One programme that still shines out as a beacon of intellectual rigour among the sea of dross on television is University Challenge. As always, teams of four students from Britain’s best universities battle it out for the series championship. Rather than assuming the viewer is an idiot, like most factual programmes, it works on the basis that we have a shared culture. There are always questions on kings and queens of England, Shakespeare and classical music. Even if the viewer doesn’t know the answer — and the questions are often fiendishly hard — the producers expect us to understand the question, except when it’s about quantum physics.
The top teams are usually spectacularly good on high culture but struggle with more contemporary arts. Questions about Booker Prize winners are usually met with a blank shrug and last month nobody recognised Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven.
University Challenge began in 1962 with Bamber Gascoigne asking the questions until 1987, then was revived in 1994 with Jeremy Paxman in the chair. My neighbour was in the 1977 series, representing Pembroke College Oxford, which lost narrowly in the opening round. A photo of his moment in the limelight is the first thing you see in his house and it always makes me jealous.
What makes the show so watchable is seeing the student personalities emerge, marvelling at their cleverness or wincing at their gaucheness. Most years someone becomes a cult figure — as Gail Trimble, nicknamed the human Google, did in 2009, and the deadpan Alexander Guttenplan in 2010. Last year was all about Eric Monkman, a Canadian as imagined by Aardman Animations, versus Bobby Seagull, a jolly east Londoner.
Paxman spends some shows full of fury, as if he’s grilling Michael Howard rather than presenting a TV quiz, but on others he has an avuncular twinkle. His pronunciation can get mid-Atlantic at times — RENaissance for instance — but for all his faults he gives the show an intensity that lifts it above a normal quiz. The spin-off episodes featuring professionals instead of students don’t work because the atmosphere is too clubbable.
I hope when Paxo is finally carted out, the BBC doesn’t meddle with a winning formula. Inevitably a programme that makes no compromises about its elitism has some detractors. Oxford and Cambridge, represented by individual colleges, tend to dominate the panels. There is also a distinct lack of female contestants. In an article last year, Jane Prescott, headmistress of Portsmouth High School, suggested that this was down a ‘confidence gap’. It is also true that showing off your trivia knowledge, like trainspotting or stamp collecting, is largely a male pursuit. There’s now talk that all teams should have to field at least one woman to be eligible.
My tip to take this year’s prize, Merton College Oxford, does have a woman on board: the team’s deliciously serious captain Leonie Woodland. It also has this year’s human Google, Akira Wiberg. But my favourite team was Fitzwilliam Cambridge, which went from joker to dark horse before being knocked out in the quarter-finals.
The programme is, of course, bigger than any contestant. Male students might wear bows in their hair and some teams answer all the questions with questions, but watching University Challenge makes me feel that civilisation is safe for another generation.