Fingers on buzzers! University Challenge: Class of 2014

University Challenge, which first aired in 1962, is an institution. Raiding its archive and interviewing students past and present makes for vivid social history.

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University Challenge: Class of 2014

It might just be that the BBC is finally getting the hang of thriftiness. Forget the reputedly giant salaries on Newsnight, the swollen expense accounts and whopping great pay-offs and ponder instead its two-part documentary about the making of University Challenge, TV’s longest-running academic quiz show (7 July, 7.30pm; 8 July, 8pm). Is this kind of cheap-as-chips cannibalisation the future? Should we expect films about the making of Mastermind, Points of View, Bake Off and The One Show? I hope not. But this frugal little programme will do quite nicely for now.

University Challenge, which first aired in 1962, is an institution. Raiding its archive and interviewing students past and present makes for vivid social history. In their loon pants and hipster beards, their beehives and denim jackets, are seismic change, pathos and – yes, OK – a certain amount of gentle comedy.

About 130 teams usually apply to appear on University Challenge, only 28 of which, having been hand-picked by the producers, will take part in the final competition. Some institutions select their team through a series of in-house quizzes; others leave it to the students to organise themselves. Contrary to popular myth, it isn’t always Oxbridge colleges that win – though admittedly, thus far, no former polytechnic has triumphed. The first competition was won by Leicester. The record for most wins (four) is jointly held by the University of Manchester and Magdalen College, Oxford. In 1968, Keele won, for God’s sake.

Nevertheless, the makers of this series do seem quite focused on Oxbridge, perhaps for its entertainment value and perhaps for more spiteful reasons. There must, after all, be plenty of teams from Oxford and Cambridge whose members have perfectly normal voices and mannerisms and who were educated at state schools. Yet in the Class of 2014, they have chosen to present us only with the freakish and irredeemably posh-seeming hopefuls of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford.

Take Michael, a mathematician at Trinity, who happily took us through his morning “workout”. This involves choosing a random subject, thinking about it for 15 minutes and then delivering a seven-minute-long speech on it, presumably to the bare walls of his room. No, this isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. But then, as he put it, entitlement and delusional immodesty combining to quite staggering effect: “If I’d wanted an easy life, I’d have gone to Oxford.”

Cut to the University Challenge producers chortling at some of the answers Oxford undergraduates had scribbled down in the try-out quiz. One had written that On Floating Bodies was the work of Rick Astley. Another had described a helix as a “penis-like structure”. Michael, one understood, was probably not the author of these absurdities. Still, we got the point. What smarty-pants! What ninnies! What utter buffoons!

Meanwhile, in Oxford, there was Cameron, an undergraduate at Magdalen, who arrived on these shores from Pasadena via Henry James. He wore a tie and a tweed jacket and, for the benefit of the cameras, prissily drank tea that he had brewed in a vast teapot. His old-fashioned clothes, he told us, were simply another symptom of his “ardent embrace” of “this place” – cue an adoring sigh – and all it represents for a Californian with aspirations. Cameron and his pals were then contrasted with their rivals in Manchester, who are the nicest bunch of students it’s possible to imagine: self-deprecating, wry and independent-minded. By now, it was very clear who we were meant to be rooting for. Go, you normals!

This stitch-up aside, I did adore the first film. The students were so decent and smart, even some of the more ludicrous among them. It was oddly touching, too, to see how the show’s alumni felt about having won the competition.

“It changed my life,” said Madalane Hall, a member of the victorious 1963 Leicester team, carefully opening the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary that she had been given by way of a prize. Honour, pride, good manners, cleverness, a love of learning for learning’s sake . . . You don’t often find these things in documentaries, or not all at the same time, and it made me feel – I know this sounds sappy – that perhaps the world isn’t so bad after all.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

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