Watch out, Paxman: Manchester’s quiz-show guru reveals his secrets

Manchester’s recent University Challenge successes can be credited to one man

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The Independent Online

"He's got a degree in economics, maths, physics and bionics. He thinks that I'm a cabbage, coz I hate University Challenge," sang The Undertones on My Perfect Cousin, their disaffected paean to inter-familial jealousy and failure back in 1980.

For while some might like to grade higher educational establishments according to their global research ratings or the number of graduates who go on to become world leaders, everyone knows that the true test of intellectual self-worth is how many questions you can get right in the BBC's long-running college quiz.

By that standard the University of Manchester recently renders the rest of UK academia in danger of looking positively brassica-like after winning three titles, coming second once and reaching the semi-finals three times since 2005.

On Monday the reigning champions will battle University College London in this year's final. Of course there may be a home advantage, the show is filmed in Manchester, but much of the plaudits for this extraordinary run of success have been laid at the door of librarian Stephen Pearson who captained the university team to the semi-final in 1996 when they were beaten on the final question.

The 47-year-old classicist's coaching record over the past 15 years has drawn comparisons with another of the city's winning legends, Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson. But, though a fan, it is hard to imagine receiving the hairdryer treatment from the quietly-spoken quiz Svengali.

Yet sitting down on behalf of The Independent to take the Manchester University secret selection test for prospective University Challenge team members is not without a sense of performance anxiety.

 "I don't know if there is a way of preparing for it. I certainly don't encourage the team to go away and read reference books or anything like that," he reassures me as I turn over the paper to begin scribbling what answers I can to the 100 questions before me.

In order to make it through to the next stage I must hope to get around 40 correct, he tells me. I'm reasonably confident on pop music, not bad at sport (as long as it's football) and as a journalist my grasp of current affairs is OK. I also know quite a lot about the Second World War.

My own alma mater, Bradford University, is one of 15 institutions to lift the trophy - 10 years before I started there. And there is a not inconsiderable gap in my general knowledge which seems to span from around the time of the Ancient Greeks to the Battle of the Somme.

Early 20th century American composers, Medieval English kings, anything to do with the Napoleonic Wars, opera, the Bible or - God forbid - chemistry or particle physics and I am also floundering.

As I plough my way through the paper I can only imagine Paxman's withering looks and snorts of disbelief being hurled in my direction if this were the real thing.

Yet Mr Pearson, who has also been on Mastermind, looks back on his time in front of the camera as one of immense fun. He even remembers Paxman as being "really quite friendly".

"I enjoy taking part in quizzes. It's the equivalent for me of playing football or cricket. I was so much enjoying the experience of answering questions and competing against the other team - having the camaraderie and team spirit - that I didn't notice the cameras," he says.

Mr Pearson advertises each year for potential team members. Typically between 50 and 150 turn up to sit the paper. The top 10 (normally scoring 40 and above) are then invited back for the evening buzzer round when they asked to perform under a little more pressure.

"It is quiet unnatural to react to knowing the answer by pressing a buzzer - it is not the first instinct," he says. In the two and half months before the competition proper begins, the Manchester team will be whittled down to four.

They undertake a two-hour session each week in the library in which they will battle against former competitors, academics and local quizzers, in order to hone their sense of their team mates' knowledge - learning when and when not to buzz.

Men, it seems, tend to outnumber women, a result, Mr Pearson believes, of the female tendency to recall important information rather than the "useless" male lists and trivia at a premium in the unnatural setting of a quiz show. He also now eschews too many mature students after TV viewers complained to Points of View after he fielded a team of 30 and 40 year olds.

The scientific approach clearly pays dividends. Mr Pearson has analysed the questions from previous shows, weighting his into the same categories of literature, arts, history, geography, science etc.

And whilst he has no preference on what subject is being studied he insists on having at least one scientist. "Other than that I don't really worry about that. I try to make the team have knowledge areas that complement each other," he says.

It's all come a long way since Manchester's notorious 1975 team including David Aaronovich which answered "Marx" or "Trotsky" to all questions and earned the university a ban for much of the remaining Bamber Gascoigne era.

The team was "protesting" at Oxbridge being allowed to enter college teams - a tradition that continues since the show switched to the BBC in 1995 with each university entering up to six teams putting them first and second in the all-time hall of fame.  Manchester enjoys the reputation its University Challenge success brings.

But the real started for 10 is whether they let me on the team? I score 37, tantalisingly close to taking me through to the next round. Mr Pearson point blank rejects my appeals on a couple of, what I consider to be, harsh marking decisions. "Sometimes it is enough. It depends on the year," he says. I'll just have to wait and see.


Q1: Which German driver, born in 1987, won his first Formula 1 World championship in 2010?

Jonathan Brown’s answer: Michael Schumacher

Q2: By what brief nickname do rock fans know the Dublin-born musician Paul Hewson?

JB: The Edge

Q3: Which South Korean diplomat became the eighth Secretary-General of the United Nations in 2007?

JB: Ban Ki-moon

Q4: Which jazz pianist and singer, who was born in 1979, has released albums including  Twentysomething and Catching Tales and is married to the former model Sophie Dahl?

JB: Jamie Cullum

Q5: Which poet was portrayed by Daniel Craig in the 2003 film Sylvia?

JB: Ted Hughes

Q6: Perhaps John Smith’s most significant achievement as leader of Labour party in the early 1990s was the introduction of OMOV at Labour Party conferences. For what does OMOV stand?

JB: One man one vote

Q7: Which American sitcom which started in 2005 follows the social and romantic lives of Ted Mosby and his friends?

JB: The IT Crowd

Q8: Born in 1949, who in 2007 became the first American to take home an official portrait photograph of the Queen?

JB: Annie Leibovitz

Q9: Which Belgian tennis player won the US Open twice, the Australian Open once and the French open four times between 2003 and 2007?

JB: Pass

Q10: Which MP, who narrowly lost to Nick Clegg in the 2007 contest  for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, pleaded guilty in February 2013 to the charge of perverting the course of justice  and was sentenced to eight  months in prison?

JB: Chris Huhne