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Revision as of 19:32, 3 April 2013
Bamber Gascoigne (1962-87, 1992 & 1998 specials)
Jeremy Paxman (1994-present)
Angus Deayton (Comic Relief specials 2003-5)
Granada for ITV, 21 September 1962 to 3 September 1987 plus specials to 31 December 1987 (978 or 992 episodes)
BBC for BBC2, 28 December 1992 (special)
Granada (re-named as ITV Studios 2009) for BBC2, 21 September 1994 to present
Very few quiz programmes could be said to make up part of the fabric of the nation, but University Challenge is certainly a contender.
Two teams of four students, each team drawn from one university, compete in a question-and-answer quiz so old-school that Adam and Eve themselves may have taught there.
All eight contestants individually attempt to buzz or ring in to answer the "Starter For Ten", valued at, er, ten points for their team; however, an incorrect interruption merits a five-point deduction.
The team producing a correct answer then may attempt to answer up to three more questions upon a different common theme, as a team, for varying amount of points apiece (although always three questions for five in the modern era).
Recipe for success
Repeat for twenty minutes or so. Pepper with occasional visual or musical rounds and bang a big gong at the end. The pace of the game starts slow (a minute or more for a starter and a set of bonuses), but picks up towards the end (under 45 seconds for a full stanza) as the host performs an impersonation of a horse-racing commentator. An excellent pair of teams will score 500 points between them in a game (sadly, a rare occurence these days), so a score of 200+ is good and 250+ very good. Jeremy Paxman once claimed in his usual inimitable style that a score of 300+ means that the team needs to get out more!
Pass the Baton
Two series from the Bamber era (1986/87) featured eight individual weeks of tournaments. Teams played two-day matches, Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday. The first day was a standard game, with the scores carried forward to a second match to play a curious confection called Pass the Baton. The Baton - a vertical cylindrical stick with six lights that slid along the desk - began the programme with the leftmost player of each team, and the player from the trailing team picked from a list of about 60 categories. Bamber would ask questions from that category on the buzzers, for five points each, open only to the people with The Baton. First person to give two correct answers gained a traditional set of bonuses for their team, and The Baton moved down the line.
Whoever was trailing when the baton was passed got to choose the next category. There was a limited supply of questions (about five) in each category, so when a category was exhausted Bamber would always choose "mixed bag". The Baton had six lights, and when one team had completed their six answers they got a points bonus. Both Batons would reset to nothing, and we would begin all over again. Highest aggregate score after 25 minutes of this progressed to the weekly final, for a place in the last eight.
When the winning teams from 1986 and 1987, Jesus College Oxford and Keble College Oxford respectively, returned for the 'Reunited' series in 2002, they stated that the 'Pass The Baton' game had been very confusing and therefore difficult to play - indeed, only Bamber really seemed to understand it! It seemed to be an attempt to update the programme in order to increase viewing figures, and perhaps to reduce the free-for-all buzzer questions into a more confrontational best-of-three between two specific players. Ultimately, it had the opposite effect and was one of the main reasons why the programme was axed in 1987. It is also worth mentioning that, during these two series, the teams were actually seated one on top of the other, Blankety Blank-style. This also failed to catch on and, on the show's later revival, they reverted to the 'split screen' effect.
The big picture
These days, each contest forms part of a series-long tournament, with the fourteen winners of the first-round matches going through to the last sixteen, accompanied by the winners of two repechage matches between the four highest-scoring losers; it's all single elimination from then on. Winning teams get a lovely piece of glassware (latterly, a huge lump of etched metal) and also sometimes get friendlies against their tournament-winning counterparts from America or New Zealand, or even their own university dons. And... er, that's it.
With the demise of Mastermind in the late 90s, there remained no finer source of hard questions on TV for your "Bloody hell, I actually got one right!" satisfaction. Even now that Mastermind has returned (based in Manchester and with a famously abrasive news anchor hosting - now wherever could they have got that idea from?), UC still stands head and shoulders above its local rival in this respect. And just how can those sweet, innocent-looking students know so much about all those obscure subjects?
The question remains whether the science questions are "much too hard" or "much too easy" - whether it's possible to write a set of questions which have the same relative difficulty in all the different topics. Both sides have been argued in the past. Since 2006, the overlong starters have been trimmed and are much more within the gettable "hard puz quiz" sphere. This is a merciful reaction to the fact that the producers liked to boast that each series the questions got "10% harder", while ignoring the evidence that the average points scored per match was also heading south and Paxo was having to dip into his secret pile of "Easy Starters" rather too often.
The composition of the ideal University Challenge team (in terms of what subjects the team members should study and whether the show shouldn't be restricted to undergraduates in the first place anyway) is the subject of many a heated pub debate. Well, it is if you drink in the same pub as us.
Yet another millennium makeover
Even stalwarts like University Challenge feel the need to modernise and in the year 2000 they gave it a new set and new music, but the format has been kept the same. When we say "new set and music" what we actually mean is "slightly nicer looking set and old tune done in a more classical style." We can't say we're fans of the new music - the old one was refreshingly bouncy, but this remix seems to emphasise the upper class nature of the quiz rather too much.
High marks for the new set though, the main new bits being a reddy-brown colour scheme and a background that's a combination of artwork, lighting and mirrors, best described as a sort of giant academic lava lamp. The colours changed to a blue-and-purple scheme during 2004.
In 2002, an enjoyable "Reunited" series invited back former winners and notable teams, although the way that winners were decided (the four highest-scorers playing two semis and a final) was most abrupt. Pleasingly, the four teams that made it into the semis had all previously competed on the show within different decades: Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge from 1979 were the winners and Keele University from 1969 were the runners-up, while the two semi-finallist teams were the then-reigning champions, Somerville College, Oxford and the Open University team from 1985. Equally pleasing was the fact that the vast majority of former contestants had gone on to high things. A large proportion were teachers or lecturers, there were also several doctors and at least one clergyman, the former chairman of the then-Inland Revenue (who was no doubt delighted to see said organisation win the first 'Professionals' series the following year) and, last but not least, David Lidington, the Conservative MP for Aylesbury. Lidington was the captain of the victorious Sidney Sussex team.
2003 saw the start of University Challenge: The Professionals, which runs as a summer filler and means that the show now carries on pretty much all year round in one form or another. At least, it did from 2003 to 2006 inclusive, then the Professionals series was not broadcast again until 2008 and has not returned since then - yet. There was even a yuletide mini-tournament in 2004, and another over the new year in 2005-6.
The 2009-10 series introduced a different format for the third round of the competition (the quarter-final round). Instead of a straight knockout system, the eight surviving teams played four matches; the winners of those four then played two matches with the winners progressing to the semi-finals while the losers played two matches from which the losers were eliminated. That left four teams who had each played two games in this round, winning one and losing one. Those four teams then played two matches, just the same as the first-round playoffs, with the two winning teams going through to the semis. This wasn't actually as complicated as it probably sounds and it did make sense on screen, but it seemed (on the face of it, at least) very unnecessary, given that all the teams who had won the first four matches were the ones who made it through to the semis, which begs the question: why didn't they just go through straightaway, thus saving time and avoiding unnecessary extra editions of the show? To which the answer is, we suppose, that when you get to the quarter finals the standard is so high that it seems unfair to have a good team knocked out on a single contest. Indeed, an interesting aspect of this quarter final structure is that two of these matches had such evenly-matched sides that they went to tiebreakers, meaning that this series has now had three tiebreakers, while all other Paxman-hosted series have had a maximum of two, therefore a record has been broken. It also demonstrates that although the first four winning teams ultimately went through, it could so easily have been different. The latter point, we might add, has been proved in the 2010-11 quarter-finals, in which two of the teams (Magdalen College, Oxford, and York University) progressed not only to the semi-finals having lost their first quarter-final matches, but also to the Grand Final, beating two hitherto unbeaten teams, namely Sheffield University and Peterhouse College, Cambridge, who had won their first two quarter-final games.
Jeremy Paxman getting ever-so-uppity with students who really ought to know the answers. Well, he thinks so anyway. He is also very inclined to pass judgement when they answer questions that he thinks they shouldn't even admit to knowing. One particular example of this was with a team from Keele University in 2001, who proved surprisingly adept at identifying The Wombles in a picture bonus round: Paxman's incredulous response was, "Have you no shame?!" The best answer to a question like that would have to be, "Not if it gets us the points, Jeremy!" As a further postscript to this edition, Paxman appeared to have overlooked the name of a creator of a different children's series after he asked the starter, which required the contestants to identify both the Womble pictured and the name of the original creator of the series. One of Keele's opponents, from Nottingham University, buzzed and answered, "Great Uncle Bulgaria - Postgate" (as in the late Oliver Postgate, creator of "Bagpuss" and "The Clangers", among others). Paxman offered the question to Keele and one of their contestants buzzed and answered, "Great Uncle Bulgaria - Bond". "James Bond?" inquired Paxman, seemingly unaware that Bond (albeit Michael rather than James) was, in fact, the name of the creator of the "Paddington Bear" series. The correct answer was, in fact, the now late Elizabeth Beresford, but it seemed that this was another moment when Paxman had revealed a gap in his knowledge - or maybe he was just throwing in a bit of dry humour - or more likely both.
Just occasionally, there have been students who have been studying rather unusual things. The best example of this surely has to be a student from Downing College, Cambridge in the 2000/2001 series who was apparently researching a PhD about "Fornicating peasants in 16th Century England". (Paxman's verdict? "The things that people get grants to study nowadays!")
Watching contestants of advanced years (ringers? surely not!) especially ones who have returned to university solely to try to appear on University Challenge. At least two contestants have gone this far to get on the programme.
The 1979 series champions, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (who later went on to win the 2002 'Reunited' series) appeared on one of their original programmes in descending order of smart attire. Working from left to right, one contestant was wearing a dinner jacket, the next wore a jacket and tie, their captain (the future MP, David Lidington) sported an open-necked shirt and the final contestant wore a kaftan and beads. However, when they appeared on the aforementioned 'Reunited' series, they were rather more uniformly attired.
The 1980 Grand Final was a true battle of the roses, since it was between the Universities of Bradford and Lancaster. Ever-sensible, fair and non-partisan, Bamber wore a yellow rose in his buttonhole.
A few years after that (probably in the 1984 series), a bizarre moment occurred when the captain of a team from York University was apparently unable to get his buzzer working (presumably due to an electrical glitch?) Having encountered the problem, he had the good sense to tap very audibly on his desk several times and Jim Pope rightly accepted this as a 'buzz', called his name and the student was able to answer the question correctly. He then pressed the buzzer again and it did emit the appropriate noise - "Ah, you've got the buzzer working now", declared Bamber, with his usual winning combination of charm and gentle humour.
The 1995 series runners-up, New College, Oxford, were a very multi-cultural team, as Paxman was keen to point out, since all four contestants came from different continents. They were: Alec Dinwoodie from the USA; Darren Smyth from the UK; their captain, John Danesh from New Zealand and Aran Balasubramanian from India. Similarly, the four highest-scoring contestants from the 1996-97 series who returned to face their American counterparts just before Christmas 1997 represented all four corners of the UK. They were: Martin Heighway from Wales (The Open University, series runners-up); Stephen Pearson from Scotland (Manchester University, semi-finallists); their captain, Cormac Bakewell from Northern Ireland (Queen's University, Belfast, quarter-finallists) and, last but by no means least, Colin Andress from England (Magdalen College, Oxford, series champions).
Spotting contestants who you think will turn out to be the next Stephen Fry, Clive James or David Mellor (all UC alumni). Other famous people to have appeared as contestants include author Sebastian Faulks, journalist John Simpson, historians Dr David Starkey and Simon Schaffer, actress Miriam Margoyles, politician Malcolm Rifkind and screenwriter/actor Julian Fellowes. Fry, Simpson and Starkey have all appeared on the programme during the Paxman-era to present the trophy to winning teams in the Reunited, regular and Professionals series respectively. Another former contestant of note (albeit rather less well-known) is the late Mick Imlah, who was a poet and an editor of both 'Poetry Review' and The Times Literary Supplement. He was the captain of a team from Magdalen College, Oxford, who had impressively won three games in a row (in keeping with the format of the programme at the time) in the early-80's. A number of famous people have mentioned that they tried but failed to get on to their universities' teams, most notably Jeremy Paxman himself, who upon taking the helm in 1994 admitted that he'd applied but lost out to "a lot of people in anoraks". Others include Ann Widdecombe, whose 2011 Radio Times interview with Paxman brought the latter's failure back to public attention, and Starter for Ten author David Nicholls.
In the 2003 Professionals series, Lembit Opik, who was competing on behalf of the House of Commons team, claimed at one point that he had buzzed before the opposing team, even though their buzz and answer had been accepted. Paxman duly explained that, when the fastest contestant had buzzed, the other buzzers would cut out electronically, therefore Opik had not been quick enough on the buzzer on that occasion. "I'll have you before a select committee!" declared an indignant and clearly unconvinced Opik. "Well, possibly - but I don't think we can argue with electronics!" retorted an unrepentant Paxman. The House of Commons team went on to achieve one of the lowest-ever scores for the Paxman-era: 25 points!
The Clergy team singing 'The Red Flag' on one edition of the first 'Professionals' series - and soon after that, on the next regular series, a music student sang 'I Feel Pretty!'
At the beginning of the programme: "University Challenge! Asking the questions - Bamber Gascoigne!" or "Jeremy Paxman!" depending on the era.
Bamber Gascoigne era:
"Here's your starter for ten, no conferring!"
(In the event of an incorrect interruption): "...Full question to (whichever) team, no conferring...!"
"Must hurry you..."
Jeremy Paxman era:
"Oh, do come on!" "Let's have an answer!" or "Let's have it, please!"
"Another starter question now..."
"Er - yeeessss!"
"We're going to take a picture (or music) round now..."
"Answer as soon as you buzz..." and, "Work this out before you buzz..."
"You may not confer, one of you may buzz!"
"One of you, buzz...but you're not going to..."
"You all look blank - I'll tell you...."
"Was that a guess?"
"...If that was a guess, it was a very good one..." or, "...A very good guess, if it was a guess..."
"And at the gong..."
"And it's goodbye from me - goodbye!"
"I'm sorry - if you buzz, you must answer!"
"No - you lose five points..." or, occasionally, "I'm going to have to fine you five points..."
Paxman has also made a number of memorable (and usually cutting) comments to the teams over the years - these are not catchphrases as such and are probably best described as 'Paxmanisms'.
"I haven't a clue what you're talking about - and I'm not sure that you do, either!"
(In response to a contestant's statement that his answer was a long shot): "It was also a wrong shot!"
"Come on - you should be conferring, not staring blankly at one another!" (The team concerned on this occasion, who went on to lose the game, were struggling considerably with their bonus questions, hence Paxman's reproof, but for some inexplicable reason, he seemed to forget this in his final spiel to the team: "You missed out on a high proportion of starters, but did well when you got them..." which was clearly nonsense. This would seem to show that Paxman doesn't get it right quite as often as he himself might like to think - or maybe that he can turn on the tact when he really wants to - or very likely a bit of both).
"You'd like to un-say that, wouldn't you? - but you can't!"
(To a team that was conferring at length and coming out with some interesting points): "The producer's telling me to hurry you along - but I think we're all enjoying this too much..."
"I'm sorry - that's not an answer."
"I think you need to find somewhere quiet to curl up and die!"
"Now you're just being silly!"
"Calm down - you sound like Michael Winner!" (Not a very flattering statement).
"It was Led Zeppelin - rather like your performance!"
"From one extraordinary piece of knowledge to another!"
(To a team captain who was having to give all the bonus answers, which were being fed to her by a particularly bright colleague): "What are you - his glove-puppet?"
(To the House of Commons team, who had scored only 25 points in the 2003 Professionals series): "...I think you need to stick to answering questions that have lots of answers!"
(To the RAF team, who had also appeared in the 2003 Professionals series): "Sometimes, it's worth going through all this just to hear a Lieutenant-Colonel (or whatever their captain's rank was) say, 'Willy Wonka'."
(Describing a team's previous performance): "They displayed a worrying ignorance on types of fracture, so we wouldn't want any of them standing over us when we're ill...!" (That remark was rather ill-judged, given that one of the contestants was a medical student. Thankfully, she took it in the right spirit and duly introduced herself with the tongue-in-cheek comment, "....And as you'll be delighted to know after what Jeremy's been saying, I'm reading medicine!").
(Describing another team's previous performance): "...But they did show a surprising ignorance on identifying small furry mammals, which regular viewers will know to be a staple feature of University Challenge."
(Regarding yet another team's previous performance): "They gave their answers with all the cheerfulness of a bailiff delivering a summons. Let's hope they've cheered up this time around!"
(On another team's previous performance): "They won, despite proving to know absolutely nothing about laundry symbols - which surely goes to prove that students take washing home for their mums to do."
(When introducing a team from Cardiff University): "Last year, they entered a team who thought they were appearing on Supermarket Sweep. They weren't - as they soon discovered to their cost! Let's hope this year's team are better-informed!"
"...Robinson - you did take an interminably long time to answer and you also threw in some feeble jokes - but nonetheless, we look forward to seeing you again in the next round."
(To the New Hall, Cambridge, team, one of whom had argued with him over a picture starter, in the 1999-2000 series - see 'Famous Questions' below): "New Hall - congratulations - we look forward to seeing you again in the next round, when perhaps we can have some more arguments over the wording of starter questions..." and, when they did return: "...They won their first round, despite adopting the high-risk strategy of quibbling with the questionmaster over the wording of a starter question - but he has broad shoulders, so here they are again."
(In response to a team that had confused two racecourse towns, namely Doncaster and Chepstow): "Doncaster??!! You know nothing about British geography!" (He also made similar comments, such as, "Your geography's seriously up the spout!" to two other teams, one of which thought that some Yorkshire villages were in the vicinity of Cheddar, while the other team thought that Jamaica was an African country).
"Swaziland - part of the EU?! Are you mad?!"
(Describing a picture of George W Bush and his dog): "The dog's the one on the right...!" (A bit controversial there, Paxman!)
(To a team who were struggling with a set of picture bonuses that involved identifying missing ingredients in recipes): "I was going to invite myself round for tea, but I don't think I will now."
"I don't know why the audience are groaning - I gave you plenty of time to think about it!"
(To a team that had failed to identify a piece of dance-music): "Well, if you'd looked over to your opponents, you'd have been given a clue - they were jiving away to the music!" (As Paxman stated at the end of the show, it was a shame that the cameras had not been on the 'dancing' team at the relevant moment.)
