I’m not the only one asking questions about Ever Decreasing Circles.
In March last year, the series was a specialist subject on fun TV interrogation Mastermind for contestant Dave Horan.
What’s the name of the suave hairdressing salon owner who moves in next door to pedantic Martin Bryce and his long-suffering wife Ann?
Paul. Too easy. Way too easy.
What traditional party game does Martin play in his garden with the old ladies he’s invited from the retirement home for afternoon tea?
Harder. Charades. Correct.
Which actor plays Ann and Martin’s long-standing friend and neighbour Howard Hughes?
Again, easy. Stanley Lebor.
What dish does Martin plan to cook for himself on the first evening that his wife Ann is in hospital for surgery on her shoulder? He ends up buying fish and chips because he’s forgotten to soak the kidney beans.
Detailed, but weighed down by a bloody huge clue: kidney beans. Name a dish that includes kidney beans. Chilli con carne? Correct.
What is the abbreviated name of the Open University campaign against government cuts that Ann is involved in? Martin disapproves and accuses her of becoming ‘a pawn of the Kremlin’.
Now we’re fully into specialist subject territory. I didn’t get this, despite the second tow-hook clue labouring behind the question. Nor did Dave. It’s OUSA. Arguably, this is the most esoteric question of the lot.
What is the name of supposedly fierce dog that a landowner uses to scare Martin, Howard and Hilda away from what they believe is a public footpath?
Dave passed on this. So did I. No idea. Though, because it’s Esmonde and Larbey (and mainly because it’s comedy), it’s going to be the most unassumingly pacifist name, isn’t it? Daffodil or Cuddles or something. Yes, it is. Blossom. Dave and I both failed this one.
Which two opposing historical groups are represented in the mock battle at the charity fête? The event culminates in single combat between Paul and Martin.
(What is it with this construction that dumps a clue after the question? Third time now.) Slightly too easy. ‘Which two opposingly historical groups?’ (crap grammar) has ‘Roundheads and Cavaliers’ written all over it. And that's correct. The Battle of Naseby: the last episode of the third series.
After Paul announces that he needs to move away for business reasons, possibly to the Channel Islands, what show tune does Martin happily sing while doing the washing up?
Another sod (and Dave’s second pass): the answer is Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’ from Oklahoma! by the peerless Rodgers and Hammerstein.
What is the full name of the psychiatrist who Martin meets at Paul’s Party? Ann suggests Martin should visit him professionally.
Proper hard (and fourth iteration of that clue-after-the-question construction). Dave Wilson. (Nice, bland name: nice, bland character. Very Esmonde and Larbey.)
On Howard and Hilda’s first night on Neighbourhood Watch Patrol, they arrest a burglar who pretends to be a plain clothes policeman. Of what rank?
Another toughie, though a guess within reach: Inspector. Correct.
Some questions reassuringly easy; some quite tough. Retired teacher David Horan chalked up a very creditable eight points.
And Mastermind wasn’t alone.
Twelve months later – this March – I was alerted to the fiendishly difficult Listener Crossword in The Times – puzzle 4441, ‘It’s Dark Up Here’.
If you’re not familiar with The Listener Crossword, my trying to explain it will lose you hook, line and concrete wellies. The potted version is: it’s properly SEND HELP difficult. So let’s assume you either know it, or can’t get anywhere near it. (I’m in the latter category, though with Honours for Bloody Well Trying to be in the former.) Exhibit 1A is clue 1A:
A degree of acidity (to such a degree a taste of tannin is lacking) is a symptom of thrush.
Well now: here’s how this one pans out – according to Alan Connor, crossword maven and author of the bloody marvellous The Joy Of Quiz.
A (= A)
degree of acidity (= pH)
to such a degree (= that)
a taste of tannin is lacking (= tannin’s first letter, so lose a ‘t’ from ‘that’ = ‘tha’)
is a symptom of thrush (definition: aphtha, ‘the disease thrush,’ says Chambers)
A + ph + tha. Piece of cake, eh? (Me neither.)
Around the perimeter of the crossword are the names MARTIN, ANN, PAUL, HOWARD and, in the circled lights, HILDA. The complete set. And circling around the middle are EVER DECREASING OOOOOO and OOZLUM BIRD (look it up), in ever decreasing circles.
The setter, ‘Colleague,’ explains his thinking behind this wonderful puzzle here. I shan’t add anything to it, except to say that it is a work of art.
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A little extra news: when I met Bob Larbey for lunch in December 2010 (see Lunch With Bob Larbey), he told me he hadn’t kept a page of anything he’d written. There were many things I assumed no longer existed – scripts, paperwork, paraphernalia.
This turns out to have been wrong.
I’ll be writing more about this.
Unusually generous props to David Tyler and John Finnemore for alerting me to the crossword, Alan Connor for scraping my brain off the floor and spooning it back in to my gibbering skull – and to Roger Phillips and ‘Colleague’ (who prefers this styling) for their generosity in helping me assemble this post. Plus knightable mentions to Ian Greaves, Matt Larbey and Eryl Jones. Grats, amigos.