Tag Archives: BBC

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!


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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Pandemic doesn’t stop the Proms – and neither did Hitler’s bombs in 1941

I’m delighted to hear that this year’s BBC Proms will include at least some live performances. Unsurprisingly, most of the 2020 season is made up of re-runs of memorable past concerts.

The Albert Memorial and the north facing entrance to the Royal Albert Hall.

But, according to the Radio Times website, “Friday 28th August will see the focus shift from revisiting past performances to exciting new ones, as organisers plan to have musicians playing live at the Royal Albert Hall for the final two weeks, culminating in an emotional Last Night of the Proms“.

The totemic TV images of historic Last Nights of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts will have to suffice during the pandemic. Their symbolism is woven into the very fabric of British culture, though of course they form only a small portion of the full annual eight-week summer season of classical music.

I’m prompted to mention this because I recently came across a wartime copy of Radio Times in our family memorabilia. The issue is dated August 15th, 1941, and its front cover leads with the news that, whilst German bombs may have destroyed Queen’s Hall – where the Proms had taken place since their founding in 1895 – a successful transition had been made to their new venue, the Royal Albert Hall. “Traditional scenes of enthusiasm will mark the end of the forty-seventh Promenade Concerts on Saturday”, says the front page blurb. “There will also be broadcasts on Monday and Friday. More pictures of the Promenaders in their new home, the Royal Albert Hall, are on page 5”.

Turning to page 5, we hear the tone of wartime defiance in the description of audiences at the new venue …

“Blitzed out of Queen’s Hall, the Proms this season have moved to Kensington. For six weeks, Sir Henry Wood and the London Symphony Orchestra have been making music to packed audiences at the Royal Albert Hall.

“Across the vast floor of the Albert Hall stretches a sea of heads. These are the greatest Prom audiences ever. Two thousand music-lovers were capacity at Queen’s Hall – between five thousand and six thousand have been present on certain nights this year. Intent rapturous, motionless, they stand”.

“In these boxes revellers have drunk in the New Year at the Chelsea Arts Ball, cigar-smoking sportsmen roared at heavyweights, ideologists acclaimed politicians, music-lovers heard Kreisler, Gigli, Cortot. Now, unlikely in their splendour, sit Prom-goers. Somewhere in these heights lurks the Albert Hall’s famous phantom – its echo. Experts with screen and canvas have all but laid it, at last.

“Youth at the bar! Familiar to any Prom enthusiast are these types that lean intently forward in their common worship. These are the early birds, the wise who make sure of more to support them than pure fervour. Gone in many cases is the wild-haired deshabille that characterised the Prom devotee – the Service barber and the Service uniform have worked their way upon it. But battledress can’t change the heart of its wearer. Whatever the shape of future things to come, the Proms are sure to be part of them”.

The enemy in 2020 may not be raining bombs on our heads. But at this point it seems to pose as deadly a potential threat to our everyday lives as did the Luftwaffe.

Let’s hope that, by the time of the next Last Night, we’ll have consigned Covid-19 to the dustbin of history, just as we did Hitler.



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