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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 is simple: two teams of four scholars each, representing different academic institutions, are pitted against each other and the buzzer. The team amassing the most points wins; 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.
Produced by Granada Television, University Challenge first aired in 1962 (the first match was between Leeds and Reading). The original question master was the bespectacled and unflappable Bamber Gascoigne, who became famed for phrases like “your starter for ten”, “no conferring” and “well remembered, Queens”.
One feature of the show which has proved contentious at various times was the decision to allow all the individual colleges which comprise the universities of Oxford and Cambridge as individual entities in their own right. This seemed relatively uncontroversial when the show began in 1962 (there were far fewer students and universities then and allowing individual colleges seemed a good way to make up the numbers).
With the expansion in higher education which occurred from the 1960s onwards, the ruling grew more conspicuous, with some suggesting it led to an inbuilt Oxford and Cambridge bias.
This led the Victoria University of Manchester to stage a memorable on-air protest in 1975. In a contest against Downing College, Cambridge, the team attempted to sabotage the show by choosing to buzz in and give only the names of different Communist leaders as an answer to every question – variations on “Lenin”, “Trotsky”, “Mao Tse-Tung” and “Che Guevara” were given as answers to every question, regardless of the subject matter of the question.
The ruse visibly tested the patience of everyone else in the studio (including Bamber himself), but the episode was broadcast in full. The university was banned from entry for several years as a result.
Ratings dropped off in the 1980s as University Challenge was shifted around the ITV schedules, and in 1987 it ended seemingly forever.
After a seven-year break, however, Granada revived the show in 1994, this time for the BBC.
Bamber Gascoigne politely declined the offer to host the show again, and his shoes were ably filled by the feisty Jeremy Paxman, one of Britain’s most distinguished television journalists, who has kept the helm since.
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 each year, and a tough interview process reduces this to only 24 teams for the show. Some of the more famous contestants have included Stephen Fry, David Mellor and Clive James.
The actual game lasts around 26 minutes and the ending is signalled with the famous sound of a gong.
The series was perfectly lampooned in an episode of The Young Ones in the 80s, with Bamber reimagined as “Bambi” but sharply impersonated by Griff Rhys Jones. Gascoigne professed to have enjoyed the episode very much.
Bamber Gascoigne died at his home in Richmond in February 2022, aged 87, after a short illness.