This month Olly Mann must find a catchy quotation—but is he up to the task?

You don't say no to BBC Radio 4. Their audience is enormous, their appearance fees are reasonable, and the profile boost from being on their shows is significant. So whatever Radio 4 ask me, I say yes. This has led me to pontificating on the show You and Yours about subjects which, frankly, I have no business discussing. Occasionally I’ve had to express an interest in books I would never actually choose to read, just to get on Front Row.

Considering this “agree first, worry later” approach, it’s a relief that I’ve never been invited on The Moral Maze, for which I’d be too jolly, or Any Questions?, for which I’d be too centrist. But I’d never considered Quote, Unquote as a poisoned chalice, until my agent rang to say that I was booked for it.

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This panel game, which has been running since about 1843, seems at first glance a good fit: it’s a quiz about what famous people said and wrote (I studied literature), it’s gently amusing, rather than competitively comedic (I’m not a stand-up), and it’s resolutely aimed at middle England (I sound like the sort of guy you’d meet in a garden centre). But every recording starts with the long-standing host, Nigel Rees, asking each panelist to contribute their favourite quote.

This obligation made me nervous. I’m not the kind of person who collects quotes. I’m just not. I’ve read roughly half of Dickens, seen almost all of Shakespeare, and watched every Woody Allen film, but if you ask me for a favourite quotation, I go blank. My mind simply doesn’t work that way. I can sing you, verbatim, every lyric to every Supertramp single. But I don’t retain quotes.

 

"I’ve read roughly half of Dickens, seen almost all of Shakespeare, and watched every Woody Allen film, but if you ask me for a favourite quotation, I go blank"

 

The only quote I know—literally, the only one—is Mel Brooks on comedy: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” I love how neatly it uncovers the DNA of laughing at another’s misfortune.

I thought it would suffice as “my quote” in the opening round. But then, as a refresher tool for my appearance on the show, I downloaded the latest edition of Quote, Unquote—and was staggered to hear one of the panelists blurt out the very same line; my Mel Brooks quote.

Now I was in paroxysms of panic. I couldn’t turn up to the recording the next day with a quote that had been cited in the most recently broadcast episode. After a few unhappy hours googling “memorable quotes” (all of which were too well-known: “Nothing to fear but fear itself”; “We shall fight them on the beaches”; “Some of us are looking at the stars”, etc), I discovered a Facebook group devoted to wit and wisdom.

 

 

Much of it I discarded as clickbait for housewives (“May your home be a place where friends meet, family gather, and love grows” and so forth), but one example stood out: “Be nice to nerds. Chances are you’ll end up working for one”—Bill Gates.

I’d never heard that before, but it felt funny and fresh, and the sort of thing the producer might expect me—the youngest, most tech-savvy member of the panel—to say. By the time I reached the green room at the BBC Radio Theatre, I was quietly confident I had a decent opening gambit; victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.

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A runner with a headset came down to tell us we had 15 minutes to show time, and it occurred to me that I didn’t know where Bill Gates had uttered this famous statement of his, and I should probably research into that, just in case it came up. So I conducted a quick search on my smartphone, and discovered that he HADN’T SAID IT AT ALL.

It turns out the line was actually part of an editorial piece by some bloke called Charles J Sykes, published in The San Diego Union-Tribune in 1996. It was falsely attributed to Bill Gates four years later as part of a muchforwarded “inspirational” email, and the internet has (mostly) believed it ever since.

My heart sank. I had nothing else in my arsenal. I knew that, instead of just kicking off the show with my zinger, I would now have to qualify my quote with something like: “A-ha! But it wasn’t said by Bill Gates at all, it was actually some guy you’ve never heard of!”

 

"I was in paroxysms of panic—I couldn't turn up to the recording with the quote that had already been cited"

 

Far from ideal. But I had no choice. As the recording began, I felt like perhaps I should have declined this invitation, after all.

Thankfully, the rest of the show was a treat: the other guests and the audience were lovely, and the game was fun to play. As we walked off set, I said to fellow panelist Julian Mitchell (the octogenarian writer best known for Another Country) that the whole programme was so good-natured it felt as if we’d travelled back to the 1950s.

“Well, I was last on the show in the 1970s,” he replied. “And it was exactly the same then. Even the quotes were the same!”

Now, that’s a quote.

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