‘Better to escape than delete’ – Guardian crossword setter Sphinx returns

<span>Susan Wokoma and Steve Pemberton with a Polygon puzzle in Inside No 9’s episode Boo to a Goose.</span><span>Photograph: BBC</span>
Susan Wokoma and Steve Pemberton with a Polygon puzzle in Inside No 9’s episode Boo to a Goose.Photograph: BBC

Sphinx’s first puzzle appeared in 2017 and solvers were delightfully flabbergasted to see it appear in a fictional context on the same night’s television. The programme was Inside No 9, but its world’s fictional setter was able to create puzzles in other worlds: witness 2020’s Dracula.

Sphinx – AKA writer and performer Steve Pemberton – made a quiet reappearance last September with a puzzle which was not fully explained until this year, in episode six of Taskmaster, which you should watch now whether or not you’ve already seen it.

And Sphinx returned last week with a puzzle which regrettably marks the end of Inside No 9. Time to catch up.

Seven months from Sphinx’s Taskmaster puzzle to its episode: one of the longer-term seedings, no?
Well, the show requires participants to bring in an item on a given theme which allows for broad interpretation, so when I read “Something you can get into” my mind immediately went to a hobby rather than a cardboard box.

I spent ages trying to create a grid with a Nina which essentially was me begging for points from Greg Davies, the Taskmaster himself, and spent my intervals at last year’s West End production of The Pillowman working up the crossword.
On the day of recording before we’d even got to the studio some very clever people had already spotted the hidden message and surmised that I would be in a future series. I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was, especially as, via one of the clues – “He follows Nick, losing task finally: a comfortable position (5)” – there was already speculation that Nick Mohammed might also be a contestant.
There were also those who slightly misread the Nina and wondered who Steve Viall was and why he wanted Greg to give him five points. Some might say I was a bit of a try-hard but any opportunity to introduce a new audience to the hobby of cruciverbalism is time well spent to me. Better than standing in a box anyway.

Incidentally I had messages from people who said they started to get interested in cryptic solving and setting as a result of The Riddle of the Sphinx and Taskmaster episodes, and I loved this clue sent by @robertfenech, quite timely with the Euros starting this weekend: Harry Kane’s Eden Hazard (5).

I’ll give the answers below. People have historically used the crossword as a shorthand for the kind of genre fiction explored by Inside No 9, with an implication that anything with puzzles and tricks lack heart. It’s nonsense of course. Which stories or writers have moved yours?
One of my favourite TV shows growing up was The Adventure Game, where celebs of the day teamed up with “older child on Ask the Family” types to solve a series of riddles and puzzles on an alien planet.

Many of the games were the same every week so the pleasure came from knowing the solution and seeing whether Maggie Philbin or David Yip could work it out. Anyone who saw Graeme Garden being double-crossed by treacherous mole Lesley Judd will have it forever etched on their memory; as emotionally scarring as Fredo’s betrayal in The Godfather.

I never read or watched Inspector Morse though I knew of the character’s love of cryptic clues, and casually parsing puzzles seems to have become a trope of detective fiction. For me it was the intricate wordplay in many of The Two Ronnies sketches that captured my imagination and led to a love of punnery and double entendre, and their crossword solvers on a train sketch is a classic.

Since we last spoke Dave Gorman has joined the setting world which other comedy people do you suspect might have a puzzle in them?
I’d like to think my League of Gentlemen colleagues Mark Gatiss, Reece Shearsmith and Jeremy Dyson would enjoy the challenge but I suspect they have the same feeling as I do about Game of Thrones: I left it too late and life’s too short. The military and cricket stuff can seem off-putting for a lot of people.

I know that my Taskmaster colleague John Robins has recently taught himself how to parse cryptic clues and I wouldn’t be surprised if his next challenge is to set a puzzle. Victoria Coren-Mitchell must be able to rope her husband into having a bash, surely? Have there been any couple setters before? Paul Sinha is very smart and very funny and Demetri Martin’s epic palindrome poems, some almost 500 words long, would surely stand him in good stead.

I’m pretty certain you’re the first setter to use CTRL-ALT-ESC as an entry. This isn’t really a question, I’m just going to say that I’m glad that that episode had a happy ending and unless you tell me otherwise, I’ll take that as confirmation.
I’ve only ever set grids with themed clues and/or hidden messages (Ninas) and my recent challenge was to use words from episode titles from the final series.

As one was set in an escape room with the title CTRL/ALT/ESC I felt I had to include the whole thing – a fairly niche computer command but much nicer to “escape” than “delete”, I think? The episode in question was intended to have a happy ending but as ever the interpretation is in the brain of the beholder.

Thank you. I’ll assume you’re one of the many actors who uses puzzles to get through a long day on set: does that mean that you don’t mind one that takes up a bit more time or brainpower?
Yes, I can have a crumpled paper in my bag for a week or more, returning to clues that stump me and working away at them over breaks in filming. I find pooling knowledge and soliciting help from others in the room invaluable, whether they normally do cryptic puzzles or not. Nothing brings people together like trying to crack a code or solve a riddle.

I certainly don’t mind devious cluing, as the dopamine hit of eventually finding the answer can be huge – the frustrating ones are when you simply don’t have the word in your vocabulary, even if you’ve reverse-engineered the solution.

Agreed. Finally, the co-editor of the Listener crossword, Roger Phillips, has worked out that the word used in the Polygon puzzle in Inside No 9’s Boo to a Goose episode is AFTERSHOCK. Did you know that, and if not, what do you make of it?
Haha, I didn’t know that! To be honest we hadn’t even thought beyond TASKFORCE as a solution (nine letters), but I’m delighted that Roger took the time to work it out. As I’m writing this on the day the last ever episode of Inside No 9 is transmitted, I think “aftershock” is a pretty good description for how I’ll feel tomorrow.

The Riddle of the Sphinx, happily, is still on iPlayer and the answers to the clues mentioned are NICHE and SNAKE.