Former University Challenge question writer Lorraine
Isaacs is back on the job. Allison Beckham quizzes the
This is one interview where the subject should be asking the
questions - after all, veteran Dunedin television producer
Lorraine Isaacs is particularly good at that.
Thirty-five years after writing the questions for the fourth
season of University Challenge she is doing it again
for a revival of the quiz show, which last aired 25 years
ago, being produced by Invercargill regional television
station Cue TV.
It has taken months for Miss Isaacs (67) and Cue TV presenter
and quizmaster Tom Conroy to research and write the questions
for the new show, with help from a team of specialists in
Last time around, only 1000 questions were required - this
time 3800 are being used in 31 episodes of the show filmed in
Invercargill this week.
''It took a huge amount of time to write and order the
questions, and now they are just being demolished left, right
and centre,'' Miss Isaacs said during a break in filming.
Her official title this year is question consultant and her
spot during filming is at a table at the side of the set,
noting who answers which question and sorting out any
difficulties over interpretation. Fortunately, there had been
few of those, she said.
There was a ''great art'' to writing quiz questions, she
''They have to have simple, hopefully one or two-word,
answers - and because of the nature of the programme they
have to progress through various pieces of information ...
because contestants can interrupt.''
Another requirement was to write the questions so the answers
would still be relevant months later when the programme went
The questions could not be too difficult or too easy, Miss
Isaacs said. She aimed for about 75% of questions to be
answered correctly, as any more or less than that would be
''very boring'' for viewers.
But the biggest difference for her had been the arrival of
the internet, she said.
''Last time, I wrote the questions sitting in the Dunedin
Public Library with the Encyclopedia Britannica on my
left and the Oxford Dictionary on my right.''
Can quiz question writers write questions on topics they know
nothing about? Miss Isaacs' answer is an emphatic ''no''.
''Which means I haven't been able to write any about popular
music, sport or mathematics, and very few about science. But
if it's Greek mythology or English literature or history or
geography I'm OK. That's why a team of people is required.''
University Challenge began in 1976 and screened annually
In 1979, the first year Miss Isaacs was involved, there were
no female contestants. The following year, when she wrote the
questions and produced the show in Dunedin for TVNZ, she
rewrote the rules so every team had to have at least one
This year there is still a predominance of men, something she
All eight New Zealand universities have entered teams. Most
contestants are aged 18-24, although there was one man from
Massey ''nearly as old as I am'', Miss Isaacs said.
Watching the contestants this week, it appeared today's
students knew different things from their counterparts a
generation ago, Miss Isaacs said.
''We've only recorded half the programmes, but it seems to me
they knew a lot more about English literature and poetry then
and know far more about movies and movie stars and television
''But I am amazed at how much today's students know. I am
amazed at how smart very many of our contestants are, and
what a wide range of knowledge they have.''
Miss Isaacs, who is semiretired, began working two days a
fortnight for Cue TV ''and its previous incarnations'' about
17 years ago.
She said Conroy repeatedly told her over the years he was
going to find out who owned the copyright to University
Challenge, secure the rights to the show and revive it.
''When he said he had done that, I knew without being asked
that I would be helping with the questions.''
She hoped there would be another series and she could be
involved, she said.
''I love it ... One day I will be too old to even know what
students know and won't be able to do it, but until then I
will enjoy being part of it.''
Cue TV producer Sheree Carey said a crew of 26 had been
brought in from around the country to help with filming.
The show would screen on Cue TV, which can be picked up
around the country, and the company was also negotiating to
sell it to a national broadcaster.