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University Challenge

This general knowledge quiz between teams from British universities has been running since 1962. Initially shown on ITV, it is currently on BBC2. The current series finishes tonight between finalists Corpus Christi College Oxford and Manchester University.

Often dismissed as elitist, how has this quiz (admittedly with a short break in the 1980s) lasted so long? It was originally based on an American show called College Bowl, which ran from the 1950s to 1970. A team comprising four students from one college is pitted against those from another. The questions are not at all easy – I usually manage to get about five right in each session. They can be on Greek myths, astrophysics, identifying photographs, listening to music and commenting on it – anything.

The first quiz master was the oddly named Bamber Gascoigne, a genial, intelligent man with a shock of golden hair. He would ask the questions, about which he was very knowledgeable himself, and his catch phrase was ‘Here is your starter for 10’. This was because there is an initial question for both teams and the person quickest on the buzzer can answer. If he/ she gets it right, the whole team then gets 10 questions they can answer collectively.

The show achieved cult status and was even parodied in the comedy show The Young Ones in the early 1980s. The joke focused on the tension between old, established universities (Oxford, Cambridge, London) and the new bloods (Warwick, University of East Anglia). The skit had the Scumbag University against the Toffs. When one of the ‘scumbags’ asks the host if they will win, he replies, ‘Of course not, the posh kids always win.’

The series was dropped during the 1980s but came back strongly in the 1990s with new host Jeremy Paxman. And how unlike dear Bamber he is. He hectors, expresses astonishment when the students give a wrong answer (you have the answer on your card, Jeremy, of course you know it!). His catch phrase seems to be an angry, ‘Come on’ when the team are floundering. Despite Paxo, the show remains interesting and fun.

Tonight’s final is causing some excitement because Oxford captain, Gail Trimble, has an astonishing flair for general knowledge. For a competition that has always been dominated by men, Gail has already answered more questions thatn the rest of her team combined. We will see how she does tonight.

A fun film based on the quiz and starring James McEvoy was made in 2006. It’s called Starter For Ten. Check it out – it’s tells you all you need to know about this enduring student quiz.


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