I considered interviewing quizmaster and TV presenter Bamber Gascoigne, who has died aged 87, sometime in 2000 when I was contributing features for Book and Magazine Collector.I had read somewhere that he was very interested in colour prints and had written a book about identifying prints of all kinds.
I approached him and he was happy to meet me, so we arranged a date. Unfortunately, it had decided to rain heavily that day, so when I knocked on the front door of his beautiful Georgian terraced house on the Thames at Richmond I was soaked to the skin. I seem to recall that I actually asked for a towel to dry my hair and not only did he oblige, but he also thrust a bottle of beer into my hand, which was equally welcome in the circumstances. For a keen quizzer like myself, meeting the former presenter of ‘University Challenge’, could possibly have become the sort of ordeal that appearing on ‘Brain of Britain’ and ‘Mastermind’ had been a few years earlier ( I had failed to get on ‘University Challenge’ while at University).
Luckily, Gascoigne put me at my ease immediately. The beer was soon gone and by the time we got on to the subjects of Richmond and colour prints I was well and truly relaxed. We talked about the history of colour printing in Britain and he went to his shelves and brought down a few examples of his favourite books. I got the impression that here was a true scholar who knew his subject intimately. The subject then turned to Richmond. Apparently, he had done some research on the ways in which Richmond had been depicted in prints over the centuries. The result was the publication of a very plush limited edition, Images of Richmond: a Survey of the topographical prints of Richmond in Surrey up to the year 1900 (1978) which he showed me.
While preparing for the interview I discovered that Gascoigne was also an acknowledged expert on the farce, particularly the Feydeau farces. I had planned to ask him about this passion, but was so distracted by the quality of his library and by the books he showed me that I cannot recall anything about farces, and indeed his professional career as a theatrical critic and successful dramatist—his play, ‘Share my Lettuce’, written while an undergraduate —was brought up. I regret not asking these questions now.
Throughout my short time with him Gascoigne came across as a very friendly and scholarly historian, rather than a dry intellectual. Looking back I am at a loss to understand why he was ever seen as an intellectual. Perhaps it was something to do with his scholarly mien, domed forehead and no-nonsense style while quizzing students on TV. Is Stephen Fry an intellectual ? I don’t think so. Viewers are apt to form impressions of people from their looks and voice and most who watched the twenty-five old Gascoigne host ‘University Challenge’ in its first episodes would have assumed that here was someone plucked from academia.
The quiz show made Gascoigne a household name and brought him wealth—hence the gracious home in Richmond. Popular historical TV work followed, notably a series entitled ‘The Christians ‘. There were books too. There were also the inevitable indignities with his name, which incidentally goes back at least to the eighteenth century, when the MP for Liverpool was called Bamber Gascoigne. Private Eye’s motoring correspondent was dubbed ‘Bamber Gasket’; he was parodied by ‘ The Young Ones ‘ and even appeared as himself in one particular spoof. Here was someone with no ‘side ‘, who was utterly devoid of pomposity, hence, I suppose, his general popularity. Before I ended the interview I asked him what he was doing at present. He told me with some pride that he was developing an online resource on History which he hoped would eventually contain over 6 million items. [R M Healey]