Your starter for ten: why do we Brits so love University Challenge?

James Delingpole revels in a hagiographic two-parter on the nerdy BBC2 quiz show

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

‘Fingers on buzzers!’ says Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge. But technically this is inaccurate. Only one of the teams actually has buzzers. The other side has push-button bells, instead.

I’ve been watching the programme religiously for God knows how many years without ever consciously noticing this. But, once you’ve been told, it’s obvious — in much the same way it’s obvious that the way you tell Thompson and Thomson apart is that one has an upturned moustache and the other doesn’t.

Which, come to think of it, would be quite a good University Challenge question. Apparently, one of its main criteria is that every question must have ‘inherent interest’. That is, it must make you genuinely keen to know the answer. I’ve done quite a few amateur quizzes in my time and this is where almost all of them fall down. Some prat of a question-setter thinks you should care, to the nearest 1,000 miles, how far, say, Mercury is from the sun. And you couldn’t give a toss a) because it’s irrelevant to anything that matters and b) because if you don’t know you can never guess — unlike on University Challenge, where each question often contains a lot of subsidiary clues, so you can work your way to the answer by sundry different routes.

First, though, we were reminded on the two-part documentary University Challenge: Class of 2014 (BBC2, Monday, Tuesday) you’ve got to get your starter for ten. And to do that, you’ve got to be in there before the other team, which requires a tricky balancing act. Press too soon and you risk being humiliated by giving a wrong answer and costing your team five points. But leave it too late and the other team may beat you to it. So the key, apparently, is pressing the buzzer at just the point where your brain thinks it might know the answer — and then exploiting the pause where the voice (which belongs to a man named Roger Trilling) says, say, ‘Delingpole, Christ Church’ to work out what that answer actually is.

Not that I ever did represent Christ Church in University Challenge, you understand. I would like to have done but the chance never presented itself because when I was there no one, as far as I know, got their shit sufficiently together to try to recruit a team.

This, I suspect, is the case with a lot of Oxbridge colleges. Unless they’re Magdalen — which has an image to maintain having won the competition a record four times — they tend to put their teams together haphazardly, if at all. The redbricks, on the other hand, have a point to prove and are much more professional about their operations. Manchester, for example, has for the past 18 years had its own special in-house University Challenge talent spotter and coach, a former contestant turned academic called Stephen Pearson. It has served them well: they’re the only institution to have equalled Magdalen’s record four victories.

Why am I telling you this? If this were America I wouldn’t be because, as someone on the programme pointed out, University Challenge just isn’t something that would work in the US. It’s pitched at too brainy and esoteric a level. But we just can’t get enough of it, we British. Everything about it is perfect: the stupid team mascots; the game at the start of a new season where you guess what each contestant is reading (before they tell you) based on their accent, demeanour and general nerdiness; the bitter rivalries (‘Selwyn? That’s the place I got turned away from,’ said one of the Manchester team mates from this year’s University Challenge on discovering who he’d be playing first); Paxo’s impatience and jibes; the pure snobbery.

For example, I’m sure redbricks find it deeply gratifying that they have won the competition about the same number of times as the Oxbridge colleges. But you could counterargue that that just goes to show how vastly inferior the redbricks are: Manchester, for example, has a talent pool of 40,000 students to draw from, whereas your typical Oxbridge college has about 700. Really, though, just getting on to the programme is achievement enough, let alone winning. This year, 130 teams applied for just 28 places.

I expect if you aren’t a University Challenge fan, you would have found these documentaries hagiographic, repetitive and far, far too long. But I loved every moment. How good it was to meet some of our old favourite characters again —Daisy Christodoulou; Gail Trimble; Matthew Chan; and the ludicrously bright Alex Guttenplan (whose performance was so brilliant it sent applications for his Cambridge college, Emmanuel, soaring)!

And I did enjoy anecdotes like the one where the 1975 team from Churchill, Cambridge were travelling up by train to their first round in Manchester. On the way, they noticed — and identified — a church with a bent spire. ‘Ah, that’ll be Chesterfield,’ said one of them, leading to a discussion of sofas. Which connection was the topic of the very first question they were asked.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • commenteer

    I’m not sure you’re right about America. I seem to remember a University Challenge champions’ match some years ago with an American team (Harvard?) who beat the English team hollow.

    • IainRMuir

      I seem to remember the opposite, as well.

  • TimFootman

    University Challenge is actually based on a US TV show (originally radio) called College Bowl. So it did work in the States, for nearly 20 years.

    • tjamesjones

      Yes and Americans also have those spelling bees. But James D still has a point, as college bowl has not survived, so it’s true that while it might have worked in the 50s, the format doesn’t work in America today.

      • Gwangi

        Yes, and spelling bees are just memory tests with kids memorising lists of words SOLD by the organisers of spelling bees for a profit! How very American. Not free or fair, and all about squeezing cash out of consumers under the guise of self-improvement…

      • Tom D

        Well–since we’re going to quibble–which country had the first show of this type? Answer: The United States, a long time ago, and it was “pitched” at an equally “brainy and esoteric level.” What was showing in the UK at the time? I have no idea, but University Challenge appeared many years later. I’m old enough to have enjoyed College Bowl, and wish there was something similar on US networks now.
        Fortunately, via YouTube, I am enjoying UC. But, please, spare us your unctious, arrogant tones, J.D. You sound like a twit.

