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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.

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