First Night: University Challenge Final, BBC2

Guttenplan's star performance seals coveted trophy
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The Independent Culture

"Hello. I'm Alex Guttenplan. I'm from London and I study natural sciences." For followers of this year's University Challenge, not to mention the two Facebook pages dedicated to this unassuming, bespectacled Cambridge student that have been set up by so-called "Guttenfans", the introduction at the start of last night's final was entirely superfluous. For Guttenplan, 19, has been the breakout star of this year's University Challenge. He has been this year's Gail Trimble, the "human Google" of last year's tournament.

This is the second year in succession that the brainy student quiz show has been hit by "the Susan Boyle Effect", with one outstanding contestant generating interest amongst those large swathes of the population who don't even understand the questions, let alone know their answers. The Emmanuel College, Cambridge, captain has garnered the headlines not only for his Wikipedia-sized fact-retention capabilities and his Harry Potter good looks but also for his cool handling of habitual politician-beater Jeremy Paxman.

HM Bateman would have appreciated the pivotal scene in an earlier round, as the caustic quiz-master had suggested that Guttenplan's correct response to a question about WH Auden had been "a good guess", to which our hero calmly and politely replied: "It wasn't a guess." Explaining how he had succeeded in cutting Paxo down to size where some of the biggest beasts in Westminster have hitherto failed, the second-year student explained that, unlike MPs, he wasn't trying to "bend the truth". It was a profound comment that Jeremy Paxman's career has been built on the wall-to-wall mendacity of our elected representatives.

Mind you, you can see why Paxo might have thought that he was guessing, for Guttenplan has a way of looking thoroughly stumped before seeming to pluck the correct answer from the ether. Once bitten, Paxman was, however, shy of cracking that "good guess" gag for a second time. I didn't count but I'd estimate that the lad won well over half of Emmanuel College's points as they trounced St John's, Oxford, by 315 points to 100. St John's briefly got their noses ahead after 10 minutes but thereafter it was all Emmanuel and mostly Guttenplan, as the boy wonder, looking somewhat bemused by his own brilliance, entered what poet Carol Ann Duffy, presenting the trophy, called "the zone". There was a five-minute spell when, answering bonus questions on bioluminescence ("the emission by organisms of light without heat", Paxman kindly added) that Guttenplan and Paxo seemed to be talking in a language all of their own.

There was only one area, the arts, where he seemed uncertain, struggling with questions about singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and filmmaker Terence Davies but soon it was on to inter-war Italian philosophers and the geology of basalt.