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17 July 2023

The friendlier, softer University Challenge

As host, Amol Rajan takes a very different approach to Jeremy Paxman – he is more encouraging, even enthusiastic.

By Hannah Rose Woods

I don’t like change. When I think of University Challenge, my brain supplies images from the mid-2000s – the old dark blue and violet set; Jeremy Paxman with bouffant hair in his not-quite-silver fox (salt-and-pepper fox?) years. As both a former contestant myself, and a genuine fan of the show, I was feeling intensely nervous about the programme’s latest revamp with its new anchor Amol Rajan. I suspect I wasn’t the only one. 

The renovated set manages to look older than the last – like the command deck of a retro TV spaceship, manned by students instead of actors in extravagant prosthetics. It’s big and blocky but knowingly low budget – and the whole effect is oddly comforting. The title sequence looks like the old one run through the black hole in Interstellar. The reassuring presence of Roger Tilling remains, his booming voiceover, as ever, coming from somewhere behind the camera like a divine authority.

Contestants could be expected to look a little anxious about a new presenter. Fearsome as Paxman could be, students knew what they were getting themselves in for, with established bounds for repartee and the inevitable exasperation at a wildly incorrect answer. But the match they’ve picked for the opening episode is a cracker, with two excellent teams from Trinity College, Cambridge and Manchester chasing each other to the final seconds. There are some brilliant early buzzes – particularly from Trinity, Henderson, who identifies a tricky music starter question halfway through the first bar. 

[See also: How “University Challenge” became a British institution]

Asking the questions, Amol Rajan is… fine. During his early days on Radio 4, he used to place a handwritten note in front of himself on the presenter’s desk reminding him to “SLOW THE F**K DOWN”, but University Challenge is a format well-suited to his rapid-fire delivery. However, it’s not always effortless to follow the flow of his questions. It makes you appreciate just how spectacularly talented Paxman was at turning very long sentences of complicated technical terms into high-tension drama. It is clearly much harder than it looks to make every word sound both natural and interesting. 

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There are moments when Rajan really gets into his stride. He has explained that he wants to take a different approach to the Paxo froideur, and aim for something more encouraging. He is at his best when he leans into enthusiasm – “Very impressive”, “it is New Jersey!”, “it is yak!”. Less omniscient question-master than admiring spectator.  

When he nails the right tone, I realise that I am smiling in that edgy, subconscious way that parents do when they’re willing their children on in a school production. That I find myself doing this for one of the highest-paid presenters at the BBC, a man who was editing an entire national newspaper in his twenties and whose promotional trajectory continued apace for the next decade, is a measure of how much I want the new series to be a success. 

This iteration still feels a bit surreal. It doesn’t help that glimpses of the studio audience have been done away with, so that, when the camera pans away from the desks, contestants and host seem to be suspended in a sort of void. But it’s early days. I’m willing it to settle back into its familiar stateliness.  

[See also: Behind the rise of Amol Rajan]

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This article appears in the 19 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How Saudi Arabia is buying the world