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Happy Helen's winning ways
After winning the Brain of Mensa title, as well as appearing in a string of television quiz shows, Helen Grayson might be forgiven a touch of intellectual arrogance but, as LESLIE BRYAN discovers, the Leeds University clerk is refreshingly down to earth.
THE voice is sparky, bright and clear, There's a laugh in every sentence. It's not hard to imagine the smile that goes with it. Helen Grayson fairly lights up the telephone line on which we are talking.
But then the very appearance of this slight, friendly figure can throw shivers into the heart of the toughest of men. For when it's time to answer questions Helen Grayson gets tough. Such is her competitive streak that a string of quiz show titles have come her way - the latest being the Brain of Mensa, the final of which she recently won in Birmingham.
That follows on other successes including a winning performance on the television show 15-1, the latest in a line of impressive small screen appearances. In fact Helen's been appearing on television programmes since the early Seventies when she joined the ranks of winners on the chirpy Sale of the Century hosted by Nicholas Parsons. She was a finalist in Mastermind in the Nineties. And this year she got through to the series grand final of 15-1, the show presented by host William G. Stewart.
For all that, however, Helen is never quite happy with her TV persona, which she says is very different from how she is in ordinary life. So, why then, does this ebullient, friendly and cheerful woman look so different on screen? "I suppose it is because I am concentrating so hard," she says. "Once the quiz actually starts then it's all about winning."
Which, of course, she does more often than not. Her depth of general knowledge, together with that concentrated resolve, has stood her in good stead when it comes to competing for quiz titles. Nowhere more so than in the recent Brain of Mensa final when she beat off the challenge of old rival Gavin Fuller (himself no slouch when it comes to winning competitions) and other finalists to take the Millennium year championship.
"That was a good win," she says. "I was very happy to win Brain of Mensa. I've won it once before... and still got the trophy. So it was good to win again."
So, what exactly is the attraction of quizzes? "Oh, showing off," she says laughing. "If you are good at something, I think it's all right to show off a little."
That might sound like a little display of intellectual arrogance but it's far from being the truth. Although there's no false modesty about Helen Grayson, she's very much a down-to-earth-person.
Among her favourite competition venues are the pubs and clubs of her local Airedale Quiz League - where, naturally, she has proved a winner and is presently the reigning "Airehead" champion of the singles league.
So, is there a sigh of resigned distress from other competitors whenever she walks into the bar? "Not really, there are some very good people in the Airedale competitions, they are tough opposition."
Helen can be pretty tough, too. She used to take part in team quizzes but fell out with other members of her side when she dug her heels in over a matter of principle. "I refused to take part in a quiz in a Conservative Club," she says... and just in case you think she is becoming overly serious bursts into another round of generous laughter.
Even for a tough cookie like Helen, however, competing can be nerve-wracking. "Oh, it's horrible," she says. "I get wracked with nerves. If you arc on television you know there are lots of people watching and you don't want to make a fool of yourself.
"You want to get it right. Maybe that's why I look so dopey, because I'm worried about looking silly."
So is it more relaxing, then, in the finals of non-televised competitions like Brain of Mensa?
"Oh, no. There are a lot of stresses involved with that as well, from whether the train is going to get you there on time to whether the other competitors are going to have the edge on you." (Modestly, Helen says she might have been lucky at the Birmingham final because Gavin Fuller, who she obviously respects as a difficult opponent, was "feeling a bit under the weather and not perhaps at his best, luckily for me").
But what has been her favourite moment in the quiz show arena? Well, it definitely wasn't appearing on Sale of the Century, even though she won it. "Nicholas Parsons was horrible," she says. "He made no attempt to set up a rapport with the candidates at all."
Perhaps in revenge, she decided to sell her winner's prize, a diamond necklace, and used the money to fund a Club Med. holiday to Corsica. The prizes that have come her way since have never quite been so valuable - except for their worth in esteem. "It seems the harder the quiz the less the prize," she says. She could be forgiven, then, for putting her talent to the test and competing for the big one, the ultimate prize in Who Wants to Be A Millionaire... except that Helen absolutely hates the show.
"It's awful. It's not a real competition, it's just for people in loud shirts. Besides which it's almost impossible to get on!"
For those who do want to have a go, how-ever, has she any advice on how to polish their skills? "I just think it's important to keep the grey matter working. I remember when I got to the final of Mastermind in 1990 I had just completed an Open University degree and this year I've been studying classical Greek - that keeps your brain in gear!"
It's at this point I notice Helen's formidable mind is gradually drifting off. Is the interview boring her?
; "Not at all, but the football is about to start and I don't want to miss it. It should be good, France are playing."
It transpires she has long been a football fan, since growing up on the south coast. Her favourite team is Southampton.
Which only goes to show that even the Brain of Mensa doesn't get it right all the, time...
MENSA MAGAZINE August 2000