“I was never good enough to get on to it, but I certainly watched it,” said Jeremy Paxman last night. That pretty neatly sums up how all University Challenge fans feel about the quiz show he’s presented ever since it was revived in 1994. All, except this lot, that is. In the two-part University Challenge: Class of 2014 (BBC2), we get to meet the swots, oddbods, boffins and book-kissers who are forming teams to enter this year’s competition. Prepare to feel very stupid.
Classicist Clare from Trinity College, Cambridge, spends her free time learning Icelandic and going to lectures on the history of maths. Team captain Hugh is a talented pianist who also happens to be working on a cure for cancer. “It’s a lot to do while being a student,” said their team mate Michael (mathematician and debating champion). “But y’know, if I’d wanted an easy life, I would have gone to Oxford.”
While the Oxbridge teams entertained themselves with such zingers, the red bricks were deploying their secret weapon. Manchester University shares with Magdalen College, Oxford, the title for most wins and that’s in large part due to university librarian Stephen Pearson aka “the Alex Ferguson of quizzing”. Pearson captained the Manchester team in 1997 and now trains teams by setting up mock quizzes with past contestants.
As he put this year’s team through their paces, it slowly dawned on that shouting a few correct answers at the TV screen does not qualify you for University Challenge. Executive producer Peter Gwyn confirmed this: “The kind of people who take atlases to bed and read them with the torch under the covers, or people who actually take the time to read dictionaries A to Z. Really, the people you see on screen are the people who do that.”
Sadly, the people you don’t see on screen are people like the young woman in the “Scumbag College” T-shirt who answered “Rick Astley” to the question, The Sand Reckoner and On Floating Bodies are works by which mathematician?” Surely she deserves a trophy for that?
In fact, simply auditioning while in possession of a uterus deserves some sort of recognition. No one mentioned it, but University Challenge is more of a sausage party than a lads’ night out at the Wall’s factory. None of the teams featured in the documentary included more than one solitary woman and several were all male. This, despite the fact the show’s most successful contestant of all time is a woman: Gail Trimble of Corpus Christi, Oxford. Sort it out, boys.