(To a contestant who had answered 'Puppy Love' when asked to identify a dog-based Elvis Presley song, namely 'Hound Dog'): "Well, at least you didn't say 'How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?'"
(To a contestant who had interrupted a starter question rather too early and thus answered 'Woolly-toothed mammoth' when the answer was, in fact, 'warthog'): "I'm just trying to imagine a woolly-toothed mammoth in an aardvark-burrow."
(To an Italian student, who had correctly identified 'spag' from the word 'spaghetti' as meaning 'string'): "If you hadn't got that, there'd be no point in your being here."
(To a team who were constantly answering "We don't know" to most of their bonus questions): "Oh, don't keep saying that - I'm going to start feeling really sorry for you!"
(To the same young team when they were beaten by a team of mature students in the same show): "...But at least you've still got your own teeth". (Yet another controversial comment).
"You just squeaked home."
"You like to live dangerously, don't you?"
(To both the teams that had scored only 40 points in the 2001-02 series): "Well, it's traditional at this point to say something encouraging, but I'm afraid there's nothing really I can say - it was a dismal score - you seemed to be asleep the whole way through!" (Paxman also frequently claims that teams have been asleep when they have a poor first or second half).
(To the New Hall Cambridge team that had scored only 35 points in the 1997-8 series): "I want to be as kind as possible to you, New Hall, but...it is a terrible score. I think it might be the lowest score since the return of the series - in fact, I'm sure of it!"
(To the Royal Naval College team that had scored only 35 points against the WI team in the 2003 Professionals series): "Well, Royal Naval College - I'm afraid you're going to get a lot of stick from your friends back at the College! Beaten by the WI, eh?" (That was another decidedly ill-judged remark, since the WI team had proved to be a highly intelligent and competent foursome. Indeed, at least one viewer wrote to Radio Times to complain).
Based on the US format College Bowl by Don Reid. The format has its ultimate origin in the Second World War when Reid (who actually hailed from Canada) first devised it as a recreational activity for the US military. Granada originally copied the format without permission, reckoning the American format owners wouldn't notice a British imitation, and they actually got away with it for a few years before the Americans caught on.
The theme music is called College Boy by Derek New, and the current version is performed by the Balanescu Quartet. An unknown jazz piece was used in the very early days.
Both Christmas University Challenge series used the regular theme music for the opening titles, but Prokofiev's Troika from Lieutenant Kije for the end credits.
In 1970, a Mrs Westgate from Southampton complained to listings magazine TV Times about the Cambridge team on UC: "I missed the introduction and could not be sure whether I was looking at boys and girls - or girls and boys. How nicely masculine the other team looked though."
At its peak, the programme pulled in 12 million viewers. Not bad considering it was pretty much the antithesis of the usual slick-pattered, come-and-have-a-go, big money game show usually associated with commercial TV in those days (and in these days, indeed). The series was axed in 1987 when those ratings fell to 1 million.
In the original incarnation, the series final was a "best of three" tournament between the semi-final winners. In the later years, these would be scheduled in a single week, so if there were only two episodes listed in the TV Times, you could tell that the winner of the first game would also win the second and be named champions. When it was revived on the BBC, the final became an ordinary single match.
The 1972 winners were awarded "a magnificent prize of 19 etchings by British artist Elizabeth Frink".
A 1975 first round match featuring a University of Manchester team (including David Aaronovitch) tried to derail the proceedings by answering every question with the name of a revolutionary ("Trotsky", "Lenin", "Karl Marx" or "Che Guevara"). This was in protest of the programme's perceived Oxbridge bias which allows their colleges to enter singly. This was one of the very rare occasions when the normally-unflappable Bamber became somewhat ruffled. By all accounts, there was a good deal of head-scratching at Granada as to whether the programme should be broadcast, but they eventually decided that it should, on the grounds that the students, rather than the programme itself, would look ridiculous and therefore the show's reputation would remain unimpaired - as indeed it did. Manchester was banned from the contest afterwards, and remained so for the rest of the ITV run - which probably goes some way toward explaining why former Manchester University students Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer took such relish in demolishing the show (figuratively and literally) in the classic 1984 Young Ones episode, "Bambi".
Further to the above, it should be acknowledged that Manchester University have more than come into their own on the programme in recent years. Maybe it's home advantage in action (the Granada studios being barely a stone's throw from the campus), but from 2005 to 2010, all the teams they have entered have made it at least as far as the semi-finals (2005, 2008 and 2010), four have made it into the Grand Final and three have won the series (the 2006, 2009 and 2012 teams: admittedly, the 2009 team did so by default - see below - but the achievement was no less impressive for that). In addition, the 1997 team made it into the semi-finals and the 2001 team into the quarters: both these teams were beaten by the relevant ultimate series winners - and contestants from both those two teams and from the victorious 2006 team later appeared - and impressively won - on Eggheads. Also, a team from UMIST (which has since merged with Manchester University) were semi-finallists in 2000. It's certainly true to say that Manchester have come a long way since that decidedly controversial appearance on the programme 35 years ago.
The BBC incarnation grew out of a 1992 one-off that was produced as part of BBC2's "Granadaland" theme night.
The glass-effect background behind each team in the first modern incarnation read "University Challenge" in different lettering and symbols, including Greek, Cyrillic and Braille.
Jeremy Paxman only accepted the role of host after a chance meeting with his predecessor. In a 2010 interview in Radio Times he explained: "The producer rang me up, asked would I present it. I said, jolly nice of you, but it's Bamber Gascoigne's show. Then two weeks later, in the reading room at the British Museum, I saw Bamber and said, 'Hey, we've never met, but they're bringing it back. Get in there!' He laughed, said they'd rung him months ago, but it felt too much like hard work. So I said yes."
You might like to take this list with a pinch of salt, but newspaper reports in 1994 suggested that other people considered for the role of questionmaster included Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson, David Baddiel, Peter Snow, Jonathan Dimbleby and Emma Freud.
Special editions have included a Red Dwarf-themed edition, cleverly re-titled Universe Challenge, with Bamber back in the chair; and two "Comic Relief" specials hosted by Angus Deayton.
The potential points total for a set of bonuses has not always been fixed at fifteen. In the early days, University Challenge followed College Bowl's lead and had a varying score for bonuses, which was announced by the chairman before reading out the starter question. A 2012 Radio 4 documentary on the history of the show included a clip of a bonus question (possibly from the first series) with a massive forty points on offer.
