Who was most angry about the University Challenge shambles, which left Oxford's Corpus Christi College stripped of their title, having broken the rules by fielding someone who had recently left the college? The answer, rather bizarrely, is Bamber Gascoigne, the programme's host from 1962 to 1987 and the nation's favourite and most benign brainbox. We got used to Roy Plomley complaining that Desert Island Discs had gone off after he stopped hosting it, and we know Michael Parkinson thinks they don't make interviewers like him any more. But Bamber?
He, surely, was big enough to leave the past behind. He hasn't said much about the programme since leaving it, and we all assumed he was too busy being magnanimous and cerebral. But not this time. He was affronted by the fact that the recording of a series spans two academic years. Given that contestants have to be students "for the duration" of the series, final-year students are thereby excluded. "It's a fiasco for the BBC comparable to the one that engulfed the final of Celebrity Come Dancing," he says. "To fail to produce a University Challenge based on university life not within a single university year is pathetic. It's totally contrary to the rules and nature of University Challenge."
"I don't get very cross naturally," he says. "I rather surprised myself. I hadn't planned to sound off about it when they [Radio 4's The World Tonight] rang me up, but then I realised what a mess they had got themselves into." In all other respects, though, Gascoigne is the embodiment of amused modesty. Magnus Magnusson, the late host of Mastermind, called Gascoigne "the undisputed master of quizzes, he was terrific – and he set a lot of the questions, he actually knew this stuff. A great man... He's miles above everyone."
Yet when I put to him that he is a national treasure, he mutters something self-effacing about "enjoying a bit of flattery as one gets older" and how much preparation he always used to have to do. The charm is impeccable. Few with Gascoigne's immense learning could say "bad luck" to a contestant without sounding condescending, yet he managed it.
He was tempted to return to the quiz-master's chair when the BBC brought back the programme in 1994, but says he disliked the constant recognition. He says he occasionally regrets the decision, but by then he had started writing a mammoth history of the world, which was to become the website to which he now devotes most of his time. His days are spent in Richmond, south-west London, where he lives with Christina, his wife, a potter and painter.
He enjoys the web ("I'm grateful to have lived into this hugely exciting internet age") and works on Historyworld.net, an absorbing website that seeks to offer a way of relating odd chunks of history to the wider social and geographical context in which they took place. It attracts about 10,000 users a day, many of them students, he thinks, and says it's a bit of a labour of love. When it started off he hoped it would produce some revenue, which now seems unlikely. "My investors are very kind and generous people. When I apologise for not being likely to present them with a dividend, they just say "don't worry, it's 'racing money'."
He still gets recognised in the street, when people shout "Your starter for 10" at him, and he receives "endless" offers to do charity quizzes, from which he excused himself after his 70th birthday four years ago.
He admits he has seen the Jeremy Paxman version of University Challenge only a few times, which enables him to duck the question of whether it is easier than in his day. Besides, it is a subjective matter. In 1963, he said you couldn't possibly ask what the first names of the Beatles were, which provoked howls of laughter at his donnish unworldliness. At about the same time, Lew Bernstein, the celebrated boss of Granada TV, complained that he looked scruffily dressed and bought him a suit. He wore that for a year, until someone took it abroad and it was lost for ever, so he returned to "my usual clothes". Devotees may be astonished to learn that he never wore a corduroy jacket. He admits "that may have been my image, but I used to know a lot of people who did".Reuse content