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5 September 2022

How University Challenge became a British institution

In its 60 years on the air, this arcane and obscure programme has become the nation’s best-known and longest-running quiz show. Why?

By Hannah Rose Woods

It is hard to explain what happens, psychologically, when you answer a question on the University Challenge set. Words are being said to you, very fast, and you have stopped experiencing them as linear sentences. You hope the words your brain is picking up are the right ones for the kind of free association needed to come up with the right answer. You feel like you’re about to reach it, and then – before you have arrived at that answer – you buzz in. In the half-second during which your surname is spoken, you do the crucial thinking. Three million people are going to find out if this ends in triumph or disaster.

As a former participant, I can tell you first-hand that University Challenge feels less like a general knowledge quiz and more like an extreme sport crafted from an encyclopaedia. But 60 years after its first episode on 21 September 1962, University Challenge has become the nation’s best-known and longest-running quiz show, synonymous with academic intelligence, and a staple of quiet Monday evenings on the sofa. In fact, University Challenge isn’t really a programme, it’s a British institution.

The “main” series remains almost unchanged since its inception, with two teams of four students from select universities competing each week, arranged on screen one above the other. Recent decades have also produced a Christmas series for notable alumni; a short-lived version for professionals; and numerous editions for journalists, celebrities, former champions and assorted eminences. The show has been the subject of several documentaries – the latest of which aired on 29 August on BBC Two to mark its diamond anniversary. It has inspired a novel and a film – David Nicholls’ Starter for Ten – and been lovingly parodied in episodes of The Young Ones, Red Dwarf and Not the Nine O’Clock News. It might be more useful to imagine University Challenge not as a series in the singular, but as one of the more popular franchises in the BCU (British Cultural Universe).

Why has such an unlikely candidate for the status of “national treasure” – a show in which university students sit still and answer questions on classical music, geology, sculpture, quantum dynamics, et cetera – become so enduringly and almost universally beloved? How has a programme that deals in the arcane and obscure assumed the place it has in the national imagination? And what is it about the show that seems both quintessentially British, and the oddest survival in television?

We are a nation of quizzers and University Challenge lays claim to being a front-runner. (Counterintuitively for such a typically British-seeming institution, it is actually an American import, its format based on a US television quiz called College Bowl.) In the early 1960s, there were very few quiz shows on UK television – it wasn’t until the 1970s that the pub quiz would become an established part of the country’s cultural life. And Britain isn’t generally known for being overly fond of its students, in the 1960s or in any period since. University Challenge is the only area of mainstream cultural life I can think of in which students are not disliked or ridiculed.

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When it began in 1962 – the year before Philip Larkin invented sex – students were used to being patronised, in spite of how much they looked like innocent 40-year-olds in footage from the earlier episodes. By the end of the decade, they were stereotyped as long-haired dropouts. Today, students are more used to being cast by the media as zealous social justice warriors attacking the underpinnings of Western civilisation. And yet, week after week, we tune in to watch student teams display their detailed learning on behalf of their institutions.

There is nothing about the programme that can explain its appeal to such wide audiences. Even in 1962 University Challenge seemed to be swimming against the cultural currents of the time, with its emphasis on high-brow learning, its staid and slightly rickety-looking set the antithesis of snazzy game shows. And the stakes were, objectively, low. Teams compete, not for money or prizes, but for kudos, plus return travel expenses to the studio in Salford and a couple of nights in a Holiday Inn. How, then, to explain the utter, national mortification of an incorrect interruption on the buzzer, or the unimpeachable prestige of being a Guttenplan or a Trimble?

It is partly the show’s remarkable continuity that has cemented its place in British culture. Its catchphrases – starter for ten, fingers on buzzers – seem more like established cultural expressions than terms unique to the programme. Over six decades, it has had just two presenters – Bamber Gascoigne from 1962 to 1987, and Jeremy Paxman from its return in 1994 to the end of the current series next year – and three voiceover announcers. Roger Tilling has been calling out contestants’ names and universities since 2001. I’m from a generation that never knew the Gascoigne years (and thankfully am too young to remember the cruel period when it was taken off air), and I cannot imagine what the programme will be like without Paxo in the questioner’s chair. I have tuned in to its familiar format, its familiar tones, most weeks for about 25 years.

When you watch a show for that long, it becomes part of the background to your life. I think a huge part of the programme’s appeal is that we often grow up watching it with our families. There’s something undeniably wholesome about it. I remember watching it with my flatmates in student halls, the first time that most of us had lived away from home, and despite the fact that we were students watching a programme of students, it felt both comforting and a little uncanny – like we’d offered to tuck each other in with a bedtime story or make potato alphabets for dinner.