Contrary to the impression you might get from watching Jeremy Paxman's reaction to unexpected responses, it's actually the producer who adjudicates on borderline answers. When Paxman appears to be umming and ahhing over whether to award points or not, he's really just waiting for a signal in his earpiece.
In 1998, a match between LSE and Oxford Brookes University was cut short when a member of the Oxford team complained of feeling unwell. She was taken off to see the Granada nurse, who declared her unable to continue with the show. Since there were only three minutes of the game left, and LSE was winning by an unassailable margin of 245 points to 40, it was decided to simply go straight to the gong, and some technical trickery was used to superimpose the missing student in the now-vacant seat for the goodbyes at the end of the programme. Paxman's attitude to both the teams at the end was, if anything, unnecessarily harsh - not only did he berate Oxford Brookes for getting such a low score, he even curtly informed the LSE, "You'll have to do better than that in your next match - let's hope that you do!" Why? - there was certainly nothing wrong with a score of 245, especially as the team had won so comfortably.
Although there have been plenty of closely-fought matches during Paxman's time on the programme, there have been surprisingly few tie-breakers - initially never more than two per series and none at all in most, but that record has now been broken, as there were three in the 2009-2010 series. In the event of a tie, Paxman asks a new starter question: the first contestant to buzz gets to answer and, if he/she's right, the team gains ten points and wins: if a contestant interrupts incorrectly, the team concerned loses five points and the other team wins. The latter has occurred on at least four occasions (one of them during one of the 'Professionals' series) - and also, apparently, many years previously, when Clive James interrupted wrongly and lost his team the match - much to his embarrassment! Also of note was a tie-breaker that occurred in a 2001 first-round match between Downing College, Cambridge and Newcastle University. Both teams had impressively scored well over 200 points and it appeared that, at the gong, Downing had lost by 5 points, but then Paxman announced that it actually wasn't quite the end of the game, because Newcastle had apparently been awarded 5 points in error during one of the picture rounds, meaning that those 5 points had to be deducted from their score, forcing a tie-break situation. As it happened, Newcastle got the tie-break question right and won the game, while Downing went through via the repechage route (and both teams made it as far as the quarter-finals), but it does beg the question: why wasn't the error discovered and acted upon earlier, given that it must have been very galling for Newcastle to be given the impression that they had won, then to effectively have their victory taken away from them? Maybe it's best to just put it down to a simple, if unfortunate, error that wasn't acted on early enough, for whatever reason - and, although similar amendments have been made to the scores on a few other occasions, at least these were done before the end of the programmes concerned, so lessons were clearly learned.
Bamber Gascoigne used to check the questions himself and would personally re-write any which didn't come up to scratch. He said in later years that this was mainly in order that he could be 100% sure when deciding whether the answers that the contestants gave were correct or not.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford, were retrospectively disqualified from the 2008-9 series after winning the final when it emerged that, by the time the quarter-finals were recorded, one of the team members had already graduated and was working as an accountant. The championship title was therefore transferred to their opponents in the final, the University of Manchester. Curiously, no mention was made of this when the series returned and Manchester weren't even introduced as defending champions in the first round. While one can understand everybody wanting to put the whole sorry business behind them, it does suggest this kōan: if the altered result of a quiz show isn't even acknowledged on screen, then can it really be claimed to be the result at all? When the next final eventually rolled around, a close-up of the trophy did reveal the words "MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY" engraved on it, bringing a rather belated and embarrassedly low-key closure to the whole sad affair.
A number of memorable moments have occurred when the winning teams have been presented with their trophies. The 1971 champions, Churchill College, Cambridge, revealed on the 'Reunited' series that, very bizarrely, both they and their opponents, Peterhouse College, Cambridge, had been photographed being presented with the trophy before the Grand Final was played. This was apparently because the photographer had another engagement and therefore couldn't stay to the end of the show and Granada, for whatever reason, hadn't seen fit to pay him extra to stay. As a result, the Churchill team were sure that Peterhouse had a photo somewhere in their archives, showing them accepting a UC trophy that they had never actually won. The 1997 winners, Magdalen College, Oxford, revealed on the 'Reunited' series that the special guest on Grand Final night, Germaine Greer, had been so convinced that Magdalen's opponents, a team of mature students from the Open University, were going to win that she had spent much of the programme rehearsing her congratulatory speech for the latter team and was therefore caught on the hop when Magdalen won - not that she didn't rise to the occasion in her usual inimitable style. The following year, Professor Richard Dawkins announced that he was hoping to see A-Levels scrapped in favour of 'University Challenge'-style tests, on the basis that students should be able to access a wide range of information at speed as a sound preparation for their future careers. In 1999, Paxman asked the victorious Open University team what they would do with the trophy, given that OU students never met. One of the students said that it would probably end up in the basement of the OU's headquarters in Milton Keynes. "I don't think you'd better tell us about that", responded Paxman firmly, "just accept it - retire gracefully...!" In 2003, Benjamin Zephaniah stated that he once told his mother that one day he'd get on 'University Challenge'. "Well, you have", said Paxman. "Ah yes", chuckled Zephaniah, "but I've cheated..." (Hardly - he'd definitely earned the right by virtue of his unique talents). In the same year, when the late Mo Mowlam came to present the trophy to the first winners of the 'Professionals' series, the then-Inland Revenue, she was full of praise for their impressive knowledge, but then added, "...But come on, let's have a smile from you all - you've hardly smiled all through the game..." and the team duly obliged. (Mind you, they would have been ill-advised to do otherwise, given that Mowlam was, by all accounts, a very feisty and determined character). In addition, Stephen Fry was apparently offered a printout of the answers to the questions used in the 'Reunited' series Grand Final before he presented the trophy, but he declined, preferring to play along with the game - and, by all accounts, he answered virtually all the questions correctly, ahead of the teams - Keele and Sidney Sussex - in the studio, although, one would suspect, not by much, given that both teams, Sidney Sussex in particular, were very intelligent and quick on the buzzers.
University Challenge features in David Nicholls' bestselling comic novel Starter For Ten, which has been made into a feature film. When the film came to terrestrial telly, BBC Two took the opportunity to air the "network premiere" as part of a very welcome University Challenge theme night. And of course, it was only a matter of time before the producers decided to include a question regarding the film on the programme as a bit of cheeky self-reference: the question cropped up in the 2005 Grand Final (the answer actually being 'Starter For Ten') and was answered correctly by Nick Sharpe, a member of the victorious Corpus Christi Oxford team.
