Here’s one for you. Intended to “promote the quest for knowledge, not gain,” what institution, founded in 1962, still fills some three million Britons each week with admiration, envy, pride and shame? Come on… I’ll have to hurry you. What? No, not bloody Bake-Off! It’s got to be that bastion of meritocracy, University Challenge.
Tonight the show reaches its annual climax, with Wolfson College, Cambridge facing down their Varsity rivals of Balliol, Oxford. Much of the attention will be drawn to the two captains, each now minor celebrities online: the light blues’ Eric Monkman, who has wedged between his bowl haircut and titanium jaw an Ikea’s worth of knowledge, pits his powers against the dark blues’ Joey Goldman, the happy result of the congress of a chipmunk and the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For all their quirks, both are white-hot quizzers, among the best players in the show’s history.
Yet there’s more to celebrate here than the spectacle of frenetic answer-ferreting. In an age when television programming suffers the constant – and merited – criticism of dumbing things down, of reducing complex topics to the lowest common denominator, the uncompromising character of University Challenge stands firm against the tide, a Canute in square cap. It has no frills, no gimmicks, no prize money – in fact nothing beyond the temporary loan of a trophy for the winners. For half an hour two teams of four students battle at the buzzer; correct answers receive no song and dance, and wrong answers are quickly passed over, mostly without comment. For almost fifty years on air (the show had a seven-year hiatus when dropped by ITV in 1987) University Challenge has showcased the diverse knowledge of quick-firing minds without changing its simple formula – or title music. Remarkably, the programme has had only two presenters, the inimitable Bamber Gascoigne and the redoubtable Jeremy Paxman.
Many tune in for the spectacle alone, happy to marvel at the intellectual range and mental recall of an unpredictable array of students, and at the latest sartorial and crinal abnormalities of the Youth of Today. Many are delighted to hit upon any correct answer. Others enjoy competing against the combined intellects on screen. (The rules for playing at home are simple: answer before the contestants do; first answers are taken; wild guesses are welcome. Over 10 correct answers is sound, over 20 good, over 30 excellent, over 40 phenomenal; one has heard talk of over-50 folk but these may be fanciful rumours.) University Challenge rewards not just simple trivia but hard-earned learning: many questions require fast-paced thought and lateral thinking, not knee-jerk recall of crammed facts; many can only be known by those who have truly immersed themselves in a subject.
Yet, despite the impressive talents on display, this is not a Barnumesque freak-show of oddballs: student quizzers are gregarious, affable and wittily irreverent. In fact, for these contestants the most difficult question of the programme is the most unavoidable: how to answer a question correctly without annoying the viewer? Merited confidence will be taken as arrogance, feigned insouciance as cockiness, and light-hearted drollery as smugness. Best to play with a straight bat: stare blankly and impassively forwards.
History, geography, natural history, literature, politics, science and mathematics are staples of the show, and rightly so: such learning cannot but enrich our understanding and experience of the world. Other subjects are typically off-limits: celebrity culture and – ironically enough – television (but not film); many episodes keep sport at arm’s length. Long-standing viewers will know its particular penchants. A knowledge of Greek and Latin pays dividends, as many questions (on any subject) open with etymology: “From the Greek for amber…”. One recent show had classicists correctly guessing “petrichor” and “vellichor” without ever having encountered these perverse neologisms. Some question setters have an unhealthy obsession with American presidents, some with metallic ores, some with Keats, some with country code top-level domains. If a math’s question baffles you from the outset, you’ll do surprisingly well with a punt on “1” – or, if you want to try your luck – “0”.
Among devotees of the show its heroic names are intoned with wide-eyed reverence – Bayley of Balliol (2001), Trimble of Corpus Christi, Oxford (2009), Guttenplan of Emmanuel, (2010), Morley of Trinity, Cambridge (2014), and Powell of Peterhouse (2016). Whereas many fine quizzers have remained firmly in the academic world, others have poured forth their talents elsewhere: John Simpson (Magdalene, 1965), Christopher Hitchens (Balliol, 1968), Julian Fellowes (Magdalene, 1969), Sebastian Faulks (Emmanuel, 1972), Charles Moore (Trinity, Cambridge, 1978) and Stephen Fry (Queens’, 1980).
Yet University Challenge is more than an exhibition of the country’s brightest students. Its title may be taken polemically: it not only challenges those at university but universities themselves. Although knowledge and intelligence are different entities, and need not coexist, the two self-evidently exist in harmony. Universities rightly seek to instil the former and reward its adept manipulation by the latter. Yet University Challenge counteracts the risk in modern degrees and post-graduate research of excessive specialism, of such depth and focus occluding all other fields of knowledge. It rejects any narrow and blinkered perspective of the world and instead celebrates eclectic learning beyond and beside one’s immediate studies. It does not reward “interdisciplinarity” (a buzzword among universities that is often abused or misconstrued) but rather the salutary ability of students to pursue and enjoy a wide range of diverse intellectual passions at once. Universities – and indeed all teachers – are thus reminded in technicolour to recognise and encourage such broad interests that lie beyond the scope of a given degree or examination syllabus.
A good University Challlenge quiz player necessarily covers manifold subjects, innately unable to limit themselves to a single specialism: to have no detailed knowledge outside a physics / medical / art history / English degree is to be of use only for a handful of answers. Instead, every successful player has allowed their natural curiosity and love of learning to spread into several, perhaps more than a dozen, other topics that have fascinated them over the years. The show rewards the chemist who has obsessed about heraldry and Motown, the Celticist who has gazed long at the stars and French cinema, the classicist who delights in romping through nineteenth-century memoirs and the Lakes. Such genuine eclecticism – which could (and should) not be tested via school or university examinations – is a delight to see: knowledge that gives pleasure to the holder for its own sake.
This is not a paean to Britain’s students nor indeed to Paxman (which would surely require verse) but rather to the dogged determination of University Challenge to celebrate knowledge about what is interesting and important and not to downplay or dissemble that fact to mollycoddle viewers. Although it is regrettable that this very constancy may most accurately be described as “anti-anti-intellectual”, the BBC deserves credit for salvaging and supporting so meritocratic a crucible. As the late Brian Sewell observed, “it’s very simple, it’s very fair: it’s a test of knowledge and nerve – without any violence.”
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Dr David Butterfield is a Fellow in Classics at Queens’ College, Cambridge.