In praise of University Challenge

For fans of University Challenge, like my wife Lynn and I, Christmas is a great time of year, as ten ‘Celebrity’ versions of the BBC quiz go out on consecutive evenings. For the rest of the year, it’s shown on a weekly basis.

While its overall charm is mainly to do with seeing which of the two university teams can triumph in a particular episode, the show’s enduring appeal – it was first aired by Granada Television way back in 1962 – is also a function of the quick-fire pace of the questioning, the fluctuations in the teams’ fortunes and the personal characteristics of the team members. So many aspects of the quiz are entertaining: whether the contest is one-sided or a closely-fought duel doesn’t seem to matter too much to its enjoyment value, though when two teams are neck-and-neck with less than a minute to go it can be especially gripping. But that’s not the entire story …

For starters, there’s often at least one ridiculously well-informed individual on the show who seems to have limitless knowledge about virtually every aspect of the arts and sciences, a comprehensive mental database of the entire geography of the world, to be able to retrieve the most arcane chemical data and to interrupt quizmaster and national treasure Jeremy Paxman (pictured left, sadly leaving the programme at the end of the current series) with instant recognition of some obscure piece of classical music after hearing only the first two notes. But it’s in the closing episodes, approaching the Final – or indeed in the Final itself – that the show really comes into its own, especially when two or more such erudite polymaths pit their wits against each other, head to head across the studio floor.

Over the past year or so, University Challenge has had to adapt to the onset of the pandemic, with transparent screens erected between team members. This doesn’t seem to stop them conferring – when allowed – nor giving each other the occasional ‘high five’ against the plastic partitions!

But besides the unfolding of the televisual contest, there’s also the personal challenge of trying to answer questions before the teams …

My own performance in this regard varies dramatically from week to week: on some occasions I’m on top form, blurting out correct answers like the real wiseacre I know myself to be; then the next show comes along and I begin to wonder if I’m suffering some form of memory loss. It’s fascinating to watch agile minds working as a team, trying to come up with answers when I haven’t the foggiest clue what the question was even about. On the other hand, what a feeling of triumph when (that rarest event) I get the correct answer when all eight contestants are stumped.

I find one other fascinating aspect of the show is guesswork. I’ll sometimes hazard a complete guess in answer to a subject I’ve never studied, and, lo-and-behold, I’m right. This can usually be explained by sheer chance, as when the answer is a numerical value – say, a number from one to ten. But now and again I seem to dredge up some deep-seated factoid that I had no idea was there, lodged in the darkest recesses of my grey matter. It makes me wonder what else is hidden away within the innermost folds of my brain. And, of course, there’s the reverse case, where I’m convinced I’m right only to discover that my synapses have got their neurons in a twist.

There’s one additional facet of University Challenge that makes it really special. It’s so refreshing to see a keenly-fought, knockout contest where the teams aren’t motivated by monetary reward. As far as I’m concerned, that single attribute alone earns it countless bonus points!

Credits

University Challenge TV card: fair use

Jeremy Paxman: Daisyheadmaisie, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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