University Challenge: The day I took on Bamber Gascoigne... and lost

As the television show celebrates its 50th year, Ian Irvine recalls his brief moment of family celebrity

Ian Irvine
Saturday 22 September 2012 03:17 BST
Brain power: Ian Irvine and his team-mates from Pembroke College, Oxford, on the programme in 1997
Brain power: Ian Irvine and his team-mates from Pembroke College, Oxford, on the programme in 1997

My grandmother was very impressed. She had always been proud that I was studying at Oxford, but that pleasure was eclipsed by the news that I was to appear on University Challenge.

In December 1977 there can have been few in the Aberdeenshire village of Lumphanan unaware that Mrs Irvine's grandson would be soon appearing on television. Postmen, milkmen, anyone who came to the door was rapidly informed.

I was impressed with myself too. It was a time when there were still only three channels and University Challenge was one of the highlights of Sunday evenings.

For as long as I could remember the family had watched the programme, occasionally shouting out an answer, which occasionally proved correct. I became good at this, eventually even outclassing my father.

Showing off was usually disapproved of, but this was different – this was educational. As an unabashed "'swot" (the common term before "nerd" appeared) with a retentive memory and a serious reading habit, this was my territory. True, I was always the last picked for a football team, but for information on mammalian characteristics, Kafka's novels, heraldic terms or Wagner's Ring I was the go-to guy. The Seventies was a golden age of TV general knowledge. Quizzes included Top of the Form, Ask The Family and Mastermind, and those taking part shared in the nimbus of celebrity.

This was the first time my college, Pembroke, had taken part in University Challenge. (Oxford and Cambridge, each with several dozen colleges, were only allowed to enter five each year.) Over 50 of us sat a short written quiz and a team of four (and a spare fifth man) was assembled out of the highest scores.

I was chosen captain and led the chaps – Pembroke was still single sex – on a wet Thursday in October to the Granada studios in Manchester. After a brief meeting with an affable Bamber Gascoigne who tried to put us at our ease, and a disconcerting trip to make-up, we were all empanelled in the studio before a small audience. The teams sit side by side, not one on top of each other as its TV appearance might suggest.

Our opponents for this first-round match were Edinburgh University and we had a quick 15-minute practice match before the main event. Despite the dazzle of studio lights we soon picked up the form, fingers on buzzers.

I can't now remember a single question. Once it started it seemed to go very quickly. We pulled ahead at the beginning, were neck-and-neck in the middle, then fell behind. As the gong went we were 10 points behind but just about to start a 15-point bonus question. The score was a very decent 190-200. But we'd lost and the college would have to wait another decade for another chance.

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In the aftermath, drinking warm beer with Bamber in the green room, we tried consoling ourselves with the thought that Pembroke with its 330 undergraduates had nearly taken down Edinburgh with its 12,000. That didn't really work.

Our fifth man, who studied physics, said he could have answered several science questions we hadn't managed and I brooded on the fact that skulduggery in the choosing of the team had meant we had two classicists and no one from maths or science. When we got back to college, they had already heard the result and the subject was never mentioned again.

Two months later I watched the broadcast at my uncle's house in London. This was the only time to see the show as video recorders were yet to be invented. I realised that Pembroke had given a very creditable performance. And that Christmas I visited my grandmother in Lumphanan – and everyone wanted to shake my hand.

Starters for 10: Challenging facts

Highest score: 520 – University College, Oxford (against Reading).

Lowest score: 15 – Exeter University against Gail Trimble's team from Corpus Christi, Oxford.

Highest losing score: 240 – Sheffield in the second round of 2001.

Lowest winning score: 125 – Edinburgh's first-round victory in 2005.

Most series wins: Magdalen College, Oxford, has the record with four. Manchester has three wins.

Fact-checking: The original quizmaster, Bamber Gascoigne, checked the questions himself and would rewrite any that did not come up to scratch.

Scandals: Corpus Christi, Oxford, beat Manchester in the 2009 final but forfeited the title after entrant Sam Kay was revealed as a graduate.

