Samuel, 29, question writer, Fifteen to One
I met Samuel through Hannah, your favourite Times editor. When she told me what he does I got really excited: even though I don’t have a tv (don’t worry, I still watch shows online), haven’t we all watched these quiz shows at some point in our life? But I had never thought of what happens behind the scenes. Well, here it is.
What is your job, exactly? My job title is question writer. I write questions all day, though a big part of that is researching to make sure what I’m writing is accurate.
How do you write the questions? Every day we have a target of number of questions we’re supposed to write. For the current program I’m working on, I write around 20 a day. Which may not sound like very much but once you have thoroughly researched the subject to make sure that every single aspect of your question is totally watertight, it actually takes a long time to write a good question. We have to provide two authoritative sources for every snippet of information in the question. When we get closer to recording a program, we have to find out facts about the answer that the presenter might then read. Recently part of my job has been preparing shows, so getting the right mix of different questions for a show.
Do you sometimes prepare a question and you’re like, they’ll NEVER get that? I do enjoy writing the more difficult questions but I try to make them all gettable. I think a really good question forces you to work something to get to the answer. For instance: which three letter exclamation is made from the chemical symbols for oxygen and magnesium (the answer being OMG). I like questions that mix high and low culture.
Do you remember what you have researched? My general knowledge is improving but I don’t retain everything.
Would I want you on my pub quiz team? Because I’m really bad. I suppose I’m better than the average person out there. Some of my colleagues really are amazingly knowledgeable. One of my former bosses is a former Mastermind grand finalist!
Do you work on a specific show? I’m working on a show called Fifteen to One, a Channel 4 daytime quiz show but, like most people in TV I’m essentially freelance and move from show to show - I might work on four or five different shows in a year.
How long have you done it for? I’ve started question writing this year and I love it so I hope to keep doing it. But I’ve worked in television for about five years.
What were you doing before? I used to work on documentaries and factual tv. I started at the bottom as a runner, became a researcher and then was an assistant producer. The few people I knew who had worked in question writing really enjoyed it and I thought it would suit me. I was right!
What did you study and where? I studied English Literature at Cambridge.
Did you do internships? I did use my vacations, teaching English as a foreign language. I also went to Kenya and worked on a charity project for a few months. I’m still involved with that but now as a trustee of the organisation. When I graduated from University I wanted to, and did, work in the charity sector. I worked for 2 years at Amnesty International, at the UK headquarters, organising their media awards. That’s where I developed my interest in working in the media.
Correct me if I’m wrong but I feel like I know a lot of people who start their career in the charity sector, but no one stays there. Maybe it’s just my friends! It’s often something people come to later in life when they’ve got something they can bring to the charity sector. I think that was part of the problem for me. I was very aware that I didn’t have a particular skill to bring to the organisation. For instance they have a lot of lawyers or people who’ve worked in education and they can use their expertise.
Is there someone in particular whose career you admire? My mum. She left school when she was 16, she only had her O levels (today they’re called GCSEs). She’d had a difficult childhood and didn’t have a great education behind her but she worked her way up. She started in a children’s home, as an assistant, she went on to become a social worker (earning a degree later in life) and then later on in her career she founded an NNEB nursery nurse training course for deaf people, which no one had done before. The course had to be tailored specifically to teach deaf people to work with children. Later on in her career she went on to help set up SureStart. It’s a government initiative that aims to remove the cycle of deprivation in underprivileged areas by giving nought to 5 year olds a good start in life. She has always worked in jobs helping young children in one way or another and a couple of years ago she got an OBE from the Queen ‘for services to early years education’. She ended up earning more than my dad who was a university graduate. She had a very high powered career in the end. But who does that anymore? Social mobility is on the decline. These days a lot of top jobs go to people who went to Oxford and Cambridge and old institutions. It’s sad that there isn’t the same opportunities these days.
What is your work schedule? Monday to Friday, 10 to 6.30 at the moment. I sometimes work from home but I still go in to the office two or three days a week. I quite like being surrounded by people, it’s motivating.
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done at a job? One time I was strapped onto a crane and hoisted into a vat of water to practice for a stunt we were doing on the One Show. Chris Evans, the presenter, was going to be hoisted into a vat of Coca Cola whilst covered in Mentos, live on the show and they wanted to check it was safe…!
Who should I speak to next? My friend Fraser who does voiceovers for Channel 4.