Uni­ver­sally chal­lenged

Old-fashioned and in­tel­lec­tu­ally rig­or­ous, Univer­sity Chal­lenge is an un­likely rat­ings win­ner with iconic sta­tus in Bri­tish cul­ture, says for­mer con­tes­tant Flora Watkins

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

ong! Dum-dum-dum-dum-di-dumdi-dum… It’s the first show in the new series of Univer­sity Chal­lenge. Around the coun­try, fam­i­lies and flat­mates gather to shout out the an­swers over each other. Eleanor of Aquitaine! The Arnolfini Mar­riage! Deuteron­omy!

By the end of the half-hour, the pro­duc­ers have given BBC2 its most watched pro­gramme of the week and it’s the top sub­ject trend­ing on Twit­ter. (The mis­chievous chat­ter in­cludes com­par­isons of Jeremy Pax­man’s slightly longer hair to Far­rah Fawcett’s plus the sex­ual ten­sion be­tween two mem­bers of the Bris­tol team, which makes the next day’s Daily Ex­press.)

The teams have been whit­tled down from the hun­dreds of in­sti­tu­tions that have ap­plied, at­tracted by the ca­chet of ap­pear­ing on the show. Alumni from the Bam­ber gas­coigne era in­clude Stephen Fry (Queens’, Cam­bridge: 1980 run­ners-up), Charles Moore, David ni­cholls—whose com­ing-of-age novel, Starter For Ten, was in­spired by the show—and a shaggy-haired Se­bas­tian Faulks, who drank three bot­tles of bar­ley wine be­fore

Bthe record­ing to set­tle his nerves and chainsmoked Player’s no 6 through­out. More re­cent con­tes­tants have seen their sweaters and eye­brows dis­cussed on so­cial me­dia and even at­tracted pro­pos­als of mar­riage and in­vi­ta­tions to pose scant­ily clad for men’s mag­a­zines.

The scan­dal that saw Cor­pus Christi, ox­ford stripped of their ti­tle in 2009 (for field­ing a mem­ber who was no longer a stu­dent by the time the pro­gramme was broad­cast) was front-page news and Han­nah Woods— she of the arched eye­brow—who was ad­mired for her cool cap­taincy of this year’s win­ning team, Peter­house, has been ap­proached by a lit­er­ary agent about writ­ing a pop­u­lar his­tory book. (She’s just fin­ished her doc­toral the­sis and is ap­ply­ing for aca­demic jobs.)

At a time when sneer­ing at any­thing eli­tist is al­most a na­tional pas­time, it’s extraordinary that this old-fashioned show—in which stu­dents at the most elite uni­ver­si­ties in the coun­try are ad­dressed by their sur­names— re­mains so com­pelling.

‘A woman who worked on the show said it was the lit­tle black dress of quiz shows,’ says Jeremy Pax­man, try­ing to pin­point its en­dur­ing ap­peal. ‘The for­mat is very sim­ple and the ques­tions are very dif­fi­cult. Peo­ple mea­sure them­selves against it, while be­ing as­ton­ished that a brain so young could en­com­pass so much knowl­edge—it’s a com­bi­na­tion of both things: par­tic­i­pa­tion and as­ton­ish­ment.’

Mr Pax­man, who has pre­sented the show since it was revived by the BBC in 1995, be­lieves Univer­sity Chal­lenge ‘gives a very re­as­sur­ing pic­ture of hu­man­ity’, giv­ing the lie to the stereo­type of young peo­ple in the pop­u­lar press.

Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Peter gwyn, who is of a sim­i­lar vin­tage to Mr Pax­man, con­curs:

‘Jeremy’s man­ner is gen­tler now, but he’s no more gen­tle in terms of ac­cu­racy’

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