Musical notes: The show's "College Boy" theme was written by Derek New.

University Challenge: Experiences

Jacob Funnell, 24, Brighton, Quarter Final, Exeter Uni Cornwall Campus, Web Marketing for Emphasis Business Writing

"Just before my second match with Sheffield I thought I was going to get fed by Granada but their canteen wasn't open so I was ransacking make up department in search for food - literally any food - I ended up finding some old Cornflakes, a plastic bowl, some milk and a fork. That was my fuel. That was my brain food. And then I went off into battle - and we won by five points just in the dying moments! "You're not always aware of the score but you do get aware of really big swings of points during the show. But I think what was really interesting is just how intense it can feel in the moment. You're just in this state where you think 'I must remember things' so you tend to filter out a lot of stuff. I wasn't really aware of the audience or stuff like that. "We had a horrible episode with Corpus Christi and after that I wasn't so worried about being recognised! Soon after that episode I ran the UC trials and there was a guy who was taking the piss quite a bit about us getting the lowest score and then when I tested him he came 62nd." "I did manage to have a bit of small talk with Paxman. His reputation is ill deserved - there's nothing intimidating about him. He's just a man!

Ian Bayley, 37, Oxford, Senior Lecturer in Computer Science and UC coach, Imperial 2nd round Balliol QF

"They actually play the music as part of the audience experience rather than dubbing it on afterwards. As a result, any time I heard the music for many year afterwards I found it extremely frightening. I find the veiled light heartedness of the theme very very scary. Before my second appearance on the show I had watched it many times practicing by hitting the sofa and I was reasonably confident of success. I also I had done other untelevised quizzes all of which I had won. It was something of a disappointment not to win but one which I have made up for now by winning Brain of Britain and Mastermind It's very common to be stopped by people you don't know saying 'I saw you on UC'. The fame did not do too much for me. It only lasts for a short period of time any way. I think what I wanted was not the fame of being on TV but being on TV doing something I was extremely proud of and knowing a lot of people would be watching it. Being recognised becomes more irritating of course due to the gap between recording and broadcast. Of course if you've just had a round in which you do extremely well but you know there's a round to come in which you go out then you don't want people as you go about your ordinary life reminding you of that!

Alex Guttenplan, 22, London, Post-grad student

"The experience was a lot of fun. The thing that you have to realise about UC is that it's a game. It's not a test. You have to treat it as a game and have fun doing it and doing well requires being good at the game as well as knowing a lot of things. "Knowing when to buzz is the big thing. In the later rounds people will be interrupting almost every question so you have to go through your own memory and feel when the question has given you enough information for you to know the answer. There's a lot of psychology in there. Everyone's seen the other team and you can rattle them if you get something early. "The attention I got wasn't entirely welcome being at the centre of this huge media circus. Within Cambridge it was all a bit of fun but in the few days after the final there was a lot of press attention and I didn't particularly enjoy that. "There were some positive benefits. I got an invitation to be on Only Connect which was a lot of fun. In fact, I prefer Only Connect to University Challenge! "I still do the pub quiz with my friends at the Cambridge Union - we do well but we don't always win."

Luke Pitcher, 36, Oxford, fellow and tutor in Classics at Oxford

"My favourite memory from being on University Challenge is inevitably the occasion when I produced what appeared to be a calculation (but was in fact something I knew from an anecdote already) so promptly that Jeremy was vocally surprised. That answer was part of Your Starter for 10, a recent Radio 4 documentary about University Challenge. "For later games, our supporters put "LUKE 17:29" on placards to commemorate this. When we eventually looked up that passage in the Bible, we discovered that the verse reads: 'But the same day that Lot went out of Sodom it rained fire and brimstone from heaven, and destroyed them all.' "After the show my life was pretty much the same as before. I was a graduate student, so I went back to ploughing on with my D.Phil, which I submitted in 2004. After I graduated I became a Lecturer in the Department of Classics at Durham University but I'm now a Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Somerville College, Oxford.

Interviews by Dom Gilchrist

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