Saturday, 25 March 2017

Derek O'Brien - my favorite quizmaster

I wish I’d written this post before Derek became a politician, anyways it still holds true - as a quizmaster, he is a big part of the faves in my life.

Most people I know do not like Derek O’Brien as a quizmaster.  But I absolutely loved his quizzes, and he was one quizmaster whose questions were closest to what I’d have set myself.


I first took part in Derek’s quiz when he was conducting the North Star Quiz and visited Hyderabad.  I was visiting from Vijayawada with my elder brother and two other college students.  What was interesting was that for the preliminary written round, he made all the teams from the local quizzing club to sit on stage as he read out the questions, to make sure they were not helping each other. It was fascinating to see a western looking gentleman who was as Bengali as it gets. Derek used to ask at least one question on Indian Mythology and the pronunciations used to be hilarious (BiBhiShon for Vibhishana etc.).

While I remember the questions, I remember he was on his best behavior.

Cut to nearly a decade later when I attended the brand equity quiz in Mumbai and he was a totally different animal.  This was a business quiz for corporate employees and there was no stopping him, for he handled a crowd of nearly a thousand+ attendees with great ease.

IMHO His real calling that he missed was to be a stand up comedian.  That evening and in subsequent quizzes I have attended he used to be on top form and the event memorable because it was a laugh-a-minute pure stand-up comedy with a quiz also thrown in. Even the preliminary round which is usually tense, used to be relaxed when he did it himself.

I attended a few brand equity quizzes (including I think the 20th or 21st, the last one - after he’d been elected to parliament) but the one that I remember the most is one where he introduced his dad Neil O’Brien to the audience at the end of the quiz.  Most of us in Mumbai might have never known who he was, save for quizzers like me or those from Kolkata who read his quiz columns in telegraph. 

I remember it because everyone stood up and gave him a strong ovation, it was moving. Neil O’Brien was a member of Parliament who represented the anglo-Indian community and was a popular journalist from Calcutta and a veteran quizmaster. And that standing ovation was a fitting tribute and represented our gratitude to the veteran.

Most people in India I think have missed out the best of Derek’s quizzes because you have not seen a live quizzing event (and definitely not a school quiz where he’s restrained) and also because you haven’t seen him do this on foreign shores.

I think Derek’s best and his most outstanding quizmaster performances were when he was abroad.  I attended about five of his quizzes across as many years in Dubai where the attendant crowd was a cosmopolitan global multi-ethnic community with as many whites as Asian, Middle-Eastern and South-Asian attendees.   I need to admit it was proud to see an Indian who could effortlessly impress and win their hearts within a few minutes of being on stage.  I think it’d be fair to say most of the audience paid happily to join in the quiz (yes, it was not free attendance as it was organized at a hotel).  The questions were delightfully global and caught the imagination and relatable to an international audience.  Also relatable was his flair for comedy, without offending any.

What stood out for me was how unabashedly Derek wore his country colors and was a flag bearer for the nation.  Some comments would stand out, and his patriotism was on full flavor if (sadly rare) India had beaten some other country in cricket.  On the occasion the winner was an Indian he’d ask for the nationalities and say ‘Mera Bharat Mahaan’ for the Indian on stage.  This was a long long time - nearly a decade before he joined politics.

I need to admit the humor could grate for different reasons.  Stand-up comedy in general can be a little rough where a different level of candid discussion putting someone in the spotlight can hurt. But equally its only for ‘mature audiences’ and wasn't meant for school kids (or teachers). Derek thoroughly enjoyed doing business quizzes where both adult topics as well as humor could be openly discussed without being queasy.  He of course, used to be on his best behavior during the school quizzes.

One of the reasons I think he also wasn't popular was he was firm and a stickler for rules and doing the right thing.  This obviously meant he’d vet out teams if he felt they were cheating or not from the same institutions and could be hard on them.  

There were other values he held dear - one of them was always including a question related to David Ogilvy (or his agency's work) in his business quizzes as a mark of respect & tribute to his agency & mentors.

Makes one wonder why anyone with all of these qualities (flag waver, doing the right thing, frankness etc.) would get into politics… :-)).  I do not really follow the politics but there was a tinge of sadness when he got there because not only would it change the man, but he’d stop being available for quizzes.


I enjoy catching up on his quizzes - hopefully the Bournvita Quiz for schools will continue on TV, and hopefully he’ll also do some of his business quizzes - which I highly recommend you watch live. Its not to be missed!!.