How Going on University Challenge Changed My Life

The pursuit of knowledge, the myth of Paxman and the story of my own doomed run to the show’s semi finals.
illustrated by Alex Jenkins
An illustration of Jeremy Paxman at the University Challenge desk.
Illustration: Alex Jenkins

When you go on University Challenge, the number one thing people always ask you is: What was it like to 'go up against' Jeremy Paxman? Paxman, who announced his retirement from the series last week after almost thirty years at the helm, was a great host – because he always managed to channel the impression that he was treating all these random (mostly) 20 year-olds with the same haughty scrutiny that he did Michael Howard in that interview where he kept asking if he threatened to overrule him.


Such is the magic of television. I was on the show at some point in the 2000s, representing Manchester, in a team that reached the semi-finals. And the honest truth is that there was never anything remotely intimidating about Paxman in person. Each series consists of so many episodes, he can't possibly be expected to remember who anyone is. The most direct engagement any given contestant will usually get is just before you film your first episode, and you have to take a promo photo with him standing behind you – for the university website, or in case you reach the final. He seems to feel obliged to make some awkward banter.

When you watch a TV quiz at home, the temptation is always to invest the host with some immense intellect, as they are after all the one with all the answers. But with Paxo at least, that mystique immediately dissolves at the end of your first episode, when you realise he has to re-record about half the questions he's asked you, because he's mispronounced some word. In one episode, our second of three quarter-finals, I remember I gave the answer “Harthacanute”, when the answer was actually Hartha's dad, regular old Canute the Great. Paxman was all set to accept it, before I leapt in and corrected him: No, sorry, you can't take that, those were in fact two different people. He then recorded a pick-up dismissal of my answer in which he sounded like the answer 'Canute' was simply obvious and 'Harthacanute' was something a toddler might babble at him while shitting themselves. If I hadn't corrected him, we would have won.


That said, it's not like he was completely disengaged. Paxman wouldn't really know who you were, and he wouldn't really be angry at you for getting questions wrong. But he also knew his brain just didn't really work like those of the people who do very well on the show; that he simply didn't have the same memory for facts. If you did do well, he was always sincerely impressed. His approach to the knowledge exhibited on the show was always essentially headmasterly: Well, someone ought to know this stuff, oughtn't they?

If anything is an 'iconic British quiz show', then University Challenge is. There is just something so simple, so perfect, so magical about that classic shot, where the teams look like they're sitting on top of each other. At its heart, perhaps, it is a show about language: about the rush of words, often unfamiliar, that characterise its questions; about the evocative names of the institutions (London School of Economics; Open University; Jesus College, Oxford...); the surnames of the contestants (Loveday, Seagull, Guttenplan, Christodoulou...). It is a beautiful show, even if you have no idea what's going on. It’s beautiful because of the world it creates on-screen.

And for a time, if I'm honest, University Challenge mattered more to me than anything else in the world. Before I went on the show, I did not consider myself to be someone with a particularly good general knowledge. I just got an email about trying out for the team – it involved doing a general knowledge quiz in the library – and figured I'd see how I did. When I was told I was going to be on it, I felt extraordinary: like they'd just announced the invention of magic, and I would be its first beneficiary. I'd never previously thought of myself as someone with much of a future. But now I was going to be on television. And if I did well, I assumed, it would be a sure-fire path to fame, and success. Who wouldn't hire me for a job after I graduated now, if I'd been on University Challenge? That's all I'd need on a CV: ‘Tom Whyman – I WAS ON UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE.’


And I did do well. So did my team. I realised early on that almost everything I knew, I knew from either watching The Simpsons obsessively, or playing Championship Manager 00-01 for up to 18 hours a day when I was supposed to be at school. But this was enough: actually almost all of the world's knowledge, it turned out, was contained in a combination of The Simpsons and football management games.

The semi-finals and final were filmed on the same day. I'll always regret that before the semi-final, I completely freaked out. I don't know if we'd have won anyway. But before we filmed it, I became terrified that if we did win, I would be on the news. And I just... very strongly did not want to be on the news.

After we lost, I desperately wanted a do-over, to find some way of redeeming my failure – but the rules say you're only allowed to appear on the show once. I spent the next few years of my life obsessing over off-camera ‘quizbowl tournaments’ (basically, the name for the University Challenge format when you do it off-camera) – devoting all my spare time to expanding my general knowledge, while competing in quizbowls both across the country, and in the US. I met people there who spent their literal whole lives doing it, who had been doing PhDs for over a decade but spent their whole time just memorising lists of names of characters in books, who got so frustrated when they were losing that they punched the wall until their hand bled (apparently the guy who did this – upon being told that he was bleeding – screamed, “Anyone this stupid deserves to bleed!”). I have never known people who knew so much, and could recall it so fast. These American quizzers would have wiped the floor with almost anyone who has ever appeared on the British series.

I used to want to know everything, and for a time I genuinely thought that it could be possible I might. I wanted to go on Mastermind, on Only Connect; I wanted to get a job writing quiz questions. I thought that having a good general knowledge would somehow equip me perfectly for doing everything else I wanted to in the world – that if I could just somehow contain every single fact in my brain, I would be set for life. Now I have two small children, and I can't even list all the capital cities in Africa any more, or tell you the names of everyone who's won the Booker Prize. So it goes. But what going on University Challenge did do, was convince me that I had some sort of real intellectual worth. I've since spent my life doing things like 'getting a PhD', or 'teaching in universities'. That's stuff I would never have considered, even, before I went on the show. In a way, I owe University Challenge my entire life.

Paxman's irascibility was always an act: what's important to remember about it, is that it always seemed driven by a genuine investment in knowledge, by a genuine desire for the students to know the answers to these strange questions Paxman had found himself being forced to read; by the belief that it was somehow important.

The show is iconic because it is beautiful, and it is beautiful because it conjures up the image of a sort of utopia, where getting general knowledge questions right actually is a sure path to real-world success. This is just a fantasy – of course. But any half-decent successor to Paxman’s role (and I have my doubts about how long the one who’s just been announced will last) will have to figure out how they’re going to maintain it.