Pleasingly, several former contestants (including at least two champions) have become question-setters for the programme, as we can see during the end credits. They include Charles Oakley, captain of the aforementioned Corpus Christi 2005 team, Olav Bjortomt (Nottingham University 2000, quarter-finallists), Sean Prendiville (Trinity Hall Cambridge 2008, quarter-finallists), Matthew Dolan (St John's College Cambridge 2009, semi-finallists) and previously, Dr Phil Jones (Magdalen College, Oxford, 1998, series champions) and Martin Heighway (Open University 1997, series runners-up).
Bamber's favourite question: "If A stands for Artichoke, B for Because, C for Curriculum, and D for Do, what might E be for?". After a few seconds of blank looks, one contestant tentatively guessed "Elephant?"... and got it right, because any answer beginning with E would have continued the sequence.
Another starter that might be considered to fall into the "trick question" category appeared in the 2010 quarter-finals: "Light travels 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum. How many miles does sound travel per second in the same conditions?" The captain of the Manchester team looked somewhat doubtful as he answered "It doesn't travel at all in a vacuum", which of course is the correct answer.
According to one of the books celebrating the programme's success, there was an occasion during the early years when Bamber managed to successfully cover up a swear-word - and just as well that he did, given that editing was far more difficult in those days. One contestant was so frustrated that he was unable to remember the name of a German composer that he muttered a certain four-letter word and the quick-thinking Bamber responded, "No, it's not Schmidt". He did this so blithely that the viewers actually believed that that was what they'd heard - and it was certainly a strong testament to Bamber's skill and professionalism that he'd managed to pull it off.
Probably one of the most bizarre answers on the programme occurred in a late-2010 edition, when Paxman asked for the name of a type of flower that grew in Tanzania and was named after both its area of origin and the colour of its petals. One student buzzed and answered "Tanzanian Devil" - definitely a strange choice, given that, for one thing, the correct term is 'Tasmanian Devil', and for another, it's a type of mammal, not a flower. Perhaps equally surprising is the fact that Paxman didn't berate the student concerned on this occasion - not that we'd want him to, anyway.
Not too dissimilar to this was a question asked in an early-1996 edition: "Pen-y-Fan is the highest point in which Welsh National Park?" and a Welsh student interrupted with the answer 'Snowdonia', which was certainly not right, given that Snowdon is the highest point not only in that particular National Park, but also in the whole of Wales. The question was offered to the opposing team, one of whom gave the correct answer, namely 'The Brecon Beacons'. As with so many other incorrect answers, it's probably best to just put it down to a heat-of-the-moment response that happened to be the wrong one - and we've all done it at one time or another, whether on TV or not. Either way, the student concerned on this occasion was also lucky enough not to incur any scathing comments from Paxman.
One 1998 edition included a question on the lines of, "During which activity did some students stir up controversy for competing on behalf of Cambridge when they were in fact Oxford students?" (or vice versa). One contestant buzzed in and answered, not unreasonably, "The Boat Race". This was wrong, so was offered to their opponents, one of whom buzzed and said, "University Challenge", much to Paxman's disgust ("Thank you very much!" was his response). The answer was in fact 'Ballroom dancing', but 'University Challenge' was certainly worth a try, however unlikely it may have been - and we all know what Paxman's like anyway, don't we?
During a first-round match in 2001, a team from De Montfort University had a set of bonuses on the comedy series "Dad's Army". The second question was regarding the famous catchphrase that Captain Mainwaring was constantly directing at Private Pike and the team's captain delivered it in a suitably formidable tone: "You stupid boy!" "Perfect"! declared Paxman, then, in a mock-hurt tone, "It was almost personally meant..."
Later in the same series, Paxman asked a student, Peter Kitson from Downing College, Cambridge, who was very good at identifying fighter aircraft, how he knew so much on the subject: Kitson responded that he used to make model aircraft. "Ah, so it's all come in useful for you then", replied Paxman in a surprisingly polite tone.
Paxman was even kinder on a previous occasion. During the 1998 Grand Final, the eventual winners, Magdalen College, Oxford, were unable to answer a question on differential equations that had stumped even the (very knowledgeable) scientist on their team, Phil Jones, and their captain, Sarah Fitzpatrick, had to tell Paxman, "I'm afraid we don't understand". "Don't worry", answered Paxman. "Neither do I. Neither does anyone in the entire studio".
An amusing moment occurred in a late-2005 edition of the show, when Paxman asked the question, "Broadcast on BBC1 at about 10.30pm on 6 October 2004, what was the particular significance of the words, 'Staying bright and dry in the more northern parts of the country?'" One contestant buzzed in and offered, "Part of the first 'Newsnight' weather forecast?" (He was very obviously referring to the fact that Paxman had recently appeared decidedly and uncharacteristically ill-at-ease when he had to deliver the forecast on said programme). Paxman did actually laugh good-humouredly at this answer, before offering the question to the opposing team, one of whom suggested, "The total opposite happened?" Paxman's response to that was, "That, I grant you, is very likely, but they were in fact the closing words of the final weather forecast by Michael Fish".
During a 2007 quarter-final between the University of Manchester and Wadham College, Oxford, the former team were asked "Which distribution emits a probability density function f (x) equals 1 over square root of 2 pi times e to the power of minus x squared divided by 2?" The Manchester captain Kieran Lavin very deliberately asked "Could you repeat the question please?" and amidst the laughter Paxman adamantly said "No!"
A rather gimmicky picture round occurred in the 1985 Grand Final match between the Open University and St Andrews: for the starter, the teams were given some letters that had been jumbled up and had to rearrange them in order to reveal something connected with the programme. A member of the ultimately victorious Open University team buzzed and got it right: it was 'Granada Television'. They then went on to unscramble three more sets of letters correctly, to reveal the equally relevant words 'Bamber Gascoigne', 'University Challenge' and 'The Open University'. Presumably, the last one would not have been used if the Open's opponents, St Andrews University, had been answering the questions: one would imagine that an anagram of the latter name would have been used instead.
