Probably no one under 60 is closely familiar now with the BBC Radio quiz program My Word. Immensely popular in its day, the program ran from 1956 to 1967 on BBC1 and from 1967 to 1990 on Radio 4. My Word was aired on the ABC continually over that period and repeats can now be heard on Radio National at 5am on Sundays, an obscure spot for something that once commanded a large audience.
The chairman most Australian listeners would be familiar with was urbane-sounding Jack Longland. Frank Muir and Denis Norden, the creators of the tremendously popular radio comedy show Take it From Here, which featured Australian Dick Bentley, were contestants throughout on opposite sides and were joined by Dilys Powell, film critic and Greek scholar, and over time, journalists Nancy Spain and Ann Scott-James.
Muir and Norden, both six-foot-plus ex-servicemen were foils for each other. Muir had an upper-class accent emphasised by his inability to pronounce ‘r’. Norden had a regional accent and played to his provincial origins while Muir referred to village living and aristocratic Afghan hounds.
The women all had top-drawer accents to match that of Longland and exhibited familiarity with the protocols of polite society.
The chairman invited the contestants to define words, identify quotations, complete snatches of verse and generally prove themselves au fait with the literary canon and to a lesser degree with popular culture. Although the chairman occasionally gave hints and awarded marks for ‘close enough’ answers, it was rare for the contestants to be completely stumped. Occasionally Americanisms or Australianisms defeated them.
Although Muir and Norden played mostly for laughs, the depth of their knowledge of Shakespeare, Restoration theatre, films and music was extraordinary. The female contestants frequently gazumped them, teasing out etymologies and accurate quotations.
In the final round, the teams were given quotations, asked to identify them and Muir and Norden were required to come up with alternative versions of how the quotations, which they were permitted to manipulate, came into being.
Although to the radio listener it seemed as though Muir and Norden were given only about 20 minutes to concoct their stories, someone who was once in the audience (the show was performed in front of a live audience in a theatre) told me they had longer, and the radio version was edited. From the many hundreds of these stories I heard and enjoyed I can remember only a few and one especially. Norden was given the lines form Richard Lovelace’s ‘To Lucasta, Going to the Wars’:
I could not love thee, dear, so much
Loved I not honour more.
He came up with a long involved tale about hiking on Dartmoor with his exhausted, despairing girlfriend, who, when sure they were lost, collapsed and pleaded with him to go and get help.
Norden responded: ‘I could not leave thee, dear, so march! Die not upon a moor.’
It’s impossible to match Muir’s and Norden’s power of invention, but I have made one stab at it. I have multiple medical problems and am constantly making appointments to see doctors, sometimes three times in a week. If I were on My Word, I would welcome being given a familiar quotation from TS Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ and would rephrase it thus: ‘I have measured out my life in doctors’ rooms.’