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Richard Osman interview for Child Genius

For those who’ve not seen it before, can you explain a little about the show and your role in it?

Child Genius is a competition that’s open to all children between eight and 12, and it’s essentially trying to find very bright kids, kids who are good at maths, English, general knowledge, all sorts of things like that. Kids can nominate themselves from schools, youth clubs, libraries, museums – we then invite 20 down to London for six days to take part in a competition – a series of rounds that test different skills – and at the end of it, one of them is crowned Child Genius of the Year. My job is the quizmaster, asking the questions, but aside from that, I also make sure I’m around all day to chat to the kids, to make sure they know that this isn’t some sort of inquisition, but that I’m on their side, and everyone wants them to do well. My other role is to stand there and be entertained when they make me laugh, which they do almost endlessly.

In some sense, you’re the anti-Paxman.

I like to think so. But all of these kids, give them five or six years, they can all go on the conveyor belt to University Challenge and Paxman can deal with them then.

This year is, apparently, the toughest year yet. Why is that?

I’ve done two years now, I did last year, where the standard was very, very high. But this year there are now 20 kids involved, and the standard is just genuinely phenomenal. Right from the beginning there are some standout performances, but as it went on, suddenly more and more of them started coming into the picture, and there were five, six, seven of them scoring maximum points in various rounds, which is very difficult on this show. So it was a very, very competitive year. But what was interesting was that, in spite of being competitive and super, super bright, they all really looked after each other – there was such a collegiate feel, and they were such a lovely gang who really looked after each other well. They really revelled in the fact that the competition was strong, and they were all doing well. I think they felt very proud of themselves as a group, which was great.

So if you think you can spot the stand out winner from episode one, you might be wide of the mark?

There are definitely more than a few surprises along the way in this series, yeah!

As you say, it all takes place in over a few days in London. Describe what the atmosphere is like over that period.

It’s quite intense. There’s kids who come from all over the country, with their parents, to this place right in the middle of town, The Royal Institution, the home of British science. So it’s quite a special place to be, it has a great vibe about it. They eat together, they revise together, there are cameras everywhere. I always come in in the morning, have a chat, tell them what’s going to happen today, try and have a laugh with them. And they’re staying over in London hotels, and friendships are forming. They’re on a sort of camp, in effect, but it’s a competition, and it’s on telly. The kids, of course, by and large take it in their stride. The parents less so. They’re much more nervous, they fret far more about what will happen. There’s an awful lot of laughter there, too, and kids running around and mucking about and being silly.

So they’re not all meditating or revising or being coached by their parents?

You can see, if they’ve got a specific task, boom – they switch on, they sit down and they focus and do it. But the second they’re out, they’re running down the corridor trying to find where their mate is. It’s a really refreshing combination.

Do you think it’s a valuable opportunity for kids with extraordinary minds to spend time together?

I think so, absolutely. I think it’s really, really positive for kids who are bright, and have just got to that age where it starts to be quite uncool to be bright, and you start not putting your hand up in class. I like the fact that some of the kids come along and they think “I’m with my people, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of here, and perhaps this is actually a positive thing in my life rather than something I need to hide.” I feel that very, very strongly.

Do you think it can be a shock to kids who have always come top of everything to find themselves near the bottom of the scoring?

Yeah, I think so, and I hope so as well. Learning to fail is the most important thing in life, in my opinion, whatever you want to do. If you want to succeed, then you’d better learn to fail pretty quickly, because otherwise you’re doomed. The first thing I say to all of them is “19 of you are not going to win this, but that’s fine, you don’t win most things in life. The key is to make the most of what you’ve got and be happy. Enjoy competing, but don’t ever worry about winning. It couldn’t be less meaningful. In always make sure I say that. I think it’s very useful for them to find a situation where they’re not top dog. I tell my daughter all the time “If you find someone more talented than you, make friends with them. Surround yourself with people you admire. Because there’s going to be plenty of them in your life.

The Royal Institution is a great venue – the wooden auditorium really adds to the atmosphere, doesn’t it?

It’s amazing. That’s where all the Royal Institution lectures are, so all the greatest scientists since the 18th century have lectured there. An awful lot of things have happened in that room. And now there’s me presenting a quiz show! Yeah, it’s great, it gives it a sense of occasion in the way that if you play football, you want to play at Stamford Bridge or Old Trafford. To come along to that lecture theatre, where the history is seeping into the walls, is really special. And the Royal Institution is a celebration of being interested in things and enquiring about stuff, and using your mind to make the world a better place.

Are there any common themes among the families?

No, I don’t think so. I think the fascinating thing is the lack of commonality. You get these kids, all of whom are extraordinary, and it seems to spring from so many different wells. A couple of them do come from the type of family you’d expect, where you imagine the parents get them to do lots of homework. But then others, you can just see it’s really taken them by surprise, and they’d probably rather their kid was a sports star. They come from very different parts of the country, and different parts of the education system. I’ve found the lack of a pattern absolutely fascinating.

