How did Manchester get so good at University Challenge? Fingers on the buzzers, please

In David Aaronovitch's day, Manchester University were the bolshy underdogs. Now they're an elite squad to be reckoned with

Share

Here's your starter for ten. Which distinguished newspaper columnist, a man of erudition and experience who is a regular on political discussions, is so proud of his appearance on University Challenge that his Twitter profile picture shows him almost 40 years ago on the quiz show, fingers poised, ready to parade his knowledge before the nation? No need to buzz. The answer is David Aaronovitch, a man with whom I have something of a history.

When I was appointed editor of The Independent in 1998, Aaronovitch was one of the paper's leading columnists and was also television reviewer for the newspaper's Sunday title. In the course of a critical appreciation of that week's telly, Aaronovitch found time to pour scorn on my appointment. It was a rather curious thing to read in our sister paper, but he apologised to me for his infelicity (stopping short of the full Luis Suarez-style "unacceptable behaviour"), and we went on to become respectful colleagues and friends.

I have long been an admirer of Aaronovitch's, and we have occasionally appeared in debates together, where his combination of intellect, humour and articulacy make him a formidable performer. He is not, by nature, a bashful sort - he was President of the National Union of Students in his younger days - and his place in the folklore of University Challenge was assured by a spectacular performance in 1975 as part of the team representing Manchester University. The four-man team's answer to every question was either "Che Guevara", or "Karl Marx", or "Trotsky" or "Lenin" as a protest against Cambridge and Oxford being allowed to enter each of their colleges as individual teams. (It was a comment on the elitism of the show, apparently. Damn clever, these students.)

Anyway, it seems that the natural order of things has been reversed, and it's Manchester who are now the elite squad as far as University Challenge is concerned. In the past eight years, Manchester University has won the competition three times, has come second once, has reached the last four on three occasions, and is one step away from winning this year's prize. So it's not just in football where the city has a competitive edge (The FA Cup looks destined to go to Manchester City, while the Premier League, a less prestigious trophy this year, has gone to the city's other club.)

Manchester University's current pre-eminence is not a matter of happenstance: it has been meticulously plotted by the university librarian Stephen Pearson, who, over 15 years, has developed rigorous selection procedures for the team and has done everything other than psychometric testing and altitude training to ensure that the men and women who represent this great university are equal to anything Jeremy Paxman could throw at them. Pearson, a former contestant on Mastermind, orchestrates full-scale rehearsals of the show, believing that competition strategy - not to panic, good buzzer technique - is as important as knowing which island is the largest in the Greater Antilles.

It's certainly worked, and Manchester University has, not surprisingly, found TV success to be a powerful draw for prospective students. No wonder, also, that Mr Aaronovitch wants to be associated with winners. (By the way, Cuba is the largest island in the Greater Antilles).

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

John Noakes was everyone’s favourite presenter in the 1970s. It’s a shock to realise the eternal boy scout is now an octogenarian suffering from dementia  

How remarkable that John Noakes still has the power to affect me so

Matthew Norman
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test
Tour de France 2015: Twins Simon and Adam Yates have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Twins have a mountain to climb during Tour of duty

Yates brothers will target the steepest sections in bid to win a stage in France
John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy