Can you match king of TV sitcom trivia?

He knows the job Victor Meldrew had before retiring, can answer the question 'Who played Granddad in Only Fools and Horses?' and could probably tell you a bit about Mrs Slocombe's pussy, too

Steven Russell

He knows the job Victor Meldrew had before retiring, can answer the question 'Who played Granddad in Only Fools and Horses?' and could probably tell you a bit about Mrs Slocombe's pussy, too. Chris Cowlin loves TV sitcoms so much he's compiled a quiz-book about them. It got Steven Russell thinking

CHRIS Cowlin is only 28, yet his tastes in comedy stretch back to an era before he was a twinkle in his mum and dad's eyes. “Only the other night I was watching Steptoe and Son, and you think 'Even 40 years later, you know the jokes coming and you're laughing already. They're still funny,” he says. “I was brought up with that. My mum and dad had videos and watched it a lot, as well as On The Buses, Open all Hours, Bless this House. George and Mildred, even.” He was also raised on Bread, which started in 1986, when he was about six.

The iconic TV sitcom of his early life is Only Fools and Horses. “Everyone should be an expert on Only Fools and Horses because it's repeated every day, somewhere! I think that's one of the sitcoms that will last another 50 years in the public's memory, because the jokes are great and people still use them now. Anyone called Rodney, I feel sorry for them!” (The hapless character was often dismissed as a plonker by his loving but mentally more agile brother, Del Boy.)


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On average, Chris has written more than one book for each year of his life thus far - most of them quiz compilations about football clubs from Southend to Sunderland and Colchester to Chesterfield. About 18 months ago came The Official Carry On Quiz Book co-compiled with Paul Burton, the innuendo-laden films being another of his passions. But he admits his latest offering, The British TV Sitcom Quiz Book, is the favourite among his 30-plus volumes so far.

“I absolutely love sitcoms! Who doesn't?” he laughs. “To be honest, Steve, I could have done 5,000 questions. To stop at 1,000 was quite hard.

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“I think I've covered all the best shows from the 1960s right up to the present day. It includes Gavin & Stacey and all the classics, and perhaps some sitcoms that people in their 20s wouldn't have heard of. I'm sure there are a lot of surprises in there for people - even people in their 60s and 70s who have forgotten about things that were on television.”

Like what?

“I was going to say Love Thy Neighbour, but perhaps that's not a very good example! Mind Your Language, perhaps. Even today, I've never seen an episode of that myself. Because we live in a politically-correct world, Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language would probably never be broadcast now.”

Chris reckons one of the hallmarks of a successful sitcom is its use of the family setting, because viewers can instantly identify with it. “My Family, which has just gone past 100 episodes, is really Bless This House 30 years on. The kids don't understand the parents, the parents don't understand the kids, and there's no better format, really, because virtually everyone can relate to it and know what people are feeling.

“I look at people's families when I go on holiday,� and I also recognise things in my own family. I think most people would liken theirs to a sitcom. And we identify with Victor Meldrew, when things are constantly going wrong. I know people like that.”

Looking at his childhood, you can see how Chris has come to be compiling questions to intrigue, challenge and frustrate.

He hailed from Walthamstow and moved to the Clacton-on-Sea area when he was about 10, going to Clacton County High.

“Anyone who knew me knew I loved football. I used to go every weekend. I was a Spurs fan. I'd been brought up in a family of Arsenal supporters and I wanted to be different! I liked the way they played - Gazza (Paul Gascoigne) and Gary Lineker were there at the time and they were people's favourite players.

“At school, I always used to quiz people: what was the attendance at that game? Who wore the number seven shirt? What minute was the goal scored? I used to drive people crazy. Even teachers would say 'Chris! Shut up! Stop talking about football!' So nobody I know is at all surprised that I got into quiz books - or that they'd be about football.”

Channelling that passion into something saleable would come a little bit further down the line, after leaving school. Initially, Chris spent just over a year working for a book publisher in London. “I got fantastic experience in that year. I'm very inquisitive; if something's interesting to me, I'll ask 20 questions about it and want to know the ins and outs.”

Then he spent more than two years with a book-publishing company in Colchester. People saw him turning his hand to most tasks, he says, and suggested he ought to start up on his own. “At first you think 'No! Definitely not!'” But it came to pass and seven years ago Clacton-based Apex Publishing was born. It specialises in autobiographies, sport and true crime.

Happily, there have never been any wobbly moments when he's thought “What have I done?”

“Not one day have I got out of bed in the last seven years and thought that I didn't want to go to work. I think if you lose that drive, it's time to pack up and do something else.”

Among the books published last year were autobiographies by Vince Powell, the writer of Bless This House and Love Thy Neighbour; Lea Walker (Big Brother 7); Maria Lawson (X Factor), and Mick Abrahams, a founder member of blues rock/folk rock band Jethro Tull.

There are three staff and himself, though Apex can call on an army of freelance specialists: editors, graphic designs, indexers and so on.