  • billabong

    God spare us, another silly arrogant prat using the Spectator to boast in his infinite self-regard the fact that he was at . . . Oxford. “The vast inferiority of redbricks” — as a former Fleet Street sub-editor I’d strike that out, sure to antagonise purchasers of a failing magazine that has become infinitely navel-gazing, infinitely little England. Snobby Delingpole is a circulation manager’s nightmare, damaging his own product.

    • pedestrianblogger

      Chippy little chap, aren’t you?

    • dalai guevara

      Come on now, I actually like these kind of insults.

      40,000 students opposed to 700 – that means, given that boundary reforms are now imminent, that Manchester 1 will soon be challenged only by Manchester 2, Manchester 3 or Manchester 4 in the finals.

  • Gwangi

    We love University Challenge because 1) it is a proper quiz show which tests real knowledge, as were common in the 1970s but which now have mostly been replaced by silly yelling contest ‘comedy’ quizzes. or dumbed down and achingly diverse dumbo quizzes; and 2) there is feck all else on telly these days…

    I found it utterly hilarious when the feminuts started complaining there were not enough women in the university teams and that especially a team from the formerly women-only Somerville College was entirely male. Because, you see, MERIT IS ALL on university Challenge, and the strongest teams get through the heats to be on TV. The teams with female students are just not as good so lose before the TV stage. Oh how embarrassing and inconvenient selection by merit is for the sisters eh? When one selects by merit, white men dominate. That seems the lesson here.

    Still, the BBC has many quizzes where teams are selected by diversity committee – Celebrity Mastermind being the most hilarious (hardly any women or ethnics in the proper contest, but the celebrity version has to have half women and one or two ethnic non-entities per programme!)

    • rtj1211

      Selection ‘on merit’??

      98% of my college were far too busy rowing, on the sports field, in lectures or getting pissed/stoned/laid to be bothered to put themselves up for it.

      Whether they would be better, the same or worse than the people who actually did, who knows??

      Nothing can be deduced from University Challenge about the relative merits of colleges/unis based on exams that 98% of people never sat.

      • Gwangi

        ‘Nothing can be deduced from University Challenge about the relative merits of colleges/unis based on exams that 98% of people never sat.’
        And where do I argue that a university team’s performance in a quiz show is any reliable indicator of university’s merits?

        My point is that IN THE CONTEXT OF A QUIZ SHOW it is teams made up of white men who do best. Much to the annoyance of feminists, who hate merit when it creates an outcome they dislike (ie one that is not 50% female). Whereas the celebrity Mastermind is careful to have 50% women and plenty of non-entity ethnics. THAT is the difference between selection by merit and selection by committee.

        I think you should read what I wrote again, and not what you think I wrote. D minus for comprehension there… And you’re Oxbridge too! Well…

  • Jambo25

    I was offered a place at Fitzwilliam and turned it down for Manchester. The thought of spending 3 or 4 years stuck in an institution with people like Delingpole was simply too much to bear. There was also the minor point that the course offered by Manchester, at the time I applied, was better than its nearest Cambridge equivalent.

    • pedestrianblogger

      So what?

      • Jambo25

        So the idea that Oxbridge is somehow better or more desirable as was being discussed in the postings above is dross as you have to share space with people like Delingpole.

        • pedestrianblogger

          From Wiki: “Former pupils of state schools usually comprise around 70–75% of the College’s undergraduate population. However, as many of these are either overseas students or from provincial grammar schools and leading comprehensive schools, membership is a lot more diverse than the figures may suggest”.

          • Jambo25

            Provincial grammar schools and leading comprehensives generally produce pupils who are scarcely less prosperous middle class than public school boys and girls. Cambridge admissions officers are well aware of this and actually target these schools for pupils who count as state school educated but come from social backgrounds which allow them to fit in well into Cambridge. I know this as Cambridge admissions officers have admitted as much in conversations I’ve had with them.

          • pedestrianblogger

            Hardly the Bullingdon Club, though, is it?

          • Jambo25

            Still the standard middle class manners and mores that have been running this country for such a long time.

          • pedestrianblogger

            Why did you apply to go there, then?

          • Jambo25

            The course. I applied to Cambridge almost by accident, LSE and Manchester. Frankly I was also from a family which had no record of university application so didn’t have a background of solid information. It was also in 1970.

          • pedestrianblogger

            I see that Manchester are taking on Selwyn this evening. I will be cheering on the toffs and I assume you will be doing the same for the oiks.

          • Jambo25

            Actually, strangely enough when I was at Manchester it was desperately uncool to even show an interest in UC. I never quite got over that. I do find, however, that on the odd occasions I watch the programme I can get a score about the combined total of the winning team.

  • UniteAgainstSocialism

    Block Busters was better than university challenge

  • UniteAgainstSocialism

    Block Busters was better than university challenge