Tuesday 19 March 2019

Let's get quizzical -- Damien Owens, Trivia writer

There's nothing trivial about a table quiz. Just ask the characters of RTE's latest comedy, says John Meagher

I know this one: Eddie
Boyle, John Nolan and
Ger Slattery at a Pub
Quiz in Gilligan's Bar,
Claremorris, Co Mayo.
I know this one: Eddie Boyle, John Nolan and Ger Slattery at a Pub Quiz in Gilligan's Bar, Claremorris, Co Mayo. BRIAN FARRELL
John Meagher

John Meagher

Do you know what the collective noun for apes is? Lawrence, the tragic protagonist of Trivia, RTE's new comedy drama series, does. An avid table quiz fan, he studies such useless information in the manner of one swotting up on the Leaving Cert a week before the exams. And, in case you were wondering, it's a shrewdness of apes.

Lawrence fronts a team that lords it over the competition in a proverbial one-horse town close to the border. The table quiz is, for him, the most important part of his week. And it's not just about the winning -- any team-mate who doesn't correctly answer questions he expects them to know is promptly dismissed.

For Damien Owens, the writer and creator of Trivia, the Lawrence character is a heightened version of people he met on the pub quiz circuit and, he admits, is just a little bit autobiographical. The novelist-turned-screenwriter from Monaghan knows at first hand the lure of the table quiz: he used to be hooked on them.

"I used to be one of those people who took table quizzes way too seriously," he says. "I would argue with my teammates over answers and I would take an unreasonable amount of pleasure in correctly answering a really tricky question. I'm sure there were many moments in quizzes where I was insufferable. When I think back, I remember hiding our answers so other teams couldn't read them. In many respects I was very similar to Lawrence. I, too, would research certain categories in advance in case they came up. Sad, really."

The six-part series -- starring David Pearse as Lawrence and Keith McErlean as his long-suffering friend, Adam -- continues on Thursday and will strike a chord with the tens of thousands who regularly take part in pub quizzes.

It's likely to have special resonance for those who believe these events are not social outings, but opportunities for one-upmanship.

"For those of us who have had the bug, there's still a tingle of excitement when you sit down with three other people and pit your wits against others," he says. "I suppose it's that male competitiveness thing rearing its ugly head. And while table quizzes are broadly the same as they always have been they're not just enduring, but thriving."

Damien Owens no longer partakes, though. "I ended up taking them way too seriously," he says. "I stopped a few years ago when it wasn't fun any more. The questions would annoy me -- they would either be too easy or phrased in such a way as to lead to multiple answers.

John Nolan has no intention of stopping his fixation with table quizzes. The stay-at-home-dad from Roscommon normally fits in two quizzes a week -- one with old college mates in Galway, the other in Gilligan's pub, Claremorris, Co Mayo. The latter is unusual in that the composition of each quiz team is picked by lottery on the night itself."

"I have a good memory and that's what you need most when you're in a table quiz," he says. "I loved quizzes when I was in primary school and that has stayed with me all my life."

Unlike Trivia's Lawrence, Nolan doesn't while away his down-time with encyclopaedias. "I know of people who do that, but it's not for me. My head is like a sponge and I retain all kinds of information -- the sort that gets asked at quizzes."

Nolan's love of quizzes extends to his blog Tablequiz.net (sub-head: "A little knowledge goes a long way -- quizzing adventures in Ireland"), which he established in autumn 2008.

"I set it up out of frustration," he jokes, "when my team lost out on a big cash prize because we weren't awarded a point for answering that a Rhode Island Red is a chicken, rather than a hen. I would have thought a chicken and a hen was the same thing, in that a chicken grows up to be a hen. It still bugs me." It's easy to see why -- Nolan's team lost out on €5,000.

The popularity of table quizzes can be gleaned from the fact that Tablequiz.net attracts in the region of 500 visitors a day. Many are keen to share their quizzing tales with like-minded trivia fans. It's also a useful resource for those keen to seek out table quizzes nationwide.

"There's a quiz every night of the week somewhere. Pubs like them, because they get the punters in the door."

"I would say that people who get a bit obsessed about table quizzes tend to be male," Nolan says. "My wife hasn't got the slightest interest in it. And maybe that's just as well as far as our relationship goes!"

John Nolan's reputation precedes him, it seems. His Galway quiz team are known as 'The Sharks', such is their competitive edge. And they have form, too -- coming fourth in the Rehab All-Ireland Pub Quiz championship.

Nolan is well placed to advise would-be table quizzers. "It's important that each member has various specialisations," he says. "There's no point in everyone having high-brow knowledge if they don't know the first thing about popular culture. You need people who know who Jordan is, where she's from and who she's married to as well as somebody who knows their history and geography inside out. A good mix of knowledge is essential."

While the table quiz continues to flourish, the proliferation of smartphones means cheating -- via a simple Google query -- has become easier than ever.

"It adds another dynamic to the quiz," Nolan says. "You get people who think it's all a bit of a laugh and others who are furious to see it going on. The only way to stop it is for everyone to place their phones on the table in front of them -- and switched off, of course.

"To be honest though, the teams that are really interested in quizzes don't cheat. It would ruin their sense of satisfaction."

Especially if they had studied all those collective nouns the night before.

Shrewdness (of apes) indeed.

Trivia is on RTE 1 at 10.15pm on Thursdays

Irish Independent

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