Review

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Despite the best efforts of Jeremy Paxman, the final of University Challenge (BBC2) turned out to be rather low-key. Where, you wondered, as the teams were revealed in their double-decker ranks, are the mascots and scarves of yesteryear - Ou sont les gonks d'antan? Last year it was an all-Oxbridge final; this year it was all-London, with the LSE taking on Imperial College. It was also all-male and all-decidedly-sensible, but for the saving presence of Robert Northcott, who was sporting the sort of shirt you wear if you want your mum to be able to spot you in the upper tiers at a cup final. Robert was doing a PhD in the methodology of Game Theory, which might have given him an advantage if this particular game involved any strategy or theory at all, but it doesn't - you either know the answers or you don't.

There is, it's true, a slender potential for an endgame, as occurred here when Imperial College had stacked up a comfortable lead and the clock made it impossible for Paxman to reassure viewers again that it was "very early days still". If Paxman asked the remaining questions at the speed of a tobacco auctioneer, and the LSE responded in kind, they might, just, catch up. So, were Imperial's knotted brows and hesitations a genuine attempt to prise open the filing cabinets of the mind, or simply a canny bit of time-wasting? Paxman wasn't taking any chances, snapping at their heels as if they were cabinet ministers dodging a direct question about Mr Major's leadership (it can't be simply my imagination that Paxman talks throughout as if he's expecting an argument from the players, rather than the submission he gets). Imperial College won anyway, and turned out to be able to contain themselves.

As competitors, the University Challenge teams have something in common with those taking part in the World Championship Snooker (BBC1, BBC2) at the moment - a certain pallid, etiolated look, as well as the need to develop a stoical expression while your opponents are racking up the points (one of the LSE team even gulped nervously at iced water between questions, the classical snooker displacement activity). After that, though, the comparisons break down. One of the pleasures of the television coverage has been its demonstration of how varied the games can be, from painstaking matches in which two old pros play the angles to astonishingly brisk blizzards of potting, such as John Higgins's six-minute clearance in one of his games with Ronnie O'Sullivan.

Personally, I'm still coming to terms with the departure of Jimmy White. Quite apart from the fact that the undead have waited too long for a champion they can call their own, his fever-victim appearance made all the other competitors seem passably healthy, something of a feat given that most of them look as if they have been buried in damp ground for a month or two. Indeed, the sport seems to drain the colour out of everyone involved with it, as if the red balls refresh themselves nightly from the veins of the players. David Vine noted yesterday that one of the referees had just returned from a large tournament in Malaysia. In any other sport this would be indicated by a tan - but in this case, you could tell because he was even paler than some of the players who have had time to go outside and squint at the winter sunshine.

It's all very captivating even so - capable of eating up unconscionable amounts of time as you wait for the game to do its neat trick of upending in a moment, transforming a hapless, passive victim into the new torturer (there can't be many sports in which the gap between victory and defeat is quite so narrow). Now that White has gone, I have transferred my support to Peter Ebdon, not out of a particular admiration for his style, nor from approval for his raucous breach of the snooker-player's Trappist oath, but just because the idea of having a champion who's ripped the baize is too good to pass up.

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