University Challenge

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== Co-hosts ==
== Co-hosts ==
Voiceover: [[Jim Pope]] (1963?-2002 except 1997-8), [[Roger Tilling]] (1997-8, 2002-)
Voiceover: Don Murray Henderson (1962-72), [[Jim Pope]] (1972-2002 except 1997-8), [[Roger Tilling]] (1997-8, 2002-)
== Broadcast ==
== Broadcast ==

Revision as of 12:09, 3 March 2009



Bamber Gascoigne (1962-87, specials 1992, 1998)

Jeremy Paxman (1994-present)

Angus Deayton (Comic Relief specials)


Voiceover: Don Murray Henderson (1962-72), Jim Pope (1972-2002 except 1997-8), Roger Tilling (1997-8, 2002-)


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 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.

The old school scarf

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.

Host of the original programme, Bamber Gascoigne.

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!

The traditional set, note cuddly mascot! The "one-above-the-other" effect is created via split-screen.

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.

Two students light their quizzlesticks

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.

By this stage, the teams really were seated one above the other.

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.

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.

A modern University Challenge team (representing Birmingham on the very first Paxman show in 1994, if you really want to know). The captain always sits in the third seat from the left.

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 current inquizitor, Jeremy Paxman

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.

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. There was even a yuletide mini-tournament in 2004, and another over the new year in 2005-6.

Key moments

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 who proved surprisingly adept at identifying The Wombles: 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!"

Paxman once asked a student who was very good at identifying fighter aircraft how he knew so much on the subject: the student responded that he used to make model aircraft. "Ah, so it's all come in useful for you then!" responded Paxman in a surprisingly polite tone.

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.

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.

Spot the star of the future...
Opportunity knocks for the young Stephen Fry

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!"
"Must hurry you..."
"Well remembered!"

Jeremy Paxman era:

"Oh, do come on!" or "Let's have an answer!"
"You may not confer, one of you may buzz!"
"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..."

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!"

"I'm sorry - that's not an answer!"

"I think you need to find somewhere quiet to curl up and die!"

(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!)

(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!"

(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).

(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!"

(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!"

"You just squeaked home!"

(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, 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!)


The theme music is called College Boy by Derek New, and the current version is performed by the Balanescu Quartet.


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.


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.

By the 1980s, the mascot situation was getting out of hand, too

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.

The BBC incarnation grew out of a 1992 one-off that was produced as part of BBC2's "Granadaland" theme night.

Older but still the housewives' favourite, Bamber in 1992

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.

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 (ten, fifteen or twenty points), which was announced by the chairman before reading out the starter question.

Bamber wraps up a 1980s edition with an impressive scoreline

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.

Bamber Gascoigne used to check the questions himself and would personally re-write any which didn't come up to scratch.

Some questions annotated in Bamber's hand. "Douglas" is, presumably, UC producer Douglas Terry.

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.

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.

Famous questions

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.

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!"

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!"

Image:National trust logo.jpgCeci n'est pas une feuille de chêne

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.

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 from Reading University buzzed and said, "Pluto". Paxman laughed at this, but the contestant 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.


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 also scored 35 in 2004, 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, two teams have scored only 45 points, namely St Hilda's, Oxford (2006) and Corpus Christi, Oxford (2007).

Image:Unichallenge newhall lowscorers.jpgIf you can't be a winning team...

Stephen Fry must surely hold the record for the most appearances (after the hosts) on the programme. He represented his university 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".

Stephen Fry again, captaining the celebrity graduates team in the 1992 special

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. 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? One reprieved team from the 2000 series, Durham University, went on to win the title. The following year 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.


1963 Leicester
1965 New College, Oxford
1966 Oriel College, Oxford
1967 Sussex
1968 Keele
1969 Sussex
1970 Churchill College, Cambridge
1971 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1972 University College, Oxford
1973 Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
1974 Trinity College, Cambridge
1975 Keble College, Oxford
1976 University College, Oxford
1977 Durham
1978 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1979 Bradford
1980 Merton College, Oxford
1981 Queen's University, Belfast
1982 St. Andrews
1983 Dundee
1984 Open University
1985 Jesus College, Oxford
1986 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)
2008 Christ Church College, Oxford (trophy presented by Joan Bakewell)
2009 Manchester* (trophy presented by Wendy Cope)

* Corpus Christi College, Oxford, actually won the final, but were subsequently disqualified for fielding an ineligible non-student player.

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)
2004 British Library
2005 Privy Council Office
2006 Bodleian Library (trophy presented by Dr David Starkey)
2008 Ministry of Justice

Challenge Matches
1992 Celebrity Alumni team* beat Keble College, Oxford 1986 team
1997 Magdalen College Oxford 1997 beat Imperial College London 1996
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 (paperback)

See also

Sixth Form Challenge

Schools Challenge

Web links

Wikipedia entry

Sean Blanchflower's page - includes some excellent statistics and features, including an interview with David Elias (former question setter)

Chris Harrison's page

Jacob Funnell's University Challenge experience


Image:Universitychallenge_nextgame_caption.jpgDetails of the next game appear over a typical Bamber-era student audience/rabble.


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