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The Secret To Quiz Shows

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As a trivia fiend of some renown, I look forward to new series of quiz shows at the best of times, but on Saturday night waiting for the second series of BBC One's Secret Fortune to start I was genuinely excited. Because I wrote questions for it.

I've been writing quiz questions for about fifteen years now for a number of audiences and reasons, from my whole primary school (all 52 of us) for a jaunty Friday afternoon feature to charity table quizzes in college, but this would be my first time writing for the TV. Needless to say, I loved it.

Telling people what I was doing was a fun experience. People who knew me best just laughed and said "of course you are, that makes perfect sense". Others seemed astonished that this was a job people actually did. One person even suggested I go on a school's roadshow to let kids know that such exotic careers were possible.

Making the show was just as enjoyable as telling people I was making the show. For two months I worked in Belfast at the good people of the production company Wild Rover's offices, overlooking the city centre's most beautiful bus rank, dreaming up riddles for the viewing public. While I've gotten used to churning out questions over the years, this was a whole different challenge.

You see, Secret Fortune does things quite differently. Whereas most quizzes have posers such as "Who is the Chancellor of the Exchequer?" or "If you were in Buenos Aires right now, would you need to wear a scarf?", questions like "Which of these Hollywood actors is tallest?" or "Which of these landmarks is furthest from London?" were our stock in trade.

Coming up with questions in that format was one thing, but coming up with four multiple choice answers to complement them was the real challenge. As the basic principle of Secret Fortune in the first round is that the closer you are to the top answer, the more money you're likely to win, the answers had to be credible enough that they could all be the top answer. The opposite applies in the second round, as the object is to whittle out the low sums of cash so that you're left with fat stacks at the end. In other words, the questions needed to be open enough that a couple of players without a clue could make a good stab at it, but also hard enough that it rewards a couple that have the requisite knowledge to answer it correctly. So, not difficult at all then.

Question writing is at times an effort intangible to the point of counter-intuitive. You spend a lot of time searching your inner recesses and external search engines for ideas. A friend of mine asked me once "how long could it take you to write ten questions, like half an hour?" That timeframe isn't a mile off, but writing ten good questions takes a lot longer.

After we had done our sacred question duty came the fun part: watching the contestants answer them, the first set of which one £100,000 in some style on Saturday night. Given the money at stake it would have been understandable for the contestants to want to blow it all on hats, but all of them were disarmingly altruistic. When presenter Nick Knowles asked what they'd spend the money on if they won, invariably the response would be "well my sister needs" or "my brother would like to". All the contestants had such good plans for the money they might win, so the notion that one of my questions could be the difference between getting it and not was beyond humbling.

And that's the abiding impression working on Secret Fortune has made. I've been watching quizzes since before I could properly enunciate "I'll have a P please, Bob", but being on the inside has shown me the extent to which far from being a fun way to pass a bit of time on the TV schedule or exercise your brain a bit, shows like that can have a genuine and substantial effect on people's lives. With that added dimension, I enjoy them all the more now.