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Neil O'Brien Unplugged - an evening of memories Author:Amit Ukil   Posted On:2017-09-15

 

Neil O'Brien Unplugged - an evening of memories

Nostalgia, conversations, a new quiz book and the DI ... who could ask for more? Read Amit Ukil's interpretation of that beautiful full moon night.

It was a full moon night. Not just any full moon. Buddha Purnima had advanced by a few days this year to May 10, coinciding with the 83rd birthday of Neil O’Brien – husband, father, grandfather, educationist and a pioneering quizmaster. The moonlight glowed down onto the DI lawn, adding to the shine of a programme being held to celebrate the life and times of an extraordinary person, a fathomless receptacle of knowledge, and a mentor to many.

My Way and the DI Open

Neil O’Brien Unplugged, as the event had been aptly termed, was an assembly of family, friends and quizzing colleagues that he had gathered over five decades. And there were so many. The quest for memories and recollections that evening almost matched the zest for questions and their answers that characterized this luminary through most of his lifetime. Interspersed, of course, were rounds of quizzing and prizes on-the-spot. A Doordarshan interview of the man, screened in two parts, showed him talking about his experiences and path-breaking techniques in quizzing, with the “I did it my way” tune playing in the background.

Many in the quizzing circles know that the DI Open Quiz is held in May, the month that Neil O’Brien stuck to despite the height of heat. “From this year, we shall defer the event to November and call it the DI Open Neil O’Brien Quiz for the Errol Cowper Trophy,” announced son Barry, who presented the proceedings.

The Calcutta Quiz Book Release

A highlight of the evening was the release of “The Calcutta Quiz Book” by the legendary quizmaster. The honour was bestowed on his wife Joyce, who rejoiced in her husband’s capacity to transform her, making her “feel like the greatest woman in the world”. She no doubt was his able companion, sharing the aftermath of a quiz he conducted as well as being the “controlling factor” in his life. Joyce was accompanied in the book release by their granddaughters Aanya, Raisa and Nadia.

Questions and conversations

Barry then in phases called on stage well-known quizzers who were either questioned by him or had questioned with him (or both), asking them to share their memories. Partha Dutta, Sanjoy Mukherjee, Abhijit Banerjee, R.M. Sen, Dilip Chatterjee, Otri Bhattacharya, Brian Cecil, Ian Zachariah, Pratim D. Gupta and Rhona Scolt recounted their unique experiences, from the early days, when quizzing was a simple affair, to the recent, where technology, fashion and the internet had widened the scope and made a pastime professional.

Chatterjee, who invented the North Star Quiz competition to promote the Bata brand, recalled how he had roped in Derek as a quizmaster. “Sadhan Banerjee (well-known quiz master) had emigrated to Australia and we needed someone. I asked Derek to do it, and his father objected, saying he hasn’t a clue! Leave that to me, I assured him… And the rest, we all know, is history”. He added, “The quiz was held regularly at the DI, and I remember sharing a drink with Mr O’Brien. It was a wonderful feeling.”

Neil O’Brien was the bug that bit many sharp young men in those days, infusing the quizzing enzyme into their systems. “My entry was quite by accident when I attended the Eddie Hyde quiz in 1968. I didn’t know a thing about it, but when I saw him conducting, I was smitten,” Cecil, an established quizzer, reminisced. Bhattacharya too recalled how he had first encountered the father of Kolkata’s quizzing while in school, “and grew up and even shared drinks with him, quizzing all the way”. Sen, who was once the honorary secretary at DI, said of him, “He had a stentorian voice, which is apt for a quizmaster. His abilities won me over, and I have been conducting the Argus quiz in his footsteps for the last 38 years.”

Testimonials and recollections proved beyond doubt that Neil O’Brien was thorough, methodical and meticulous while preparing for and conducting a quiz. “An important part was the post mortem he used to hold after an event,” pointed out Zachariah, while Scolt referred to the painstaking research that he carried out before a quiz. “My first quiz book was his QuizziCal,” said Gupta, who first attended the DI Open Quiz when he was 10 years old. Barry noticed his potential and put him in the South Point school team when he was a Class 7 student.

 

Online Conversations

Phone-in comments came in from Perth to Patna. Son Andy, who helped his dad organize several quizzes in the early days and could not be present that evening, revealed that as a DI(A) team-maker, “he would concentrate on persons who knew what he didn’t know”. Speaking from Patna, Shouvik Guha, who has represented the DI for years, remarked, “He was strong, humble and self-confident. His humility allowed him to reach out to many others. I learnt many things from him.”

Brothers chat

Towards the end of the programme, Barry called on stage brother Derek for a chat about their father and his ways. At the outset, Derek pointed out that the book release could have been held in Delhi or the Raj Bhavan in Kolkata. “But we chose the DI, because this is where he nurtured quizzing, from where quizzing spread to many other places.” About the event, he said the content was supplied by his father (from Neil O’Brien’s secret diaries, in which he used to jot down information whenever he came across something new, converting them to questions). “The heart of the evening was provided by our mom, Joyce, while Andy gave us spiritual guidance. I was responsible for the production, and Barry was the best presenter we had around.” He added that the brothers had been doing quizzes since the 1980s. “About 20 per cent of the questions and ideas were by us. All the rest came from Dad’s diaries.” Indeed, it took something like the revolutionary internet to replace his giant work, remarked Barry.

Winners all

There were special prizes for School Students in the 20 Question Written Quiz conducted earlier in the show. Aditya Narayan Sen of Gems Akademia School and Spandan Sengupta of St James School were the school toppers.

The winner in the open category was Jayashree Mohanka, while the second place was won by Bhaskar Dutta. The questions here related to Kolkata, while the other on-the-spot ones were varied, from the O’Brian technique is used in which sport (shotput) to audio rounds, including what was common between three songs that were played. Other than gift hampers, meal prizes were sponsored by Flury’s and The Park. A very able emcee for the evening was Andrew Scolt, himself an accomplished presenter and son of quizmaster Alban Scolt.

Neil O’Brien Unplugged went beyond the two hours that were slotted for it, but most of the audience stayed till the very end, enjoying every minute as many a ‘secret’ about his legendary quizzing travails were revealed one after the other. “It’s as if Dad was saying ‘Hey, not bad!’ from above,” Derek remarked. And why not? After all, the event was full of the three things he loved the most – Kolkata, quizzing and life.