University Challenge: envy and misogny

Matthew Yeo, captain of the winning Manchester team, reflects on cramming, Gail Trimble and sexism -

It had always been on my list of things to do at university; steal a policeman’s helmet, party all night and go a 9am lecture, and appear on University Challenge. Now, sadly, as I approach the end of eight years at university, only one of those three things has been achieved.

With my team-mates, the bearded Henry Pertinez, Mancunian Reuben Roy and the inscrutable Simon Baker, we formed the Manchester team against Corpus Christi Oxford in the Grand Final of University Challenge last Monday night. As you will know, Manchester lost it in the last four minutes thanks to a lightning-fast surge from the Corpus captain, Gail Trimble. The Corpus team scored the winning eighty points in just under four minutes, and the Manchester team just couldn’t fight back. Bitter? Angry? Frustrated? Not at all. My three friends (and that’s what they are) and I had enormous fun playing the game we love, which is sitting around doing quizzes. Sometimes you lose to someone on a run of form, which is what happened to us on Monday night. Had the questions gone the other way, the result would have been quite different. Yet that’s not the point; getting up, doing it, and giving your all to it is the most important thing, and I’m proud to say that the Manchester team played the best it could throughout the whole series.

Each one of us prepared for the experience of University Challenge in a different way. Henry spent much of his time watching television; Simon watched a lot of sport; Reuben read Russian literature, and I went about forgetting what I’d learned researching my PhD. So it was that when questions on libraries and the print culture of the Reformation (the topic of my PhD) came up, everything I had ever learned drained from my brain. The fact that I had written an entire page in my thesis on Duns Scotus (1266 – 1308) did not prevent me from failing to identify him when Paxman described him to us. Each one of us had a high point in the games, and we all astonished each other with an answer dredged up from the darkest recesses of the mind: Henry identified the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto, Reuben astounded us with a fact about voodoo in Benin, and Simon kept us on tenterhooks while he worked out the sequence ‘bag, beg, big, bog, bug’… I still find it hard to believe that a Guardian article on the New York nightclub CBGB’s came in useful in a round about David Byrne, Debbie Harry and the Ramones.

Of course, as captain, I’ve been asked a great deal about what I think about the fantastically talented Gail Trimble, the captain of the Corpus team - and now subject of endless column inches.

I suspect that Gail would say much the same as me about it all. University Challenge is a quiz show, and intended to entertain people with displays of what the contestants do (and don’t) know. To demonise someone because they know a lot is criticism driven by envy. To make more of it because of the way she dresses is to undo thirty years’ work against sexism and misogyny. But I hope that we would both also say the same thing about the key elements of University Challenge: the team effort with three other players, the enormous fun of going on the programme, meeting Paxo and quizzing against fearsomely knowledgeable opponents.

Finally, what greater pleasure can there be for a geeky boy from the Midlands than to say "My name’s Matthew Yeo, I’m from Lichfield in Staffordshire, and I’m doing a PhD in the History of the Book."?