April 22, 2020

The first casualty of lockdown, to hear many Zoom-hosted laments, was televised sport — just when men needed it most. Jobs are one thing but without Saturday fixtures, several otherwise sane chaps of my acquaintance began to lose their bearings, their ability to navigate through life at all.

But for me, there was one great televised competition still in play. And if in the end, inevitably, the final was not quite the match of the series, nor the defining clash of two great individual goal scorers everyone was hoping for, so what? That has never stopped the FA Cup from commanding the nation’s affection. And at least University Challenge has never had to have a rematch at Old Trafford on a rainy Tuesday night.

The greatest TV quiz show of all time is, like me, over 50 years old now. Unlike me, it has never looked fitter.

It has been compared not only to football’s most famous knockout competition but to everything from Wimbledon to Championship Darts. On this occasion, Imperial College London vs Corpus Christi, Cambridge was more of an intellectual Sumo match. Imperial got that first crucial cerebral shove in early, slicing Paxman’s opening question off at the ankles, then holding possession in the scrum to establish first base with a solid two out of three on the supplementaries, 20-nil up all before the second roll of the dice. It was as good as over by the first time out.


In Monday night’s final, the competitors displayed nerves of steel

After Brandon spotted the presence of Iran in the name of the Nobel laureate in less time than it took for the question itself to reach my ears, Corpus Christi began to panic. They lunged at the next question inadequately equipped with a viable answer and were briefly in negative equity. Imperial now eased into a comfortable, commanding posture and were never troubled for the remainder of the match.

To be fair, when Corpus Christi did get a toe hold, Wang’s urgency on the five pointers was electric, desperately driving pitons into the increasingly sheer rock face confronting his team — only to be shouldered aside, often as not by Imperial’s captain, who was hitting his marks in this match like Jocky Wilson on EPO. All it was missing was some fans on the pitch, who thought it was all over.

Sadly, it is now.

All spectator sports are about watching grace and competence under pressure, and the character that reveals. University Challenge does this better than any other format, indoors or out, which is why it doesn’t need to dangle financial carrots in front of the contestants to keep them and the viewers onside.

It’s the only show I even try to watch as scheduled, and since entering lockdown has been my temporal anchor, the Pole Star by which I correct my course as we continue to oscillate around what is still quaintly known as “the week”.

I’m not alone. The show pulls in regular viewing figures in excess of three million. Not as great as its heyday in the mid-Sixties, when it delivered four times that. But in an era notorious not only for the splintered mirror, the fractured media of choice, but also for a viewing public believed to regard conspicuous displays of intelligence as vaguely offensive, three million is quite something.

And if anything University Challenge questions have got harder. Or at least, the science ones have got harder. The ones about ska and The Clash seem to have got easier. I guess it balances out.

I should admit at this point that I have contrived to appear on not one but two of the show’s seasonal, novelty variations. Both University Challenge – The Professionals and a Christmas series that was as close to ‘Celebrity University Challenge’ as Paxman’s perma-curled upper lip would have permitted him to utter.

On the first occasion, after getting off to a good start, the Comedians team were soundly beaten by the Ministry of Justice. They went on to be series winners so we couldn’t complain, and we all said we’d had a lovely day out: but I was quietly furious. On the second occasion, I was on representing Southampton University. We edged a win, against York, but then had to wait several days while they recorded further heats to see if we had won by enough to go through to the semi-finals.

We hadn’t. It still hurts. Every time I hear the word “woke”, the Nutcracker Suite or the poetry of W. B. Yeats, I am back there in a flash, and this time, I buzz.

There are of course other TV quizzes. Mastermind is usually the one mentioned in the same breath, and I have been lucky enough to appear on its ‘celebrity’ isotope, too. Believe me, no one is more aware of the degree to which that term has been stretched beyond its natural elasticity in order to accommodate contestants like me.

But despite the Gestapo machismo of the famous Black Chair, University Challenge is the greater test, because it’s a test of steel, of resolve, as well as of knowledge.

Sit in the black chair and either you can remember the answer or you can’t. You have to decide how long to wait while your brain shuffles frantically through its Rolodex before turning to you with an apologetic shrug — but by and large the viewer is watching a display of information retrieval.

Only in University Challenge do you have to brave your team mates’ wrath when you decide to open fire, not knowing if you have got the right scent. To lunge ahead of your own cohort — who might well be poised to answer correctly — and risk not merely getting the answer wrong but losing ground already hard won… this is the sadistic genius of the format.

This is why the show commands loyalty even when half the questions concern aspects of quantum mechanics so involved, most viewers wouldn’t even be able to give an answer that was meaningfully wrong.

There is a danger when things get too intellectualised that you could lose touch with the mainstream crowd. Philip Larkin wrote of modern jazz that it was too damn clever for its own good, that solos now only made sense to other musicians, and that consequently the tension had been broken between the performer and the crowd. In that context, he very likely has a point.

But not University Challenge. We are watching intellects beyond our ken, for sure, but we love to watch them swoop and soar. Where some quizzes — Hello, Bradley! What ho, Xander! — are like watching Sunday League football — shouting “Shoot! Shoot, you plonker!” at our muddy avatars on the pitch — University Challenge is like watching eight Rogers Federer, returning balls we can’t even believe they reached.

At least, it was. The series finished on Monday night. It is now Wednesday. And lockdown suddenly got real.