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Ian Bayley on the path to becoming a mastermind

Dr. Ian Bayley (not Bailey, as I am loath to forget) is, to use the clichéd phrase, a man of many talents. A quiz champion at a national and international level, a lecturer in Computer Science, and a key figure in Oxford geek society, I think it is fair to regard him as a modern-day polymath, though he would be far too modest to admit it. When I talked to Ian, it became clear that this penchant for learning (philomathy) is something that started at a young age, as did his competitive streak:

‘I first became good at History when I became convinced that my friends doing History for GCSE knew way more than I did, so I got a big book out of the family library to compensate [but] clearly I overcompensated’. Though those friends have been replaced by other quizzers, this dedication still serves him well in the acquisition of knowledge, with encyclopaedias doing their part alongside experience of past quizzes. Anything remaining unfamiliar leads to every student’s favourite source — Wikipedia. Students using Wikipedia is also something Ian would probably recognise in his role as a lecturer in Computer Science at Oxford Brookes University. Education has also been important in allowing Ian to take on the concepts that remain elusive as it gives him the ‘confidence that anything can be explained and therefore anything can be understood.’  Embodying this principle, he is working his way through scientific concepts that are, as he puts it, ‘rather hair-raising in their difficulty’.

A quiz champion at a national and international level, a lecturer in Computer Science, and a key figure in Oxford geek society, I think it is fair to regard him as a modern-day polymath.

‘I first became good at History when I became convinced that my friends doing History for GCSE knew way more than I did, so I got a big book out of the family library to compensate [but] clearly I overcompensated’. Though those friends have been replaced by other quizzers, this dedication still serves him well in the acquisition of knowledge, with encyclopaedias doing their part alongside experience of past quizzes. Anything remaining unfamiliar leads to every student’s favourite source — Wikipedia. Students using Wikipedia is also something Ian would probably recognise in his role as a lecturer in Computer Science at Oxford Brookes University. Education has also been important in allowing Ian to take on the concepts that remain elusive as it gives him the ‘confidence that anything can be explained and therefore anything can be understood.’  Embodying this principle, he is working his way through scientific concepts that are, as he puts it, ‘rather hair-raising in their difficulty’.

For someone clearly so passionate about the accumulation and dissemination of information, I was intrigued as to what drew him into quizzes in the first place. To my surprise, curiosity, rather than any grand plan, seemed to be a key factor. As an undergraduate at Imperial College London, he auditioned for University Challenge, though his reasons for doing so are unclear, even to himself. While he didn’t make it onto the team, it was this rejection that proved formative. Watching the team during their first round, he felt that he could have made a difference to their performance. ‘I think I became hooked when I managed to convince myself wrongly I could make sure I knew the answer to everything that was going to come up’ he says, and his passion for quizzing has developed from there. This led to victories in the British Championships in 2001 (singles), 2006 and 2011 (as a pair), and awards at the European level from 2004-2009, 2011, and 2014-2017. The late noughties and early 2010s also brought quizzes on TV and radio, with appearances on Only Connect and Brain of Britain. Bayley won both. Returns to these programmes have been fruitful, becoming ‘Champion of Champions’ in the former and ‘Brain of Brains’ in the latter.

As can be expected, the clarion call of Mastermind made itself known: ‘It was for a long time something I knew I could win so I turned it into something I must win.’ His first attempt, in the 2008-9 season, was unsuccessful, being beaten into second place in the final. He returned in the 2010-11 season, using specialist subjects as diverse as the Romanov Dynasty, Jean Sibelius, and the Paintings of the National Gallery to win. As an aside, I asked what it was like to sit in the imposing black chair.  ‘The walk to it isn’t as bad as expected, I’m pleased to report, but sitting in the chair itself is a different matter. I was surprised that my feet didn’t touch the floor and spent a lot of time working out where to put them’, he replied. He also notes that the face of John Humphrys, the presenter, is obscured by the spotlight, which doesn’t help with nerves. Keeping these under control is key, it seems, as ‘one pass might lead straight into another and then your whole round might be a disaster’. Being a Mastermind champion is not always a blessing either, as when introduced as such it ‘becomes awkward because people expect a speech about my time on Mastermind and if I want to talk to the other person, I want to learn something about [them] instead’. Because of this, he tends to leave it out of conversations, even with people he may have known for a long time.

However, this hasn’t put him off other high-profile quizzes. At this level of quizzing, an ‘Egghead’ or two is never far away (his former doubles partner, Pat Gibson, is one), and so he entered Make me an Egghead, BBC2’s search for two new members to join the eponymous team. He cruised into the semi-finals, separated by 4 points from the nearest rival, but was defeated by Steve Cooke, one of the eventual winners. Despite this setback, he remains on the English team for the European Quiz Championships, which has won consistently for the past four years. With so many accolades, what is his proudest achievement? His response is as humble as ever. ‘My team mates… are extraordinarily good… so it feels I’ve really achieved something whenever I contribute an answer that they haven’t thought of.’