Having seen these remarkable kids up close over two series, do you think genius is an innate skill, or a learned skill, or a mixture of the two?

I don’t think genius is a thing. I think you’re probably born with processing power – your brain has a certain capacity, but we’re very aware that most people don’t use all of their processing power. I think that parents who are involved and interested suddenly make their kids 20 per cent cleverer, I think kids who are interested in the world, and find the thing that fascinates them, that makes them 20 per cent cleverer, I think being competitive makes them 20 per cent cleverer, I think it’s a combination of all those things. And then I think hard work makes you cleverer. I suspect hard work is the most important one of all of them.

There’s a big difference between a nine and a 12-year-old. Are the questions tailored at all to account for age?

They’re not at all, which is very interesting. My mum’s a primary teacher, and she’ll say “Look, there’s a big difference between a child who’s born in September and a child who’s born in August.” They’re incredibly different, it takes until the 11th year to catch up. And so it always amazes me when nine-year-olds can take on 11 or 12-year-olds in the same round, but they do. There’s no quarter asked or given for anybody. If you’ve applied, whatever age you are, then you’re thrown in, and the rounds are the same.

We see interviews and footage of the kids and their families. Do you watch that before the competition? Do you know anything about the kids before they enter the crucible?

No, I deliberately don’t. I know where kids are brother and sister, that’s it. I know nothing about the parents. I meet the parents as I’m there. I want to sit down, meet everybody, meet the kids, take them on their own terms, so I don’t look at anything at all. Then sometimes afterwards you watch the home life and you think “Well that’s not what I would have expected!”

Do you have any favourites among them? How do you manage to keep a lid on that?

I’ve hosted quizzes for quite a long time. Quite often in shows there are certain people you want to win. You think “Oh, that would be a nice story.” But you have to be scrupulously fair. With the kids, it’s not necessarily one that you want to win, but you get situations where you think “I really hope this goes well.” There are occasions where it goes badly and you really feel it. Weirdly, this more than any other show I’ve ever done, everybody there, everybody – producer, director, host, experts, everybody wants every kid to answer every question correctly. I’ve never seen a gallery like it, for every single child.

You’re always cracking jokes – do you see it as your responsibility to try and put them at ease?

Yeah. It’s absolutely that, because it is scary for them to be out there, and I always try and remind them that I’m on their side, and the audience is on their side, and everything is okay. I love all of that, and kids respond so well to humour. I always make sure, before we go on, that we have a bit of a laugh about something. They’ll try and make me laugh, I’ll try and make them laugh, and then it’s down to business.

Do you feel the tension more in this than in any other show you’ve presented?

100 per cent. Not for the contestants, particularly – they are tense, but all contestants on all quiz shows are tense – but because you can feel the tension of the production team, which I don’t feel on any other show. I feel a sense of responsibility, a sense that everyone wants everyone to do well. Quite often, on quizzes, if someone gets something wrong, it can be quite good for the show – the jeopardy of what that means. But on this show, everyone is heightened the whole time, everyone wants everyone to do so well. There’s a unique tension in this show, I would say.

Do you have a favourite round in the competition?

In terms of watching, I find some of the complicated maths rounds extraordinary. I see the way that kids respond. There’s also a round where they have to remember a shuffled deck of cards in order. Seeing some of the contestants go through that I find fascinating – seeing how different kids access what’s in their brain. Some kids will put their hands over their eyes, a huge number will shut their eyes, or they’ll be looking somewhere specific. I love watching how they access stuff like that. And the round where they memorise the cards, there were a couple of extraordinary performances in that, and you could have heard a pin drop in that lecture hall.

Do you get many complaints or challenges from parents? Do you ever have parents who are tricky to deal with?

Yeah, but you do in all quizzes. In all quizzes, people want to say “Oh, but how about this, how about that.” So the key, in all quizzes, is to make sure that you’re covered. Make sure you have five sources for all your answers, and make sure that every rule is written down, and you can’t get caught out. Parents will challenge things, in the way that all contestants will challenge things on all quiz shows. That’s why we have the experts in there on the specialist subject rounds – occasionally a parent will say “I thought this could have been the answer to that,” and we’ll sit down with the expert and see if that’s the case. So if there is room for discussion, we’ll give an extra point for an acceptable answer.

How do you think you’d have got on if you’d gone up against this year’s crop?

As I am now? I think in some rounds, the memory rounds, where you have to learn tube maps or playing cards, I think I’d smash it. I’m good at that sort of thing. As soon as you get on to the maths or the spelling, I would be killed. I think I’d do enough to hold on and not be knocked out in the first few days, but I think we’d get to the point where there were seven or eight people left, where I would have gone as far as nature could take me. At that point, their brilliance just takes over.

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