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University Challenge

1 9 6 2 – 1 9 8 7 (UK)
1 9 9 4 – current (UK)

University Challenge is one of the UK’s most famous TV quiz shows with a reputation for the difficulty of its questions ranging across mathematics, science, engineering, literature, arts and philosophy.

The format was simple: two teams of four scholars each, representing different academic institutions, were pitted against each other and the buzzer. The team amassing the most points won; not a cash prize or a holiday in the sun but a modest trophy and the satisfaction of being a winner on TV’s toughest quiz show.

It was based on an American show called The General Electric College Bowl (invented by Don Reid) which began originally on radio and had been running continuously on US television since 1959.

University Challenge first aired in 1962 (the first match was between Leeds and Reading) and ran continuously until falling ratings forced it to be cut in 1987.


After a seven-year break, the BBC revived it.

The original question master was the bespectacled and unflappable Bamber Gascoigne (pictured at right) who became famed for phrases like “your starter for ten”, “no conferring” and “well remembered, Queens”.

His shoes were ably filled by the feisty Jeremy Paxman (pictured below left), one of Britain’s most distinguished television journalists, who has kept the helm since the series restarted in 1994.

Paxman’s hawkish and often enjoyably brusque presence breathed new life into the programme and helped attract some very respectable ratings.


Around 250 universities and colleges apply for entry, and a tough interview process reduces this to only 24 teams for the show.

The actual game lasts around 26 minutes and the ending is signalled with the famous sound of a gong.

During the 913 shows between 1962 and 1987, some of the more famous contestants included Stephen Fry, David Mellor and Clive James.

The series was perfectly lampooned in an episode of The Young Ones in the 80s.