Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys clash over University Challenge


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.


Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Social Media Account Writers

£12000 - £13000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This social media management pr...

Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor (Magazine Publishing) - Wimbledon - £23-26K

£23000 - £26000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Deputy Editor - Wimbledon...

Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publishing) - Wimbledon - £26-30K

£26000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Editor (Magazines/Publish...

Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

£25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent