The departure of a familiar face is always a melancholy business
It was a Tuesday lunchtime routine. While other chaps wasted their sixth form off-site privileges getting to know the inmates of the girls’ school up the road, my best friend and I had serious business at hand, namely discussion of the previous night’s episode of University Challenge. We compared notes as we strolled to the supermarket. He had a more rigorous scoring system than me. I gave myself a point for every answer I knew; he only gave himself a point if he managed to give an answer before the teams. Occasionally our conversations took obscure or esoteric turns, depending on the details of the previous night’s questions.
Asking the questions, of course, was Jeremy Paxman, at the height of his notoriety as a terrifying scourge of dishonest politicians. Paxo announced yesterday that the next series of University Challenge will be his last. After nearly thirty years, longer than the programme’s original host Bamber Gascoigne, he will be hanging up his question cards. The student quizzers of Britain will finally be safe from that withering stare — generally directed at some hapless undergraduate who can’t name Dickens’ last complete novel or the fourth longest river in Asia or the three most recent additions to the periodic table (Our Mutual Friend; the Lena; nihonium, moscovium and tennessine. Yes: I googled.)
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The disappearance of well-known voices from TV and radio is a curious business. I remember when I was young hearing my parents remark on the death of some warmly-remembered voice of previous decades, and not really understanding the feeling of near-sadness that seemed to accompany such events. But now, at an age where I have to position myself carefully before sneezing in case I pull something, I am very familiar with the way in which little markers of the passage of time can become freighted with meaning. It’s why lots of people were upset about Radio 5 Live’s decision to stop reading the classified football results at 5pm on Saturdays, or Radio 4’s abandonment of the UK Theme. It’s why there are grumbles about the diction or accents of newsreaders and weather presenters; the voice of “Official Britain” matters to us because it is woven into the story of our lives and it reflects what kind of country we are.
No doubt, in time, Paxman’s successor will become a beloved, comfortable voice to certain generations. That is the way of things. But for the moment, it is poignant to hear that he is retiring. A phase has come to an end, and we are thirty years older than we were when it started.