Why Christmas University Challenge is the best festive special on TV

The questions are easier and more fun: there’s an injection of pop-culture trivia and a heavy serving of Christmas-themed questions.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

As someone who started buying Christmas decorations in July and who conquers Sunday blues every week by reminding myself that Monday means University Challenge, I am the ideal audience for festive editions of the best quiz show on television. For its Christmas series, the programme invites notable alumni of British universities, instead of current students, to form teams. Well-known figures from Louis Theroux to Diane Abbott have competed, and a particularly self-indulgent joy for me is seeing so many writers for this very magazine compete: gardening columnist Stefan Buczacki, literary critic Erica Wagner, even our editor Jason Cowley – and many more.

Is it better than the main show? That depends on how you look at things. A plus is that the questions are easier and more fun: there’s an injection of pop-culture trivia and a heavy serving of Christmas-themed questions. The average age of the contestants skyrockets: which both gives them an advantage (the great joy of University Challenge is seeing individuals with a detailed understanding of absolute electrode potential, but very little experience of ordinary life, fail to identify steel wool or a Girls Aloud song) and a disadvantage (their specialist academic knowledge seems to have grown a little foggy with time).

The lack of consistency leaves more room for upsets (in the 2017 final, a Keble College, Oxford team starring Katy Brand and Frank Cottrell-Boyce won with 240 points while Sophie Walker’s Reading contingent scored a total of zero). And best of all, there’s just so much of it: a new episode every weekday from Christmas Eve to the end of the first working week in January. What more could you want? 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special