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

Pharmaceutical Computer System Validation Specialist

£300 - £350 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Pharmaceutical Computer ...

High Level Teaching Assistant (HTLA)

£70 - £90 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Higher Level Teaching Assist...

Teaching Assistant

£50 - £80 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Randstad Education is the UK...

Senior Java Developer - API's / Webservices - XML, XSLT

£400 - £450 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is currently ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letters: No vote poses difficult questions – so why rush?

Independent Voices
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside  

Autumn’s subtle charm is greatly enhanced by this Indian summer

Michael McCarthy
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments