University Challenge review: Amol Rajan is a natural as he takes up the baton from Jeremy Paxman

Wisely, Rajan’s not sought to impersonate either of his much-loved predecessors – he exercises a light, quiz-masterly touch throughout

Sean O'Grady
Monday 17 July 2023 21:00 BST
University Challenge: Amol Rajan asks his first 'starter for ten' as new host of quiz show

“OK, here’s your starter for 10, fingers on buzzers, no conferring. Born in Kolkata in 1983, educated at Downing College Cambridge, he became the youngest ever editor of a British national newspaper at age 30, before moving on to roles in BBC radio and television, recently being described as the most ubiquitous figure in British broadcasting. He recently became only the third host of BBC Two’s University Challenge in its six decades. Who is he? … I must hurry you...”

Buzzzzzz. Erm, Amol Rajan

Yes, indeed, Amol Rajan, and for a further five points I might ask how he came to acquire this latest bauble to add to his collection (BBC media editor, Today programme, prestigious interviews). Actually, I know the answer to this because I spent a pleasant, if commercially challenging, few years working with him here at The Independent when he was running the joint, and the answer is (dread phrase!) “star quality”. After only a few years in the game, he’s obviously a natural, and he has the two essential qualities required for success as the chair of University Challenge.

First, he looks like he’s genuinely enjoying himself just as much as the contestants, and indeed the shows dedicated followers. Second, he has the demeanour of someone clever and knowledgeable (which he is), but doesn’t come across as a know-it-all (which he isn’t). We feel confident, then, that he knows a decent proportion of the answers, and so we join him in his display of quiet satisfaction that, say, the mystery artist is Caravaggio. Of course it is. Quietly spoken and respectful to his youthful charges, he’s almost paternal in tone. In that respect, he’s more low-key and much closer to the original quiz master, Bamber Gascoigne, (Magdalene College Cambridge), who retired in 1987 than to the jovially sneering Jeremy Paxman (St Catharine’s College Cambridge).

Wisely, Rajan’s not sought to impersonate either of his much-loved predecessors. He contents himself with a few “c’mon”s and the odd “impressive”, and exercises a light, quiz-masterly touch throughout. He may be the star of the show, but he knows it’s not his show. Well, not yet. We shall see if his more ebullient side shows itself a little more in the coming years.

But the questions! It may simply be a function of ageing, like police officers looking younger, but I’m sure the questions are tougher and more complex than in the Paxman era, though still easier than the ones Gascoigne used to put, which I seem to recall were disproportionately rooted in the classics, all stuff about Greek gods and the like. The subjects seem much broader now too – batteries, for example – and more cosmopolitan, like the contestants themselves, in turn a reflection of the changing face of UK higher education and its global quest for income.

The Trinity College Cambridge team in this episode are lucky to have a student of Japanese heritage on the panel, giving them a bit of an edge on Manchester University, but even she can’t get many questions in the “novels of Haruki Murakami” section right. Me neither.

One of the keys to the success of University Challenge has always been that the level is pitched just right, so watching it should make you feel academically inadequate, but not the pain of humiliation. I score a few – Liechtenstein, Thailand, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo – but am stumped on the antipodals (points on precise opposite sides of the globe, such as Rio and Tokyo), and herbs belonging to the parsley family.

The young contestants are, as ever, charming and, with their funny mascots, college scarves and adventurous hairstyles, they resemble just as much as any previous generation did a group of refugees from Fraggle Rock. Roger Tilling provides his usual insistent voice.

In any event, the first contest of the Rajan era is an extremely tense one. For almost the entire time, Trinity enjoys a solid but not insurmountable lead over Manchester, yet in the last few minutes Manchester manages first to get the draw with “Yak” (“short-legged, long-haired bovine animal”), and then grabs victory at the death with the tiebreak, “Guerilla Girls” (“feminist art group”). But Rajan, looking as relieved as the students when it’s all over, is the bigger winner tonight.

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