Furthermore, as someone among the quizzing elite, I ask about the problem of female representation, as seen through recent controversies on shows like University Challenge, with Wadham dropping female-only trials after fears of tokenism. Ian feels there are two main issues at the heart of the matter. ‘The real problem, and the one I think is far more worth solving, is that women, for the most part, don’t actually want to take part in those sorts of quizzes. I think it’s a real shame… as they are missing out on a lot of fun.’ He attributes this issue to the fact that ‘quiz shows appear to be about people showing off their knowledge’, something that may not be to their taste, ‘especially if almost everybody is of the opposite gender’. He adds that he thinks this is a misconception, and that it ‘can be challenged’. His second, and bigger, problem is the way that female contestants are portrayed. They ‘are gawped at and talked about by newspaper journalists and random male viewers, who… comment on their appearance no matter how much they have achieved on the show. That would put off many less dedicated male contestants so, unfortunately, I can’t really say that women who have decided to avoid all that in favour of an easier life… are wrong’. His suggestion for improvement, particularly on a university level, is to think of the future. By entering multiple teams in rigorous earlier quizzes, such as those run by the Quiz Society, you can develop a strong team. ‘Encourage non-finalist female applicants in particular and some of them will enjoy it enough to want to audition for University Challenge.’

Aside from his quizzing, Ian is also known in Oxford student circles for his passion for Doctor Who, something that led to him using the 1970s period of the series as a Mastermind specialist subject, and later to him becoming Vice-President of the Oxford Doctor Who Society. I ask him more about the society, and his role. ‘We meet every Thursday of term time to watch a story and provide a friendly environment in which people who want to learn more about Doctor Who, including the classic era [of] 1963-89, can do so’. As Vice-President, one of his jobs is enforcing the ominous-sounding ‘Three-Year Rule’ ‘to make sure we don’t have repeat showings of some stories, especially of fan favourites that might otherwise be watched every term’. What is his favourite serial then? He replies instantly with The Caves of Androzani, the Fifth Doctor’s final episode. While the episode may be approaching its 34th birthday, it still has a clear impact on Ian, with a sense of awe conveyed in his voice. ‘The shadow of the oncoming death of that Doctor is in every scene and the visuals, score and dialogue complement this magnificently. With no aliens to defeat or evil regime to overthrow, it’s all a nail-biting struggle to survive’. He’s less certain about a favourite from the modern series, but conversation turns to Steven Moffat’s contribution to the show. While he does have reservations about his plot arcs and some of the writing for his female characters, he still confidently asserts Peter Capaldi as his favourite Doctor, as exemplified by Last Christmas, his first Christmas Special. But what of the future of Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall? He’s anxious, especially as, in his opinion, ‘Chibnall has produced some of the dullest… stories I have ever watched’, something only compounded by the loss of fan-favourite writers like Jamie Mathieson who have worked under Moffat. However, he will certainly be watching the show, especially with the arrival of Jodie Whittaker, who ‘might be the very thing that saves it’.

Aside from his quizzing, Ian is also known in Oxford student circles for his passion for Doctor Who, something that led to him using the 1970s period of the series as a Mastermind specialist subject, and later to him becoming Vice-President of the Oxford Doctor Who Society.

So next time you tune into a quiz show, keep an eye out for Dr Bayley. He may not be an ‘Egghead’ (yet…), but he’s certainly one hell of a smart cookie.

For someone clearly so passionate about the accumulation and dissemination of information, I was intrigued as to what drew him into quizzes in the first place. To my surprise, curiosity, rather than any grand plan, seemed to be a key factor. As an undergraduate at Imperial College London, he auditioned for University Challenge, though his reasons for doing so are unclear, even to himself. While he didn’t make it onto the team, it was this rejection that proved formative. Watching the team during their first round, he felt that he could have made a difference to their performance. ‘I think I became hooked when I managed to convince myself wrongly I could make sure I knew the answer to everything that was going to come up’ he says, and his passion for quizzing has developed from there. This led to victories in the British Championships in 2001 (singles), 2006 and 2011 (as a pair), and awards at the European level from 2004-2009, 2011, and 2014-2017. The late noughties and early 2010s also brought quizzes on TV and radio, with appearances on Only Connect and Brain of Britain. Bayley won both. Returns to these programmes have been fruitful, becoming ‘Champion of Champions’ in the former and ‘Brain of Brains’ in the latter.