In reading about the company, you'll see Chris described as production manager here, publishing manager there. “When you put 'managing director', it just looks too . . . formal . . . and I don't like that,” he laughs. “Sometimes it will be me that picks the phone up. In most companies, you'd never get that.” He relishes being hands-on and maintaining good relationships with the people he deals with both inside and outside the firm, not going all corporate and being one of those MDs who hides behind closed doors.

And he's not content with simply plodding on from day to day, either.

“I'm one of these people who, once Christmas has come and gone, I start writing everything down that I want to do in the year. I think it's very important that people have goals. If I don't meet them, I'm very disappointed.”

One of the goals with Apex is to sign up some more household-name authors. “But the book has got to be a good read. We focus on that first and the celebrity status second. The two work very well together.”

The company steers clear of what's known as vanity publishing, where authors bankroll all or a proportion of the costs of printing their work, though Chris says some early Apex titles were funded along those lines.

The firm receives about 40 manuscripts a week. I could quite easily make a lot of money charging hopefuls �2,000 a pop to publish their treasured words, he admits, but nowadays it's about books that have a commercial life - not author-funded tomes that gather dust in a pile in their garage.

Chris's own titles came about after Apex published a number of football books, such as The Official Ipswich Town Quiz Book. The chance arose to get involved himself, and the first to bear his name - The West Ham United Quiz Book - rolled off the presses early in 2006.

“It wasn't 'something amazing' - I hadn't written a novel - but people would come and tell me they had enjoyed it, and that's nice. Whether an eight-year-old or an 80-year-old picks it up, there's something in it for everybody.”

Does anyone ever pull him up and insist “You've got that wrong!”?

“There was one question about Colchester player Lomana LuaLua. In a couple of books I used for research, it said it was [manager] Mick Wadsworth who gave him his debut. I know [another former Colchester manager] Steve Wignall very well” - Apex this year published his autobiography - “and he phoned and said 'Chris, it was actually me.' We'd only had about 500 printed at that time, so I very quickly changed it. I can't think of any others.”

Volumes covering Rotherham, Yeovil, Birmingham City, Scotland's Heart of Midlothian and Greenock Morton, West Brom, Sunderland, Coventry, Carlisle and Chesterfield (mainly co-compilations) are due out before mid-November. And at Hallowe'en, appropriately enough, The Horror Film Quiz Book (co-written with Mark Goddard) will be added to the canon.

These books written himself are really the icing on the cake. Chris works on his own titles outside the requirements of the day-job, conscious of the need to maintain a balance between Apex matters, his own projects and family life with wife Julia and son Harry, who's two. Not that it's always easy switching off. . .

“My wife knows I can't sit still for five minutes,” he grins. “So, even while I'm watching football on TV, I'm writing all the stats down.”

CHRIS Cowlin's favourite current sitcom is Gavin & Stacey, though he came to it late on.

“I must admit, I got into it with series two - funnily enough, in the same way as The Office. I watched a few episodes of that and didn't really like it. Someone said to me 'Chris, with The Office, you need to watch it from the first episode, to get it.' I thought 'No . . . It's like food: take a bite of something and don't like it, and you don't do it again.' But I took his advice and saw the first episode. It wasn't until I'd watched two or three that I really got into it and started seeing the jokes.

“Gavin & Stacey was very similar. It gets funnier and funnier. You know when you love a sitcom, because you can watch it again and again and again, and when you watch it a second or third time there are always little bits you didn't notice the first time that you pick up: things in the background, who's doing what, who's saying what.

“Gavin & Stacey is successful because people can relate to it: Stacey having a good friend in Nessa, Gavin having a good friend in Smithy. That to me makes the show - Gavin and Smithy's relationship. There's nothing neither one wouldn't do for the other. And to show a family so close, as well, makes it so much more enjoyable for viewers who can relate to it.”

He's often asked if comedy writing was better in the 1960s and '70s compared to today. “Very difficult question. I think it's just moved with the times. With Gavin & Stacey, there's a bit of talk about sex and a little bit of swearing. You'd never have got that before. I wouldn't want my six- or seven-year-old - if I had one - watching Gavin & Stacey, but you'd not worry about them watching George and Mildred. Whereas there were a lot of innuendos before, now it's more direct.”

My Family he nominates as one of the few contemporary shows parents need have no qualms about, with its clean, family-based good humour.

“I think that's what TV is missing, as well as the good old-fashioned variety shows: things like The Generation Game and Noel's House Party, which I grew up with. Reality TV defines this decade. I just hope British sitcom doesn't fade away because of reality TV. But how long can reality TV go on for? Quite frankly, I think a lot of people are getting sick of it.”

Pit your wits: five sample questions from The British TV Sitcom Quiz Book

1. Only Fools and Horses: In which part of London did the Trotters live?

2. Keeping Up Appearances: Who wrote this sitcom, as well as Last of the Summer Wine and Open All Hours?

3. The Office: What was the name of Dawn Tinsley's boyfriend - Gareth, Keith or Lee?

4. George and Mildred: Name the sitcom that featured George and Mildred before this sitcom was made.

5. Fawlty Towers: How many episodes were made - 12, 22 or 32?

Answers

1. Peckham. 2. Roy Clarke. 3. Lee. 4. Man About the House. 5. 12.

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