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Illustration of the television programme University Challenge, including presenter Jeremy Paxman


Think you have what it takes to make it onto University Challenge? Three alumni share their highs and lows of doing battle on the long-running TV show. Fingers on buzzers

Illustration Andrew Lyons

UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE A popular UK quiz show where teams of students from UK universities are quizzed on a wide range of subjects. Twenty-two UCL teams have taken part, the first in 1962/63. We’ve made it to the quarter finals four times and were runners-up in 2005 and 2013 against fierce opposition.

Dr Katie Bramall-Stainer, Medicine 2003

When I was young, my grandmother won a set of Children’s Britannica. I’ve been fact- obsessed ever since. I’m a series champion of Only Connect, but University Challenge was special.

I made the cut in my fourth year. We had three women on our team, which is rare even now. To prepare, we devoured Trevor Montague’s A to Z of Everything, Pears Ultimate Quiz Companion and the University Challenge quiz books. We did the pub quiz circuit too, and started to understand each other’s areas of expertise. You need to know when to leave a starter question for your team-mate.

As a cocky 21-year old, I loved being in front of the cameras. In round one we beat a team of too-cool-for-school lads from Cardiff. In round two we were up against Trinity College, Cambridge and we thrashed them, and in the quarter finals, we tied scores with Christ’s College, Cambridge until we lost the last starter question. When you leave the show, the crew strip your name sticker off the set and hand it to you. Jeremy Paxman signed mine and it’s still upstairs in a drawer somewhere.

I’m proud of how far we got; since then, UCL have really engaged with the show, to great success. And I’m still an ardent quizzer. It’s how I met my husband. He’d captained the Oriel team in 1999 and we’d taken a shine to each other on the screen. In Spring 2002, I rocked up to the national student quizzing championships in Oxford and we met. We’re married now and have two kids.

Dr Gordon Hunter, PhD Experimental Phonetics 2004

I started watching University Challenge when I was 10. I didn’t expect that years later I’d be one of the few to have sat on different teams (now against the rules), in front of both Bamber Gascoigne and Jeremy Paxman. My first time was in 1987 as captain of the Churchill College, Cambridge team; that was Bamber’s last year. The show’s ratings had plummeted, and not even the introduction of a jazzy illuminating baton round could lift them.

I came to UCL to do a Master’s, stayed on to do a PhD, and that’s when I tried out for the team, answering questions set by UCL academics. We then went on to the show’s London and South East heats, where we were quizzed and given short interviews to gauge our TV personalities. Post- selection, UCL’s previous team captain gave us a few tips on buzzer technique. It’s all about knowing the right time to interrupt those carefully structured questions.

I’m a mathematician and computer scientist by training, but I’m good on history and geography, too. We beat New College Oxford but lost in round two to Manchester. I enjoyed meeting Paxman; he can be a bit abrasive on camera, but he was good fun in the green room. I’d happily have a pint with him.

I still watch the show to see how many questions I can answer. It’s moved with the times and gives much less emphasis to the classics and canonical literature. The show feels more accessible and inclusive than it used to.

Robin Duval CBA, BA (Hons) History 1963

Fifty-seven years is a long time ago and memories are unreliable. What I do recall is that we were up against Balliol College, Oxford, who were beating all-comers (and would continue to do so all the way to the final). Their team looked formidable – but then we thought we were too, especially after we smashed them in the practice round. We settled back for our inevitable victory as the cameras rolled. And were royally stuffed. Where did it all go so wrong? Probably it started with our selection methodology – though I later discovered that Balliol’s was no better. This was the first season of University Challenge and there was very little guidance or precedent. Someone in the Union tapped maybe a dozen of us as obvious know-alls (all lads: another clue to our failure) and we gathered in a room off Gordon Street for a quiz session which winnowed us down to four. One or two of the team had appeared on telly or radio before (NUS Drama festivals, Edinburgh Fringe etc) so we were pretty cool. It never even occurred to us to practice. It was all going to be a gas.

Then a fortnight or so after the disastrous recording, the programme went out. The four of us slunk into the back row of the big viewing room in the Union, braced for the shellacking that duly materialised. Our outraged fellow students called for a root-and-branch enquiry into how such idiots could ever have been selected to represent the college.

It wasn’t the finest moment of my three years at UCL!

Olivier Usher, BSc History and Philosophy of Science 2005

Already a keen pub quizzer when I tried out for University Challenge, I made the cut on my second attempt. Our team captain Pete was a medical student. Roger was studying astronomy (he’s now a lecturer at UCL) and Ivan was doing a PhD in medieval history, so we had reasonable spread of knowledge.

In preparation for the show, we started going to the Tuesday night pub quiz at the Prince of Wales in Highgate. Notorious for being the hardest quiz in town, it really put us through our paces. I became such a regular in Highgate that I fell in love with the area and ended up moving five minutes’ walk from the pub.

In 2005 we were the runners up on the show and at the time the most successful team that UCL had entered. On our way to the final, we beat Warwick, the University of East Anglia and Jesus College Cambridge. Our semi-final was against Manchester and we trailed for most of it only pulling ahead with seconds to spare. Alas Corpus Christi Oxford destroyed us in the final.

I remember how tacky and flimsy the studio set was especially under the bright lights. At one stage I pointed out to the crew that the back of my chair was broken, to which Paxman told me just to sit up straight! At the end of the filming there was often retakes; nothing is changed of course, but it still feels strange having to act out something that you just did. The actor Pete Postlethwaite presented the trophy to the victors, but I think he must have found them a bit boring because he ended up hanging out with us instead.

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Portico Issue 6. 2019/20