What it’s like to be… a £2,000 Criss Cross Quiz man

An interview with Criss Cross Quiz’s big winner

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 28 December 1958

NEW house … new car … even a new job. Six weeks in Criss Cross Quiz meant all these for schoolteacher Rodney Challis-Sowerby.

Just a year ago, 34-year-old Rodney was the first champion to win £2,000 [about £40,000 in today’s money, allowing for retail inflation which doesn’t include house prices – Ed] in Granada’s noughts-and-crosses general knowledge quiz.

The show is back this week for another winter run. Already hundreds of applications from viewers who want to play the game are in the files.

I spoke to smiling Rodney Challis-Sowerby in the study of his new red-brick bungalow in Newton-le-Willows, Lancashire.

Piled on the desk were 50 new books. They were for his school’s library. He was numbering them so they could go on the shelves next morning.

“I’m the head of the English Department in a new school in Warrington,” he explained. “And I’m a different man — thanks to six weeks on Criss Cross Quiz

This is his story …

“I was born near Bolton, and went out to Africa when I was four. My father worked for Tanganyika Railways. When I was seven, we returned.

“I had a good school career, and then went on to a teachers’ training college. On initiation night we students were fooling around, and I had a bad accident. It laid me up for some time. But it did far worse for me than just that — it robbed me of my self-confidence.

“I had a teaching job, but nothing out-of-the-ordinary. I felt it was the best I could do.

“When I saw Criss Cross Quiz on TV, I wrote in, and passed the preliminary paper test.

“Why did I do it? I suppose I wanted to prove to myself that I could do something.

“I did. I went on the air, stayed in the game six weeks, and won £2,020 before I was eventually knocked out by a woman challenger.

“My experience in Criss Cross Quiz improved my morale and confidence, and everything seems to have gone smoothly for me since then. New house, new car and now this better job.

“I’m tackling things now I would never have dreamed of before. I’m doing a lot of writing. I’m producing and acting in amateur dramatics, and I travel around lecturing at evening classes.”

How does it feel to be a quiz contestant? What is it like to walk into a TV studio, a complete stranger, and be challenged on general knowledge in front of millions of viewers?

“I was fortunate in one way,” said Rodney. “I was called to the studio one week, and waited behind the cameras for my turn to come. It didn’t. I was not needed that week. The champion was still going strong.

“And I had a grand time. Everybody connected with the show — producer, quizmaster Jeremy Hawk, technicians, and the people behind the scenes — was very kind. My nervousness soon disappeared.

“The ice had been broken for me. When I went to the studio the following week, I felt completely at home. I went on the air, completely forgot the cameras, and concentrated on the game.

“Brainier men and women challenged me and lost. Not because they didn’t know the answers, but because the strain momentarily overcame them.

“They were camera-shy. One challenger was a post-graduate student of political science, a First Class Honours man. He was doing well against me until a camera moved in close to him. I saw him tremble and sway backwards away from the lens. He fluffed every question after that.”

Does knowing how to play noughts-and-crosses help? “Definitely,” said Rodney. “A Liverpool University man I know who entered for the quiz could get all the answers right, but he was no good at noughts-and-crosses. He lost.”

What about viewer-reaction? Is the champion a TV star overnight? Any fan letters?

“No begging letters, surprisingly enough. I expected a few when I reached the £2,000 mark about Christmas time, but I didn’t get one.

“I had two abusive letters telling me I had won enough and should withdraw to give somebody else a chance. I ignored them.

“I was recognised wherever I went. Shop assistants would hurry to serve me, and passers-by would stop me in the street to congratulate me. When I was on holiday at Oban, in Scotland, a woman approached and asked me if I was Rodney Sowerby. She had a 5s [25p in decimal, about £5 after inflation] bet with her husband that she was right.”

Two men on set
Smiling moment in Criss Cross Quiz… with Rodney Challis-Sowerby (left) and Jeremy Hawk, who ranks as one of Britain’s busiest quizmasters. During the last run of Criss Cross Quiz, Hawk did 80 shows in 12 months. Says Hawk, who returns with the show this week: “I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I’m glad the show is coming back. So are the viewers, according to my fan mail.” Since the last run of Criss Cross Quiz, Hawk has had an underwater fishing holiday in Spain, made two films and appeared in the ITV Christmas musical Alf’s Button

Has a schoolteacher any advantage as a contestant in Criss Cross Quiz?

“I think I had.” said Rodney, “because my special interests are history and geography. And so many of the categories in the quiz were from these subjects: kings, queens, mountains, rivers, capitals, countries, politicians.”

But isn’t it risky for a schoolteacher to chance his reputation before the eyes of the nation?

“The boys at school rarely mentioned it.” said Rodney. “One evening I failed a question on kings. I told Jeremy Hawk: ‘I’ll never hear the end of this at school.’ But not a word from anybody!

“I got into trouble one night, though. I didn’t know the name of one of Pat Smythe’s horses.

“When I got home, my daughters, 11-year-old Loraine and eight-year-old Karen, were disgusted with me. I don’t think they’ve ever really forgiven me for that!”

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