quiz to create something great, that should be at the heart of pubs. This is where I use the C word again. 

Community. Which is one of the best things a pub can create.