As can be expected, the clarion call of Mastermind made itself known: ‘It was for a long time something I knew I could win so I turned it into something I must win.’ His first attempt, in the 2008-9 season, was unsuccessful, being beaten into second place in the final. He returned in the 2010-11 season, using specialist subjects as diverse as the Romanov Dynasty, Jean Sibelius, and the Paintings of the National Gallery to win. As an aside, I asked what it was like to sit in the imposing black chair.  ‘The walk to it isn’t as bad as expected, I’m pleased to report, but sitting in the chair itself is a different matter. I was surprised that my feet didn’t touch the floor and spent a lot of time working out where to put them’, he replied. He also notes that the face of John Humphrys, the presenter, is obscured by the spotlight, which doesn’t help with nerves. Keeping these under control is key, it seems, as ‘one pass might lead straight into another and then your whole round might be a disaster’. Being a Mastermind champion is not always a blessing either, as when introduced as such it ‘becomes awkward because people expect a speech about my time on Mastermind and if I want to talk to the other person, I want to learn something about [them] instead’. Because of this, he tends to leave it out of conversations, even with people he may have known for a long time.

However, this hasn’t put him off other high-profile quizzes. At this level of quizzing, an ‘Egghead’ or two is never far away (his former doubles partner, Pat Gibson, is one), and so he entered Make me an Egghead, BBC2’s search for two new members to join the eponymous team. He cruised into the semi-finals, separated by 4 points from the nearest rival, but was defeated by Steve Cooke, one of the eventual winners. Despite this setback, he remains on the English team for the European Quiz Championships, which has won consistently for the past four years. With so many accolades, what is his proudest achievement? His response is as humble as ever. ‘My team mates… are extraordinarily good… so it feels I’ve really achieved something whenever I contribute an answer that they haven’t thought of.’

Furthermore, as someone among the quizzing elite, I ask about the problem of female representation, as seen through recent controversies on shows like University Challenge, with Wadham dropping female-only trials after fears of tokenism. Ian feels there are two main issues at the heart of the matter. ‘The real problem, and the one I think is far more worth solving, is that women, for the most part, don’t actually want to take part in those sorts of quizzes. I think it’s a real shame… as they are missing out on a lot of fun.’ He attributes this issue to the fact that ‘quiz shows appear to be about people showing off their knowledge’, something that may not be to their taste, ‘especially if almost everybody is of the opposite gender’. He adds that he thinks this is a misconception, and that it ‘can be challenged’. His second, and bigger, problem is the way that female contestants are portrayed. They ‘are gawped at and talked about by newspaper journalists and random male viewers, who… comment on their appearance no matter how much they have achieved on the show. That would put off many less dedicated male contestants so, unfortunately, I can’t really say that women who have decided to avoid all that in favour of an easier life… are wrong’. His suggestion for improvement, particularly on a university level, is to think of the future. By entering multiple teams in rigorous earlier quizzes, such as those run by the Quiz Society, you can develop a strong team. ‘Encourage non-finalist female applicants in particular and some of them will enjoy it enough to want to audition for University Challenge.’

Aside from his quizzing, Ian is also known in Oxford student circles for his passion for Doctor Who, something that led to him using the 1970s period of the series as a Mastermind specialist subject, and later to him becoming Vice-President of the Oxford Doctor Who Society. I ask him more about the society, and his role. ‘We meet every Thursday of term time to watch a story and provide a friendly environment in which people who want to learn more about Doctor Who, including the classic era [of] 1963-89, can do so’. As Vice-President, one of his jobs is enforcing the ominous-sounding ‘Three-Year Rule’ ‘to make sure we don’t have repeat showings of some stories, especially of fan favourites that might otherwise be watched every term’. What is his favourite serial then? He replies instantly with The Caves of Androzani, the Fifth Doctor’s final episode. While the episode may be approaching its 34th birthday, it still has a clear impact on Ian, with a sense of awe conveyed in his voice. ‘The shadow of the oncoming death of that Doctor is in every scene and the visuals, score and dialogue complement this magnificently. With no aliens to defeat or evil regime to overthrow, it’s all a nail-biting struggle to survive’. He’s less certain about a favourite from the modern series, but conversation turns to Steven Moffat’s contribution to the show. While he does have reservations about his plot arcs and some of the writing for his female characters, he still confidently asserts Peter Capaldi as his favourite Doctor, as exemplified by Last Christmas, his first Christmas Special. But what of the future of Doctor Who under Chris Chibnall? He’s anxious, especially as, in his opinion, ‘Chibnall has produced some of the dullest… stories I have ever watched’, something only compounded by the loss of fan-favourite writers like Jamie Mathieson who have worked under Moffat. However, he will certainly be watching the show, especially with the arrival of Jodie Whittaker, who ‘might be the very thing that saves it’.

So next time you tune into a quiz show, keep an eye out for Dr Bayley. He may not be an ‘Egghead’ (yet…), but he’s certainly one hell of a smart cookie.

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