The Joys Of Modern Life:35. `University Challenge'

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE FIRST thing they got right was keeping the old theme music. BOING bing bong ding! dee-dah-diddly-tee-de-dee... The maddest signature tune ever.

It was odd that they even thought of reviving it. It was looking fusty under Bamber Gascoigne; and when it was parodied in an episode of The Young Ones (with Stephen Fry - who had appeared on the real show - as Lord Snot, of Footlights College, Oxford) you would have thought that it would be put out of its misery.

But, 10 years later, it was back, with the inspired choice of Jeremy Paxman as host. That, pace Bamber, was all they needed to bring it up to date.

The first Paxman shows were greeted with despairing editorials and think- pieces about how the programme had dumbed down, how our young elite was becoming cretinised. Well, up to a point, and it is distressing how ignorant students are of literature (I am haunted by a picture round in which students from Durham and Balliol College, Oxford, failed to identify portraits of James Joyce, Iris Murdoch and TS Eliot). But there are plenty of questions to which I do not know the answers now, and certainly didn't when I was at university.

And if you think that some of the students are a little cocky, think back to the special edition in which teams of tabloid and broadsheet journalists were pitted against each other. The latter lost and exposed themselves as vain fools.

It is the studenty aspect of the show that keeps us watching. Even though we know this is to miss the point a bit, we do feel that we are taking a core sample of the state of higher education - although anyone who went to an institute of higher learning knows that a truly representative team would have to have at least three panellists who were dolts.

Its success, though, rests mainly on the arbitrary nature of our loyalties. Who do you root for? Well, any non-Oxbridge college, that's obvious. Except, of course, for the one you went to. Not that you say much about that. If there are no Oxbridge colleges playing, then you root for the team with the most sexually alluring member.

And we haven't even talked about the thrill of the nippy zoom-ins (imagine how fast they must have seemed in the Sixties), the humiliating scores, the way you blank the difficult questions ("What's the capital of Lombardy? Quick!") but shout out "Northanger Abbey, you FOOL!" when you know the answer. It's a show that makes fools of us all without treating us like idiots.