In a match between Kings School of Medicine and Dentistry, London and Keble College, Oxford in 1996, one of the questions was "Thuma, Towcher, Long-man, Lech-man and Little-man are Old and Middle English names for which parts of the human body?" One of the Kings contestants answered "Penis" (the correct answer was "Fingers"), to which Mr Paxman responded, "You're a medical student - how many penises did they teach you we have nowadays?!"
Something similar happened in a 2000 match, when Paxman asked the teams, "The names 'Cheesemongers', 'CherryPickers', 'Bob's Own', 'The Emperor's Chambermaids' and 'The Immortals' are or have been used for which groups of men?" One unfortunate contestant from UMIST buzzed in and said, "Homosexuals". Paxman's (somewhat shocked) response was, "No! They're regiments in the British Army - and they're going to be very upset with you, UMIST!"
In 1999, Paxman showed a British tourist sign: "For ten points, simply tell me what it is". New Hall's contestant Lydia Wilson buzzes in: "It's an oak leaf" There is laughter from the audience. Paxman is disgusted. "Anyone can see it's an oak leaf! I was asking what it was!" Wilson is not fazed. "You asked me what it was - You should have said: 'What is it for?' not 'What is it?'" "It's a sign, signifying the National Trust. Actually on a point of pedantry you may be right, but there you are, bad luck!" Wilson was voted Woman's Hour's "Woman of the Week" for standing up to Paxman. In an interview on one of the programmes charting the show's success, she said that she reckoned she was better at arguing than answering questions - actually, she was highly adept at both.
Also, in an early 2007 match, Paxman asked, "Which planet is principally made of iron, but shares its name with a different metal?" One contestant, Warren Read, from Reading University buzzed and said, "Pluto". Paxman laughed at this, but Read argued, "Plutonium. It does share its name with a different metal - you can't argue with that!" Paxman was once again forced to back down (albeit slightly), this time by saying, "Well, I suppose it does, if you want to treat it that liberally, but I'm not going to accept it - the answer's 'Mercury!'"
In the later 2007 series, producers managed to confuse the audience by showing two picture questions on castles in the wrong order. Photos of Warwick and Arundel were transposed in the edit, although it is not known whether they were displayed to the teams correctly. As the winning margin was 30 points and only 5 points at most were at stake, the result would not have changed.
One question (or rather, a resulting comment from Paxman) that proved decidedly controversial occurred in a late-1998 edition of the show, when Paxman asked, "Who was on the British throne at the start of this millennium?" One contestant buzzed in and, understandably thinking 'century' rather than 'millennium' in the heat of the moment, answered "Queen Victoria". Paxman offered it to the opposing team, one of whom buzzed and answered correctly, "Ethelred The Unready". Paxman then made the controversial comment, "I know she (Victoria) was an old trout, but not that much of an old trout!" - a number of viewers were definitely not amused.
On a lighter note, it's often nice to hear Paxman recite poetry when asking the questions, especially on one occasion in 2000:
"Cottlestone, cottlestone, cottlestone pie
"A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
"Ask me a riddle and I reply
"Cottlestone, cottlestone, cottlestone pie".
"This was a favourite poem of which literary character?" The answer was 'Winnie The Pooh'. Also, this one, from a 2011 edition:
"Boggis and Bunce and Bean,
"One fat, one short, one lean,
"These horrible crooks
"So different in looks
"Were nonetheless equally mean."
"These were characters featured in which book by Roald Dahl?" The answer in this case was 'Fantastic Mr Fox'.
The highest match score of all time was University College, Oxford's 520 points in 1987, versus Reading. The highest score PE (Paxman Era) was Open University's 415 points against Charing Cross in 1997.
The all-time lowest score was 10 points achieved (if that's the word) by Sussex University in 1971.
The lowest score for the regular series in the modern era was 15 points, achieved by Exeter in a quarter-final match against Corpus Christi College, Oxford, broadcast in January 2009. The second-lowest was 30 points, achieved just two weeks later by Lincoln College, Oxford in a semi-final against Manchester. Prior to the 2008-9 series, the old Paxman-era record was infamously set by the girls of New Hall, Cambridge (pictured below). Their 35 points (coming back from -15) were scraped together in a show aired in 1997, beating a 40-point low previously kept by Birkbeck College, London. Bradford University and Jesus College, Oxford also scored 35, in 2004 and 2010 respectively, as did the Royal Naval College and the Lawyers in the 2003 Professionals series. Until Exeter's failure, the all-time low for the Paxman era was also achieved in the 2003 Professionals series, when the House of Commons team, which included Austin Mitchell and Lembit Opik, scored only 25. In 2006, Robinson College, Cambridge scored 40 points. Other teams to score only 40 have included Oxford Brookes University (1998 - but see Trivia above); St Andrews University (2001 and 2004); Keele University (2002) and Queen's University, Belfast (2005). In addition, three teams have scored only 45 points, namely St Hilda's, Oxford (2006) and Corpus Christi, Oxford (2007), both in their second rounds, and Plymouth University (2011) in their first round.
Not surprisingly, Bamber Gascoigne holds the record for the greatest number of appearances on the programme: 979 in total, including the 1995 Grand Final, in which he presented the trophy to the champions, Trinity College, Cambridge.
Stephen Fry, meanwhile, must surely hold the record for the most appearances (after the hosts) on the programme. He represented his university, Queen's College, Cambridge, in the 1981 series, reaching that year's final, and has since reappeared on several celebrity specials, including the 1992 one against Keble College, Oxford, and at least one of the Angus Deayton-hosted Comic Relief specials, and he presented the trophy to the winners of the Reunited series. He also took part in the 'Young Ones' spoof of the programme, and even appeared as the host of the rather similar School Challenge in the 2007 St. Trinian's film. In a quiz show feature in Radio Times, he also named University Challenge as the quiz show he'd most like to host, calling it "a window on the weirdness and wonder of studentry".
The oldest contestant on the regular series to date was the then-73-year-old Mrs Ida Staples. She was on the 1997 Open University team, who were that year's defeated finallists.
