Paul Partridge
Paul Partridge posing the questions in the Rusty Bucket

“Should we wash hands before changing papers, Paul?”

It’s a Tuesday night in Eltham and Eric, a regular in pubs around here, is asking quizmaster Paul Partridge about the hygiene of teams marking each other’s answers, with just a hint of a smirk.

“I’m highly sanitised, Eric,” replies Paul. Then without missing a beat: “It’s all part of the PPE: the Paul Partridge Experience.”

The venue is The Rusty Bucket, a tiny craft beer bar just off the high street, hosting its first quiz since the coronavirus forced the closure of pubs around the UK. Five teams — reduced from the usual nine — sit around equally spaced tables.

“List all 16 celebrities mentioned in Madonna’s Vogue.”

Tonight it’s a specialist music quiz. None of the songs mentioned over six rounds were made any later than 2002. Someone scored 14 in another of his venues last night, he says. “Little bit racist down there, but I don’t mind that really,” deadpans the host, adding that he’s joking.

Paul has hosted quizzes around southeast London for 30 years, working in Sidcup, Chislehurst, Blackfen, New Cross and Eltham, initially balancing it with DJing. About 12 years ago the DJ work began to dry up, and Paul became a full-time quizmaster. “Software came in, clubs started shutting down,” he says, sitting in the Rusty Bucket before that night’s quiz. “Suddenly everyone was a DJ.”

Just a few months ago, suddenly everyone was a quizmaster. As pubs shut and punters retreated to their homes, social interaction moved online and quizzes became the UK’s most popular pastime. Paul’s income relied on taking fees from pubs, with most of the competitors’ entry money — £10 from each team, usually around £2 per head — going into prize funds. With pubs out the equation, Paul had to think fast.

“I was on my way to the Eltham GPO” — another of Paul’s clients and Eltham’s biggest pub — “and they said ‘sorry Paul, we can’t take the risk now.’ It was the week where it wasn’t law but Johnson said ‘We’re advising people not to go to pubs’. I thought – I’m gonna be left with zero income.”

But key to Paul’s years of success is the relationships he builds with his quizzers. “All I could do was offer the quiz to people via Whatsapp,” he says. “I just did a group announcement to all the teams: ‘Do you wanna play tonight? Let’s see how it goes’.” For these quizzes there was no prize money for the winners — the same £10 entry per team became Paul’s fee.

It took off almost immediately. That same night Paul hosted his first online quiz with five teams who would otherwise have been at the GPO.

Paul Partridge
A close-up look at the cup

Then he did the same with teams from his other pubs. Soon he was hosting six a week, incorporating Zoom as a way of conveying his inter-round patter. Perhaps thanks to this trademark style, his teams kept playing and business kept ticking over.

“This team’s come from Tonbridge, that’s how committed they are,” he says as the first punters enter the Rusty Bucket. “Hi guys! Thanks for coming.”

Why do so many stay faithful to Paul? “It’s the comedy,” says the captain from a team named Monkey Tennis. “It’s near-the-knuckle stuff, but it’s great. Plus we could come last one week and then first the next.”

“What’s the real first name of H from Steps?” says Paul on the microphone. “You’d be forgiven for thinking it was ‘twat’. No, it’s Ian.”

Paul says he’ll keep hosting online quizzes even as pubs start to reopen. “I’ve gained teams that just can’t come. I’ve got a team playing where the leader went to Spain. I’ve got a team in Sheffield playing, a team in Matlock playing, a team from West London that just can’t get south of the river.” He’s already hosted some simultaneously, in pubs and online. “It’s not that hard, if I’m concentrating.”

Like Paul’s online quizzes, tonight at the Rusty Bucket there is no prize money. Instead the winning team is presented with a trophy. The captain poses for a photo, then hands it back to Paul.

“No, no, keep it on your table for a bit,” Paul insists. “But be careful with it, those trophies aren’t cheap. Actually they are quite cheap.” All teams say thanks to Paul before leaving. “Hand your forms in but keep your distance please,” says Paul on the mic. “Don’t want anyone getting too close.”

This is one of a series of stories we are running on how people in SE London have responded to the coronavirus pandemic. Let us know if you have a story to tell.

SAM DAVIES is a freelance journalist.

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