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The Quiz Master
He is rarely off our TV screens as one of BBC2’s Eggheads, but quiz champion Kevin Ashman tells SARAH JONES that the fame game is definitely not for him.
“IT’S PROBABLY BEST WE DON’T meet at my house, it’s so full of clutter that there’s nowhere to sit.”
Perhaps Kevin Ashman – quiz champion extraordinaire and Eggheads panellist – is just being a little houseproud.
It can’t be that bad surely?
But when we meet at his local library instead, I soon realise that this is one man who is definitely not prone to exaggeration or excuses.
Whether it’s discussing his lack of prowess in the kitchen (he doesn’t even own a cooker or a fridge) or reflecting on winning Mastermind (and setting the show’s highest ever score), he tells it like it is with no need for gloss or elaboration.
Unassuming and modest, he drops into the conversation quite casually that he won not only the World Quiz Championships but also the European and the British versions – and all of them three years in a row.
Astonishing as it may seem, he never crams before a big competition (he just tries “to have a glance at the basics”) and rarely reads for anything other than pleasure.
Instead the key to his success seems to lie in his lightning speed recall and the way he constantly soaks up information like a sponge.
It is not a conscious decision on Kevin’s part: he is simply very interested in what goes on around him.
“I’m the most disorganised person in the world,” he says. “I don’t have a photographic memory or anything like it, I wish I did.
“I just try to absorb things as I go. In a sense I never really switch off.”
The 48-year-old puts his hunger for learning down to having to make his own amusements as an only child.
Born and bred in Winchester, Kevin taught himself to read at the age of three and was devouring an encyclopaedia set meant for much older children just a few years later.
His love of reading has never dimmed.
He buys hundreds of books a year, and can often be spotted among the shelves in his favourite haunt – Waterstones in Winchester.
“I think I am their number one customer,” says Kevin. “I must spend an incredible amount of money, I’m not one of life’s savers I’m afraid. I read some of them. I skim lots and unfortunately some I never get to.”
With his home crammed full of thousands of books, he admits, “there is just about room for me” – and I believe him 100 per cent.
Now widely regarded as the country’s top player, for years his quizzing exploits were confined to playing along with TV shows at home.
It wasn’t until he joined the Ministry of Defence as a civil servant (after graduating from Southampton University with a history degree) that he joined a quiz league and his impressed colleagues persuaded him to apply for Mastermind.
He made his TV debut on the iconic show fronted by the late-Magnus Magnusson in 1987.
“The first time I appeared on TV was extremely nerve-racking,” remembers Kevin. “My head was pounding and I felt nauseous but as soon as the lights went down I switched into performing mode.”
It was a very promising start and while he may have lost on passes in the semi-final, a seed had been sown.
Victories followed on Fifteen to One, Sale of the Century, Quiz Night, Trivial Pursuit and The Great British Quiz.
When Mastermind was unexpectedly opened up to former contestants in 1995, Kevin was accepted for the new series but only as a reserve contestant.
Luckily for him, another contestant pulled out at short notice, and Kevin found himself back in the famous black chair.
Scoring a phenomenal 41 points with no passes (his specialist subject was Martin Luther King), he earned a place which still stands in the Guinness Book of Records and later went on to win the series.
The following year he lifted the Radio 4 Brain of Britain title. The World, European and British championships’ “hatrick of hatricks” followed.
He left the civil service around the Millennium to care for his ageing parents, who he had lived with all his life. His father passed away in 2001 and his mother the year later.
Kevin’s well-thumbed diary – a mess of scribbled, jumbled notes – is always full these days, either with local quiz league fixtures (he is a member of teams both in London and Winchester) or some engagement or other.
When a job as the question setter on Brain of Britain was offered to him shortly after his mother passed away, it was ideal timing – but last year he fell victim to a BBC reorganisation, when the team was moved to Manchester.
But Kevin didn’t need to worry because he had already become a panellist on BBC2’s Eggheads, the weekday teatime quiz show, which has proved a huge success.
Starting in 2003, the programme pits a panel of five British quiz champions (billed as “the most formidable quiz team in the country”) against a new team of challengers each episode.
Attracting around 2.5m viewers per episode, Eggheads is rarely off screen thanks to a constant stream of repeats which fill the gap between each new series.
For Kevin, his stint as a TV quiz show contestant came long before the days of the really huge cash prizes.
By the time the likes of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? arrived, he had far too many victories under his belt to be accepted onto a show like that. Chris Tarrant might as well have signed the cheque before Kevin even turned up.
Besides, his Eggheads contract forbids him from taking part on other TV shows anyway.
He can’t complain though he makes a comfortable living from the popular show and has won a couple of cars including a Jag (not being able to drive, he sold them), a trip to Australia, as well as “little bits” of cash “here and there”.
With a rare space in his diary to fill, he wants to enquire about an Indian dance performance being held at the library that evening.
As we say our goodbyes, Kevin – clutching a plastic bag of books – heads to the reception desk.
Pity any future Eggheads contestants if questions come up on Indian dance.