During the Paxman era, the opening match of the first fourteen series saw the losing team qualify among the highest-scoring runners-up, usually due to a strong comeback by one of the teams. An amazing coincidence? No, just the result of the producers picking an exciting match to be the first broadcast in each new series. The sequence was finally broken in the 2008/9 series, although it did occur again in the 2009-10 series. Two series (1997/8 and 2007/8) saw all the first four losing teams become highest-scoring losers - rather more in the way of coincidence there, surely? Two reprieved teams, Durham University in the 2000 series and Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 2010, went on to win the title - and both, it should also be noted, had exceptionally intelligent captains who were largely responsible for their respective teams' victories - John Stewart in Durham's case and Alex Guttenplan in Emmanuel's. In 2001, another such team, St John's College Oxford, were defeated again in the final. Manchester University finished runners-up in 2007 having also lost their first round game. For the record, the highest losing score to fail to qualify for the repechage matches during Paxman's time has been 165, scored by Brasenose College, Oxford, in the 2002-3 series. There was actually a 3-way tie on this score, but the other two losing teams qualified, since they had, according to Paxman, 'reached their total more quickly and with fewer mistakes', so Brasenose were unfortunately knocked out. The lowest losing score to bring a team back was York University's 120 in the 2004-5 series.
At least two finalists from the regular series have gone on to win different series. Dorjana Širola , who was part of the victorious Somerville College Oxford team from 2002, went on to win the 2006 Professionals series as part of the Bodleian Library team. Rob Linham, from the St John's College Oxford team who were runners up in the 2001 Grand Final, went on to win the 2008 Professionals series as part of the Ministry of Justice team. Another contestant from the same St John's team, Aaron Bell, went on to become the 2009 champion on The Krypton Factor. In addition, Ed Brims, who was on the St John's Oxford team in the 2003-4 series (the team made it as far as the quarter-finals) was a Krypton Factor finallist in 2010, while Jesse Honey, who was in the Durham University team that made the semi-finals in the 1998-9 series, became the 2010 Mastermind champion. Honey's team-mate and captain, Jack Welsby, became the joint Fifteen-to-One champion (along with David Stedman) in 2003. And, last but by no means least, Dr Ian Bayley competed twice on UC, originally on behalf of Imperial College, London, who reached the second round in the 1996-7 series, and later on behalf of Balliol College, Oxford, who made it as far as the quarter-finals in the 2000-01 series: he went on to become the 2011 Mastermind champion.
1964 New College, Oxford
1966 Oriel College, Oxford
1971 Churchill College, Cambridge
1972 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1973 University College, Oxford
1974 Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
1975 Trinity College, Cambridge
1976 Keble College, Oxford
1977 University College, Oxford
1979 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1981 Merton College, Oxford
1982 Queen's University, Belfast
1983 St. Andrews
1985 Open University
1986 Jesus College, Oxford
1987 Keble College, Oxford
1995 Trinity College, Cambridge (trophy presented by Bamber Gascoigne)
1996 Imperial College, London (trophy presented by John Simpson)
1997 Magdalen College, Oxford (trophy presented by Germaine Greer)
1998 Magdalen College, Oxford (trophy presented by Professor Richard Dawkins)
1999 Open University (trophy presented by Jeremy Paxman)
2000 Durham (trophy presented by Jeremy Paxman)
2001 Imperial College, London (trophy presented by Poet Laureate Professor Andrew Motion)
2002 Somerville College, Oxford (trophy presented by Baroness Mary Warnock)
2003 Birkbeck College, London (trophy presented by Benjamin Zephaniah)
2004 Magdalen College, Oxford (trophy presented by Bill Bryson)
2005 Corpus Christi College, Oxford (trophy presented by Pete Postlethwaite)
2006 Manchester (trophy presented by Peter Ackroyd)
2007 Warwick (trophy presented by Ann Widdecombe MP)
2008 Christ Church College, Oxford (trophy presented by Dame Joan Bakewell)
2009 Manchester* (trophy presented by Wendy Cope)
2010 Emmanuel College, Cambridge (trophy presented by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy)
2011 Magdalen College, Oxford (trophy presented by Antony Beevor)
2012 Manchester (trophy presented by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, at Clarence House to mark the programme's 50th anniversary)
* Corpus Christi College, Oxford, actually won the final, but were subsequently disqualified for fielding an ineligible non-student player.
As we can see from these results, only two institutions have won the series more than twice (Magdalen College, Oxford, and Manchester University) and Magdalen is the only one to win four times: all of these victories were during the Paxman-era. Magdalen's second win, in 1998, also made them the first and only institution to win the series two years running, although it should be noted that, until the rules were changed in the 1996/7 series, any team that had won a series had not been allowed to compete in the subsequent series. It's also notable that, while Scotland and Northern Ireland have both won the title, none of the Welsh universities have as yet - no doubt they're all keen to try and redress the balance.
University Challenge Reunited
2002 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1979 (trophy presented by Stephen Fry)
University Challenge: The Professionals
2003 Inland Revenue (trophy presented by Mo Mowlam MP)
2004 British Library
2005 Privy Council Office
2006 Bodleian Library (trophy presented by Dr David Starkey)
2008 Ministry of Justice
1992 Celebrity Alumni team* beat Keble College, Oxford
1997 Magdalen College Oxford 1997 beat Imperial College London 1996
1997 Magdalen College Oxford 1997 beat the four finallists from the last-ever Magnus Magnusson-hosted series of Mastermind
1999 Magdalen College Oxford 1998 beat Leicester 1963
*Alumni team consisted of previous UC contestants: John Simpson, Charles Moore, Stephen Fry (captain) and Alistair Little.
University Challenge: The First 40 Years (paperback)
University Challenge Quiz Book (1995) (paperback)
The University Challenge Quiz Book (2010) (paperback)
The third ever episode from 1962
Reader "John C" tells us: "It might be of interest to note that Ian Channell (full name Ian Brackenbury Channell), who features in that video clip from 1962, later emigrated to New Zealand and became there a highly eccentric and well-known figure self-designated as the Wizard of Christchurch. Most days around lunchtime he would be seen in Cathedral Square, in full wizard rig with cloak and tall black pointy hat, operating as a sort of one-man Speakers' Corner, ready to argue on any subject with anyone. He was also noted for his regular attempts to avoid being enumerated in censuses, claiming to intend using his wizardly powers to this end (not always successfully). Sadly, the shattering earthquakes that so disfigured his adopted city in 2010 and 2011, together with advancing age, have now virtually put paid to his activities."
How to Apply
Only teams from degree-issuing institutions may apply.
For audience tickets, call 0161 9520408 or email email@example.com.