If you’ve ever been in front of the cameras while Bamber Gascoigne or Jeremy Paxman said “Fingers on the buzzer”, you’ll know the adrenaline rush that taking part in University Challenge creates. If you’ve just watched the show with any frequency, you’ll find it easy to imagine. Will I impress by remembering what the initials L. B. & S. C. R. stand for? Or the nicknames of early mediaeval kings? Or will the TV lights fuse my synapses, as has happened to many an English student who put a major author in the wrong century, or scientist who stumbled over an elementary chemical equation. Can I remember anything at all? Just as important, if not more so, can I remember it faster than the other lot?
Back in the dim and distant past of my student days, I was on the team from Sidney Sussex College which won the series championships in 1979. We enjoyed the show. Young ladies sent us fan mail. Total strangers stopped us in the street and invited us to fulfil childhood fantasies (well, two British Rail employees on their lunch break let me drive a locomotive down a siding for 20 yards or so!)
So, when Granada Television asked if we wanted to take part in the University Challenge Reunited series to mark the game’s 40th anniversary, naturally we said yes. It was the first time in twenty years John Adams (now a doctor in general practice), Nick Graham (now with British Airways), David Lidington (MP for Aylesbury) and myself had all been together, and a bit longer since we’d last done a show. During our first match (against the 1972 Trinity College, Oxford team), I was painfully aware that my timing on the buzzer was not what it once was, and for the best part of the first half I thought we were going to lose. In the end we notched up a respectable 275 against 185, but it was several weeks before it was clear that this was enough to put us in the top four for a return trip to Manchester.
By then, we had decided to go for the killer instinct rather than the “It’s only a game” approach. I was very aware of having children at home who expected me to know everything. I don’t, unfortunately, but the team does have a good combination and range of types of information. And, however unsporting it may seem, we practised beforehand, working our way through a pile of old quiz books. Our old mascots were dusted off and freshly anointed with human blood. Something must have worked. We beat this year’s champions, Somerville College, Oxford, by 390 points to 90, a result which Stephen Fry (a former contestant on the show) described when presenting the trophies as a triumph for grey power. In the final, we were perhaps a little slow off the mark, but eventually beat the Keele, 1968, team by 375 to 185 to be officially declared the Champion of Champions.
Has the game changed much? Yes and no. There seem to be more science questions than I remember. Nobody on the modern teams seems able to answer the simplest question about the Bible. A good many details about literature and history that would once have been elementary general knowledge are now apparently regarded as very esoteric indeed. On the other hand, there are now – probably rightly – more questions about contemporary popular culture. Most of these would leave me stumped, even if my children make sure that I can tell the difference between Beckham and Ferdinand and that I can recognise a particularly irritating Eminem tune at 100 paces. But the spirit of the game is still very much what it was. There are no large cash prizes (or even small ones).
In an age when we are constantly being urged to be “practical” and “relevant”, University Challenge stands for the idea that knowledge for its own sake is still worth having, and that any subject, however obscure, can possess an interest that is its own reward. I take some comfort from the fact that on a good night it can still attract more viewers than The Simpsons.
John Gilmore, lecturer in the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies