Total recall: From NTU to TV quiz stardom – the extraordinary career of Olav Bjortomt
There's no question about it. Olav Bjortomt is as sharp as a tack. The international quiz player is a four-time individual European champion. He won the first Quiz Olympiad in Athens in 2016 and made it into the Guinness World Records last year as the youngest-ever winner of the Quizzing World Championships.
Today, Olav works for ITV’s The Chase. You can also catch him as one of the experts on Channel 5’s quiz show, Eggheads.
He’s the brains behind The Times newspaper’s daily quiz, and before that spent ten years setting questions for BBC2’s esteemed University Challenge.
Olav's impressive CV doesn't end there. He works as a writer for the prime-time TV show Beat the Chasers (which recently won the TV Times Award for Favourite Game Show).
What you may not know, is that Olav is an NTU alum, having studied for a Postgraduate Diploma at our Centre for Broadcasting & Journalism back in 2001.
The thought of Interviewing Olav is intimidating. A quiz expert with a successful TV career, he’s an esteemed writer who was winning national journalism awards even before graduating.
No pressure then.
Thankfully, Olav is highly personable and – considering his success – extremely modest.
“I’m not a genius,” he says. “I’m just good at remembering quiz questions.”
Olav is talking to us today from London, in between compiling content for The Times quiz, and various other high-profile TV shows. He's happy to reminisce about his time at NTU.
“I have good memories of the place,” Olav says. “I took my postgraduate diploma with you because I wanted to stay in Nottingham and continue to write for a university magazine.
“Part of my plan was to win lots of student journalism awards, and so I doubled up on all my entries! And it worked because I was named Student Journalist of the Year in 2001, runner up in Critic of the Year. Oh, and Feature Writer of the Year – three times.
“Fun fact,” Olav adds, “the judge who said doubling the entries in the student journalist awards ‘might have been cheating’ is now Chief Content Officer at Channel 4.”
Was any of this good preparation for what Olav is doing now?
“I was taking advantage of the environment,” he says. “When you’re working in student media, you can cover anything you want, be as ambitious as you want. When you go on to the nationals, you’re told what to do.
“I was arranging interviews with the likes of Zadie Smith and Anne Widdecombe,” he says.
“I also covered some very serious issues. I’d walk around Nottingham's city centre handing out small gifts to people, hoping they’d tell me their stories. It was eye-opening, and it got me a job at The Times as a trainee.”
And what of Nottingham?
“It’s a great city, in a great location, right in the middle of the country. I loved it,” Olav says. “That’s why I stayed longer. The people are brilliant. I don’t have any complaints.”
Were there any standout highlights on the postgraduate course?
“I think my favourite student journalism experience was writing to the radio DJ John Peel with an interview request. He called me a couple of months later and invited me down to Radio 1. We ended up doing an hour-long interview in his studio," Olav remembers fondly.
“He was the nicest and most generous celebrity I have ever met – and one of the few who bothered replying.”
Olav plays it down, but he’s bright – very bright. Had this always been the case?
“History was always my best subject as a kid,” he says. “So I’d get 99 out of a hundred history exam questions right. It’s a weird thing to say, but when you do what I do at a professional level, things come to you so easily that you don’t know how it happens. I did my first quiz show – Fifteen to One – in 1995 at the age of 17.
“I took part in the first British Quiz Championships in 1999 and ended up beating quite a few of the big names on the circuit – people like Mark Labbett from The Chase. I’ve worked at it ever since.”
Being on national television must be an amazing feeling – does Olav feel like a celebrity?
“Not really!” he says. “We’ve been wearing masks for most of it since the pandemic, so no one has noticed me walking down the street. Tell a lie – the man who sells me train tickets finally recognised me the other day. I get interviewed more these days as I’m listed as a quiz expert on the BBC database.
“Eggheads is only one facet of what I do. It’s recorded twice a year and over a period of six weeks. My day job is writing questions for The Chase and The Times quiz. Then there’s Moneyball presented by Ian Wright and Sitting on a Fortune with Gary Lineker.”
Olav clearly has little to prove on the memory and recall front. Surely, he’s the ideal person to ask for study and revision tips?
“I’ll never forget what one of my tutors told me,” he says. “If you ever knuckled down and did some proper work Olav, you’d get a First! Before every exam, I’d use my quiz skills to learn 12 quotes word for word. I certainly spent more time hanging around newspaper offices than I did in the library. I’m probably not the best person to ask!”
As our interview draws to a close, we feel the need to ask what the future might hold for Olav? And do professional 'quizzers' ever retire?
“I don’t know,” he says. “The Chase is going to go on at least a couple more years with Bradley [Walsh]. It's just won a BAFTA.”
Talking of Bradley, we’ve got to ask – what’s he really like?
“He’s lovely,” says Olav. “The first time I met him, he was wearing this blue tracksuit and I thought, is he going to pull this off? But he works perfectly because you need someone on the contestant’s side. He’s an incredible entertainer.
"As for the future, The Chase offers a year-round job, and I’d be foolish to up and leave. Plus, I’ve got an ITV pension now! Besides, I used to write quiz questions for free, and now I’m being paid for it! Who knows what will happen in the next ten years, but I’d be happy to do The Times quiz until I’m in my seventies. I’d like to think people will always have an appetite for quizzes.”
Photo credit: Eggheads on Channel 5