Listener Crossword: History

9. Miscellany

9.1 The Oxford Dictionary of English (OED)

On a few occasions, setters find they must include in the grid a word found only in the ultimate English dictionary, the OED. Conversely, this publication contains references to the Listener Crossword. These occur in the entries for clue, light, Playfair and setter. (Thanks are due to Roger Phillips for finding these.)

9.2 Well-known solvers

The names of some famous people have appeared as prizewinners, sometimes before they were quite as well-known. Examples include:
  • Hugh Trevor-Roper, later Lord Dacre (historian);
  • Sir Hermann Bondi (scientist);
  • Sir Arthur Davies, Secretary-General, 1955–79, World Meteorological Organization;
  • Sir David Willcocks (musician);
  • Sir David Hunt (diplomat), winner of the Mastermind “Champion of Champions”; he wrote an account of the crossword in The Listener’s 50th anniversary edition.
  • Marghanita Laski, the writer, admitted to solving some puzzles, particularly the literary ones, in a letter in 1982: see the “Letters” section.
Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein were well-known to be devotees. In 1976, at the time Bernstein’s book The Unanswered Question was published, he was interviewed by D.A.N. Jones, for his weekly series Ad Lib in The Listener. (Jones often attended Listener Dinners as the magazine’s representative.) The following was part of his article (June 10, 1976):
“I know Bernstein is fond of The Listener crossword (Stephen Sondheim gives him The Listener as part of his Christmas present) and I wondered if he ever attempted our mathematical puzzles, since the technicalities in his book suggested that he had mathematical leanings. But no: he says he has mathematical leanings but is not mathematically astute—so he merely reads the rules of the contest, and marvels. ‘I like words better than numbers. I like words nearly as much as I like notes.’ Bernstein and Sondheim claim that they get The Listener in batches, at irregular intervals, from some sort of tramp steamer.”

A further article (January 6, 1977) contained a full section:
“The songs [in the show I Gotta Shoe] include good new material by Brahms and Sherrin and two of the cast, but also excellent work by Harold Arlen, Gershwin and Sondheim. This reminds me that, since Ned Sherrin seems to be in good form, I must try to see his other show, Side by Side with Sondheim, at Wyndham’s.
     Stephen Sondheim appeared on The Lively Arts (BBC2), last Sunday, and remarked, in the course of some valuable remarks about the musical theatre, that he was addicted to the Listener crossword. He managed to tell the world that ‘Cinerama’ is an anagram of ‘American’ before André Previn could steer the discussion away from these esoteric matters.
     ‘Why haven’t the maintenance men been given roles in Sondheim’s show?’ This is a clue in a crossword I received, as another Christmas present, from Eric Chalkley, who sets Listener puzzles, under the name of ‘Apex’. This skilful puzzle is dedicated to certain favoured solvers—who are named in the clues. For instance: ‘Would Bernstein use the tot when conducting an Oriental Symphony?’
     Last year, Eric Chalkley sent me a personal crossword. Certain letters had been omitted from each answer. When set out, they spelt ‘D. A. N. Jones: Ad Lib’. He also sent me an ingenious clue to my own name. I responded with a clue to ‘Eric Chalkley’—‘I ache with clerkly contortions.’ Get it?
     One may well think of these puzzles as a waste of time, merely a way of showing off to a tiny audience. But many games are like that—and it is reassuring to remember that brilliant musicians are playing the same game. Have crosswords and musical composition anything in common?“

In 1979, Ad lib was discontinued, although D.A.N. Jones occasionally wrote the Langham Diary. On July 17, 1980 he wrote:
“People who actually enjoy light music will be interested in Stephen Sondheim’s latest production. So will even the tone-deaf word-men. It is a collection of the cryptic crosswords he composes for New York magazine—most of them, he says in his foreword, ‘American adaptations of puzzles from THE Listener, a weekly publication of the BBC’. He explains, in this American publication, the ground rules of the British crossword—and his advice will be useful for newcomers to the Listener crossword, to whose setters many of Sondheim’s puzzles are dedicated.”

9.3 Not the Nine O’Clock News

This sketch show ran on the BBC from 1979 to 1982. It took an irreverent and often highly humorous look at life at the time, in the format of a news bulletin. (A full account can be read HERE.)

In 1980, the BBC published a one-off “magazine” similar in style to the show. It contained spoof Competition Pages, one of which contained The Listener Crossword 7,890,405. Copyright prevents it being reproduced here, but the following are its salient features. The grid consisted of two bar codes at right angles. Although the preamble was patent nonsense, some of the clues showed that the “setter” had assimilated features of the puzzles. For example, 5A was: “Sit old pogo rod on dim raffia newel-post. Hey nonny!”

The setter was Atahualpa. The solution for No 7,890,404 consisted of a symmetrical blocked grid filled with Chinese ideograms; the winners were Atahualpa (14, The Cuttings, Maidenhead) and Mrs Atahualpa, of the same address.

9.4 The House of Commons

The future of the Listener puzzle series was thrown into doubt in 1997 when there were space constraints within The Times. This led to a vigorous campaign by its devotees, including an Early Day Motion for the House of Commons, drafted by Peter Robinson MP, after an approach from one of his constituents. It boldly stated the primacy of the series and called for the Editor of The Times to find space. The full text can be read HERE.

The puzzle published on August 23, 1997 carried the announcement: “Contrary to rumour, the Listener Crossword is safe”.

9.5 T2 Crossword Nos 3212 and 3213

These puzzles were published in 2004, on the eve and the day of the Setters’ Annual Dinner. The following were contained within the answers:
Derek and Ross were the co-editors at the time, while (John) Green is the statistician.

9.6 Advert

The classified ads in The Times of Aug 12, 1982, included the following:
     have a crack at The Listener
     crossword — probably the toughest
     in the world! Every Thursday in the [sic]
     The Listener magazine.
(Spotted by Roger Phillips.)

Back to History main page
  1. The first puzzles
  2. Grids and Clue formats
  3. Later developments
  4. Setters
  5. Editors
  6. Prizes
  7. Statistics
  8. Correspondence
  9. Miscellany
  10. Further information