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

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

"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

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

Guru Careers: Financial Controller

£45 - £55k DOE: Guru Careers: A Financial Controller is required to join a suc...

Guru Careers: Product Manager / Product Marketing Manager / Product Owner

COMPETITIVE: Guru Careers: A Product Manager / Product Owner is required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Online Customer Service Advisor

£13000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A chance to work for an extreme...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager - Media Sales - £36,000 OTE

£28000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award-winning company, whi...

Day In a Page

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Attwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
10 best waterproof mascaras

Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'