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