Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys clash over University Challenge


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The Independent Online

Two of the most fearsome interrogators in the media clashed today, as Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman submitted himself to an interview by the BBC Radio 4 Today programme's John Humphrys.

The chat was on the light-hearted subject of the 50th anniversary of BBC2's University Challenge, which Paxman presents, but that did not stop the pair deploying their arsenal of tough-talking tactics.

There were repeated interruptions and gasps of exasperation as well as accusations of badly chosen questions, poor research and failure to pay attention, as Paxman and Humphrys talked over each other and exchanged jibes about their age and drinking, while the Today presenter repeatedly mentioned his own TV quiz show Mastermind.

Confronted with Paxman's scorn at some of the questions, Humphrys was at one point reduced to saying: "What would you like me to ask you?"

But there was also a lot of laughter and Humphrys ended the interview on a generous note, wishing Paxman "another 17 years" as quizmaster on the show which pits teams of students against each other in what is probably TV's most high-brow test of general knowledge.

The exchange got off on a bad footing when Humphrys started by referring to Paxman's long stint at the helm of University Challenge, which he began presenting in 1994.

"Seventeen years," said Humphrys.

After a long pause, a puzzled Paxman responded: "No, it's been on the air 50 years, hasn't it. I thought that was the anniversary."

Humphrys replied: "No, you haven't been paying attention. The programme's been on for 50 years. You've been on for 17, haven't you?"

Paxman: "Is it that long? I hadn't realised."

Humphrys: "Time flies when you're having fun."

After the University Challenge presenter voiced his "love" for the enthusiasm of the students on his show and the amazing things they know, he was immediately riled by Humphrys' follow-up.

"Here's the big question for you then," said the Today presenter. "Are they getting brighter, on the evidence of University Challenge, or are they getting dumber?"

Paxman exploded: "Oh, come on, John! You have got to do better than that. This is a canard that has been trotted out by dreary columnists in the Daily Express and other similar papers."

Humphrys: "I'm paid to ask questions. That's what we do on our programme."

Paxman: "Yeah? Well, ask some more interesting ones."

University Challenge had deliberately made questions more difficult over the years and had found that competitors knew increasing amounts about subjects like science, computing and culture, said Paxman. But he acknowledged that in some areas, contestants knew less than their counterparts from the programme's early years, citing a recent edition when the students were unable to identify three hymn tunes, including The Lord Is My Shepherd.

Humphrys denied he had been branding students "dumb", telling Paxman: "I wasn't actually making an assertion, I was asking you for your opinion, and now I'm very grateful to you because you have given it to me."

Paxman replied: "Well, I've given it to you now. I just think you should ask a better question."

Humphrys: "What would you like me to ask you?"

Paxman: "You go ahead, whatever you like."

The Today presenter then brought up Paxman's own attempt to become a contestant on University Challenge in his student years: "You tried to do it yourself - you wanted to go on University Challenge."

Paxman: "I failed as a student."

Humphrys: "You failed?"

Paxman: "It was after dinner. Someone thought it would be quite a laugh to go along."

Humphrys: "I see, drink had been taken. What happened to you?"

Paxman: "I got nowhere near qualifying. There were people who knew a great deal more than me, of course."

Humphrys: "Didn't you have another go?"

Paxman: "No."

Humphrys: "That was it?"

Paxman: "No, I'm afraid you are misinformed there as well."

Humphrys: "No, I'm saying, 'Did you have another go?'. I'm not making comments."

Paxman tried a different tack, pointing out that the students in their teens and 20s who take part in his show might find it easier to retrieve and deliver answers than older people who could know more.

"You must find this too, as you get to your very advanced age," said 62-year-old Paxman.

Humphrys, 69, hit back: "My hearing's probably better than yours, but go on."

The interview ended on a note of unity as the pair agreed there would probably be a place on TV for shows like University Challenge and Mastermind for many years to come.