The quiz man with all the answers

On tonight's University Challenge a retired solicitor pits his wits against BBC bully boy Jeremy Paxman. And wins.
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The Independent Culture
Stumbling, hesitation and swearing are not responses we expect from our most belligerent of quiz masters. Jeremy Paxman may run verbal rings around politicians, but on tonight's University Challenge he seems to have met his match in the rather unlikely form of one Lance Haward, a contestant on the show.

Half-way through the programme, Lance enjoys his moment of glory when Jezza asks: "Which medical instrument was devised by the Frenchman Len, Rennie, Len...", and is swiftly interrupted with Lance's correct reply, "The stethoscope". A split second of amazed silence, and Paxman manages a stifled, "Blimey".

Laser-sharp master of the buzzer, Lance Haward, 62, a retired local government solicitor from north London, was desperately keen, some may say more desperate than keen, to make an appearance on the programme. So much so, that one of the reasons Lance signed up for his current course in classical Greek at the Open University was to get a chance to apply. "It's generally thought that University Challenge, Mastermind and Brain of Britain are the top three," he says loftily. "And University Challenge was the only one that had so far evaded me."

Lance, who is married, with three children, was first drawn to the "quizling" circuit after a friend entered him for Mastermind without his knowing. He didn't succeed beyond the first round, but was still keen to repeat the experience.

"It's the stimulation of being against the buzzer that brings an adrenaline rush," he says. The heady mix of sitting in that black leather chair and feeling the spotlight upon him was sufficient to drive him to seek further thrills in other formats.

What intrigues him is how his mind adapts under pressure - in particular, how his subconscious seems to save him during moments of stress. Excitedly, he relates one occasion when he pressed the buzzer and didn't know the answer. But did Lance make a fool of himself? Of course not. "It was a question about the federacy of the Southern States. The only thing I knew was Richmond, Virginia. How surprised I was when I opened my mouth and came out with the right answer: Jefferson Davis."

Such is the white-knuckle ride of quiz show mastery. Lance was hooked. Next there was Radio 4's prestigious Brain of Britain, and then The Krypton Factor. "I did enjoy those assault courses," he admits. But as with any compulsion, it's only a matter of time before the addict's sense of judgement is severely eroded. He ran out of quality programming and happily entered the netherworld of daytime television. Even though the questions were less taxing, Lance still enjoyed the buzz. "Sale of the Century was the furthest I had to descend," he says ruefully.

In any other context, he could be confessing in a "Quiz Show Anonymous" support group - if one doesn't exist yet, then surely it should. There seems to be an increasing number of victims who could benefit; only last November a certain Trevor Montague was sued for breaking the rules of Channel 4's Fifteen-to-One by appearing three times under a different name, and disguising his appearance. Money isn't the driving force here, but the more baffling motive of quiz-show notoriety. "After the first appearance, you start getting sucked in. It's the sheer fun of the thing. It's the idea of being in an arena and the spotlight's on you."

There is also a pecking order: an Oxford and Cambridge snobbery among contestants. Lance gravitates to the upper echelons. "There are certain quiz shows where people asked on are not, one might say, of all that high performance," he says sniffily. "They seem to be flummoxed by the easiest of questions." Not that Lance is averse to slumming it intellectually: "Why not enjoy yourself at someone else's expense for an afternoon?" he admits. And so part of his quiz career reads like the review highlights of TV Quick magazine; Fifteen-to-One, Masterteam, The Krypton Factor and Jeopardy. The prizes began to flow in, though; pounds 500 from Jeopardy, trophies, glass paperweights and even a bronze replica of a brain. "Heinous," sighs Lance. But intellectual glory continued to evade him - he wanted to top Brain of Britain and Mastermind with University Challenge.

He compares the thrill of these sorts of programmes, grandiosely, to the glory of the Roman arena: "Because the real opposition isn't with other contestants, but with the audience - it feels gladiatorial. What they are really hoping for is for someone to come hideously unstuck. It's good television; great theatre."

Then there's the celebrity schmoozing. Magnus, Bamber and Bob too; Lance has met them all. It's common knowledge in the quiz industry, Lance assures me, that Bob Monkhouse is by far the most knowledgeable. But Bamber is every contestant's quiz show hero, the creme de la creme. In contrast, Jezza meets with lukewarm affection, in Lance's eyes anyway. "I don't think Paxman has the urbane, authoritative approach that Bamber did. Bamber researched the programme himself and controlled it from the floor. Jeremy has to rely on a team."

Lance is less than impressed by Jeremy's sometimes bullish manner. "I don't think Bamber felt it was essential to tell people they were inept, foolish or slow. Jeremy doesn't seem very inhibited in that area. There's a difference between hurrying quizlings and heckling politicians, and I think Jeremy may be caught between those two styles."

Although Lance refuses to divulge the winners of tonight's show against reigning champions, Magdalen College Oxford, he admits that this may be his last foray in the quiz arena. "I don't know where I'd go after this," he says. What about compering his own show? For once, he's short of an answer. "Nobody's asked me. I dream about it, but I'm still waiting to be asked."