Oldie challenge to university smart alecs

This week, TV audiences will at last have the opportunity to watch smart alec University Challenge undergraduates face some stern and mature opposition.

Since the first show in 1962, viewers at home have been infuriated into exclaiming at the arrogance, the ignorance and the elitism evident on screen. And some of the contestants have been pretty irritating, too.

However, on Tuesday, a team from Magdalen College, Oxford, triumphant in the last series, will be pitted against the combined might of the finalists of this year's farewell Mastermind competition.

The result of the pre-recorded match is a closely guarded secret. Producer Peter Gwyn will only say that the show provides some surprises.

So does an analysis of recent results from University Challenge contests. In the three complete series of the new BBC version of University Challenge, under the chairmanship of Jeremy Paxman, the newer universities have begun to eat away at the lead established by Oxbridge colleges.

In the days of Bamber Gascoigne, the programme's first host, Oxbridge undergraduates chalked up 15 wins during 25 series. Under Paxman, however, red-brick Nottingham and Sixties-built Warwick have come through strongly, with the Scottish universities putting in consistently good performances.

Perhaps Nottingham's finest moment came in the current series when they trounced a team from New Hall College, Cambridge, with a final score of 300. The Oxbridge representatives managed a score of only 35 points, the lowest total in the quiz's 27 year history.

Of the 24 teams who qualified to take part in this series nine were Oxbridge, but four University of London colleges also qualified. So far, this series, Cambridge colleges have won 50 more points than Oxford colleges.

"We always say, and I firmly believe," said Mr Gwyn, "that just to qualify to take part in the hardest quiz on television is a tremendous achievement in itself."

Even back in the days when it was customary for Gascoigne to prepare to take the chairman's seat by eating a quick Eccles cake, University Challenge provoked strong feelings.

Before Granada Television rashly decided to pull the show in 1987, arguments tended to centre on the academic snobbery the programme was thought to enshrine. This political objection was memorably given voice by the home team from Manchester University who were banned in 1976 after a contest in which they answered every question with the names of either Trotsky or Marx.

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