Your Starter for Ten: 50 Years of University Challenge - review

A hymn to the ultimate quiz show is a nostalgia fest for Antonia Quirke.

New Statesman
Photograph: Getty Images

A comprehensive and amusing documentary about University Challenge went out 50 years after its first episode was shown on ITV (25 August, 8pm). Its presenter, Mark Damazer, former controller of Radio 4, said, with a sniffette: “It’s unimaginable that it could be on ITV now.” Damazer outed himself as a long-term UCnut (though he was too shy to try joining his team at Cambridge) who sits along with everyone else each week guzzling an insufficient three glasses of wine, yelling, “The Lark Ascending!” at the TV. Some nice clips of early episodes revealed the original theme tune – a woolly, big band number of the kind couples danced fast and unerotically to around one of those cavernous, postwar ballrooms with their eyes fixed on someone over the shoulder of their partner.

God knows what the first audience made of what came next – a quiz show starring students was scarcely the norm – but the programme quickly changed its jingle and has pretty much always topped ratings. Originally based on a 1950s US model, the format was reworked for Britain in 1962, around the time the economist and government adviser Lionel Robbins was insisting on more universities and more students going to them. Then, students were “really rather mysterious creatures seen as very, very bright and very, very unusual and very, very talented”, recalled an early contestant, pointing out that in 1962 less than 10 per cent of the population went to university. Now everybody goes and we still can’t answer the questions.

When I was young, I was friends with a girl whose tall, white-blonde, Australian mother wrote the questions and was seen wheeling a suitcase full of reference books about the Pre- Raphaelites to Hale Station to transport up the road to Granada Studios, smoking Winstons. This, to me, was glamour. University Challenge meant long, alcoholic lunches in the 1980s in south Manchester bistros where I’d say, “Did you know that at Stonehenge they used to sacrifice women to the dung god?” Even now, when I hear Paxman shouting, “Come on!” I think of sliced steak drenched in brandy and shallots (steak Diane? I’m waiting), which is not the programme’s intention but there are worse things.