How Bamber Gascoigne ruined our youth Bamber took the challenge and stole my show

The Agreeable World of Wallace Arnold
Click to follow
Ours is not to reason why, et cetera, et cetera, but 'tis oft forgot that before Bamber Gascoigne and The Dread Paxman barged into the picture, it was my own good self who chaired the long-running television series University Challenge.

From the moment the show opened, in November 1959, to the moment Gascoigne ruthlessly hijacked it from me in September 1960, your much-loved quizmaster was no less a figure than Wallace Arnold, Esq.

I came to it by a circuitous route. As the linchpin of The Brains Trust, I had established a formidable catch-phrase: "Now let me see, that's a tricky one, I'll have to think about that for a few moments and get back to you if I may." Cabbies, bus-drivers and market-traders would shout it with cheery Cockney aplomb to each other as they exchanged rotting cabbages with Pearly Kings on bustling street corners. Popular comedians would copy it, "sending me up" something rotten(!). The Prime Minister even employed it once in a withering exchange with Mr Gaitskell on the issue of farm subsidies and I have heard it said that the crack hastened Gaitskell's untimely demise.

So popular did that catch-phrase become, indeed, that in my final series I never deviated from it, always sticking with that same response to any brain-teaser. The public loved me for it, of course, but the powers that be grew edgy, particularly when I began to blow my nose between the words "think" and "about", in order to heighten the dramatic effect. Eventually one of them took me aside and read me the proverbial riot act.

If I would not answer the question, he said, they would have to get rid of me. I informed him that the Great British Public had no wish to be bombarded with "new" or "original" responses to "trendy brain-teasers". They much preferred to know where they stood week in, week out: they respected a fellow who had nothing whatever to say, and said it with force. But no - he would not hear of it. Thus I became the first victim of the pernicious left-wing mafia that has haunted the building ever since.

Happily, the first producer of University Challenge was a man of sound values. Not for him Mr Paxman's soggy liberal habit of letting feckless students off the hook with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smirk. No, in my first - and only - series, I was regularly moved to drag the recalcitrant student to one side of the studio and, to whoops of delight from the studio audience, to chastise him with six of the best from the famous studio slipper.

On one famous occasion, when a student from King's College, Cambridge, seemed to find it amusing that he was unable to answer the simplest question, I rounded on him in no uncertain terms. "Perhaps you would be so kind as to share your little joke with the viewers at home, Anderson," I said. "Or would you prefer to take fifty press-ups and a dozen strokes of the slipper?" This provided, needless to say, just the sort of jolt the fellow needed; he went on to become a leading light in the Tonbridge and District Round Table and a dedicated, if modest, collector of porcelain before, alas, finishing his days in Ford Open Prison on three charges of petty fraud.

But the onset of the 1960s heralded a wind of change. Out went old-fashioned values of excellence and discipline, good manners and common sense. In swaggered Mr Bamber Gascoigne, with his billowing hair and his oh-so- fashionable Carnaby Street suits, all dipped in the iconoclastic urge to strike down old-established values. "Your starter for 10" became his catch-phrase, yet to my ear it was so much meaningless gibberish, a sentence without verb or object. And out went the famous University Challenge Slipper. Competitors were left unpunished, even for the most glaring errors. In my day, the lowest-scoring team in the series found itself scarred for life, and often chose deportation over the inevitable humiliation of returning to their home town. But now? Now their ignorance is rewarded with adulation, they have their photographs in the newspapers and they are no doubt welcomed back in open-top coaches to cheers from the surrounding crowds. Sorry days indeed. Me? I blame it all on Bamber.

Craig Brown writes: The portrait of Wallace Arnold that graces this column is, of course, by the great Willie Rushton, who died this week. Rushton was a caricaturist of genius, somehow both merciless and merry at one and the same time, and with an eye-opening accuracy. The world is less funny without him.