Which was nothing compared to how uncanny it felt when I actually walked on to the University Challenge set with my team to record our first match for the 2015-16 series. It’s like sitting down in your own television – the exact layout you’ve watched for years, except this time you’re inside and facing the wrong way out of it. A lot of people remarked on how abnormally calm I looked over the course of our series (we ended up winning), but I think I was really just experiencing sheer, dream-like dissociation.

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Maybe I’m biased about the appeal of University Challenge, having briefly lifted the trophy (teams are only allowed to keep it for a year, before handing it on to the next series’ winners). But look, people treat me differently when they hear I was on it. It’s like I joined a special pantheon of the verifiably brainy.

Doing well on the programme matters to people. Ian Hislop, who represented Private Eye on a series of University Challenge: the Professionals in the mid-2000s, told the BBC afterwards that he was more nervous during his appearance than he’d been for anything else in his life. Stephen Fry did do very well, when he appeared as a student in 1980, losing the series final only on a tiebreak. Yet in his 2010 memoir he confessed that “I have rarely been so devastated or felt so cheated. It hurts even now… even as I type these words thirty years later the blood surges in my ears and my whole being seethes with feelings of disgusted outrage, bitter resentment and maddened disappointment at such shattering injustice. Nothing will ever put it right.”

I think this is another element of University Challenge’s ubiquity: it seems like half of Britain’s public figures have been on it, either as students or else on the alumni series or the episodes for Children in Need and Comic Relief. In recent years, social media interest has generated a new category of University Challenge celebrity, foremost among them Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull. They have built their own career niche out of the cult following they generated over the course of the 2016-17 series.

For all the continuity of the programme’s format over the past 60 years, a lot has changed. Alongside the unlikely delights of social media fandom, contestants now run the gauntlet of Twitter trolls and newspaper controversies. Many contestants take it in their stride, but not everyone wants to end up trending on Twitter for their unusual thinking expressions, or handle a round of media interviews the next morning about their choice of outfit. When a few million people are joining in, I’m not entirely sure where the line is between collectively marvelling at students’ geekery, and turning contestants into caricatures by turning the spotlight on their lives outside the programme.

After watching the most recent BBC retrospective, University Challenge: at 60, which focused mostly on the Paxman era, I revisited a 2006 documentary, University Challenge: The Story So Far, which traced the programme from its beginnings with Bamber Gascoigne, via interviews with producers and famous contestants. The differences are astonishing. It is incredible to think, for instance, that students were once allowed to smoke during the actual recording. Sebastian Faulks, appearing as a member of the 1972 team for Emmanuel College, Cambridge, reckons he burned through a full 20-pack over the course of filming their single first-round match.

A former producer used to point teams in the direction of the local pub before their matches, on the advice that a bracer or two wouldn’t be a bad idea, but a surfeit would be imprudent. Faulks recalls he sustained himself on barley wine, explaining that “it packed a huge punch per penny”. Malcolm Rifkind (University of Edinburgh, 1967) confesses himself to have been essentially pissed, noting that “our nervous disposition totally disappeared” after a drink or several. Miriam Margolyes, representing Newnham College, Cambridge on the first-ever series, maintains that her exclamation of “fuck!” after incorrectly answering a question was the first “fuck” uttered on British television. It all seems unattainably chaotic, viewed from 2022. Needless to say, we were paragons of sobriety during our own filming.

But if this kind of entertainingly catastrophic amateurism has declined, other things have changed for the better. Teams are more diverse, because university students are more diverse, and the questions reflect this, too. High-cultural seriousness still matters, but the range of general knowledge the questions draw on has broadened, and it is not a virtue to be oblivious to pop culture. You get the sense that the question-writers take their responsibilities seriously – they know that a show as prestigious as this shapes our understanding of what “general knowledge” is in the first place, and what goes into the canon of things we decide are worth remembering.

Here’s the thing I like best about University Challenge. I think it’s probably what everyone likes best about it, too. It is just a game – it is, literally, trivia. You’re also allowed to show that it is important to you. University Challenge: at 60 is full of past contestants saying how much the programme means to them; how it’s changed their lives in all sorts of ways that they couldn’t have predicted. You can go on it as a nerdy amateur, or you can go on it because you’re someone who does this for a living (I don’t necessarily mean for money – I mean that absorbing and then recalling practically useless facts is the main way you experience living). For half an hour, this is the most important thing you could be doing. People will, amazingly, celebrate you for this important useless thing you are very good at. That, really, is the show’s entire appeal.

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