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What It's Really Like to Go On 'University Challenge'

Ahead of tonight's final, we spoke to some former contestants about what's it like to compete on the show, and how it tends to stick with you when you're done.

by Amelia Dimoldenberg
18 April 2016, 10:26am

Photo: BBC

Tonight is the 45th final of University Challenge. Students from Peterhouse College, Cambridge and St John's College, Oxford will come face to face on the only TV show where asking a 21-year-old in a bow tie for an example of a "sacred minimalist composer" can be rightfully classed as entertainment.

University Challenge is the Olympics of quiz shows. It is the ultimate test of knowledge, and to compete your brain must be the size of a small planet. First broadcast in 1962, the show – which started out on ITV, before moving to the BBC in the early-90s – has become a fixture of British television, with host Jeremy Paxman awarding a new team of boffins the coveted trophy every year.

Victoria Wood – not Victoria Wood from Dinnerladies; Victoria Wood from Somerville College, Oxford – was a champion in 2002, competing in the team that inspired David Nicholls' University Challenge-based novel Starter for Ten. Victoria was the only first year student on a team full of postgraduates.

"My barometer of what was important was slightly different to the rest of my team," she says. "On the day of the final, all my other teammates were really stressed out, but the only thing I worried about was that I didn't want my friends who I had brought up with me to have to go home early if we lost."

Victoria's internal barometer also told her that running around Salford's Granada Studios with her friends, taking photos of the Coronation Street cast's dressing rooms, was a lot more important than quiz practice with the rest of the team.

The process to get onto University Challenge is pretty straightforward and hasn't changed much since the show began. First, you have to be enrolled at a university. This might seem like an obvious one, but teams have been caught out on it in the past, with Corpus Christi College's team disqualified in 2009 for using a contestant who was no longer a student.

Next, universities must pick their own teams – or, for Oxford and Cambridge, teams from the individual colleges, which is done through trials that the Oxbridge universities arrange themselves. Once the team is finalised, it plays in front of the show's researchers and producers, who then decide who will compete on the televised show.

Although the vetting process to get onto the show is very much based on the team's quiz skills, Victoria says Somerville College made a special impression on the producers. "They had never heard of our college before and liked that about us," she explains. "Somerville was one of the smaller colleges at Oxford. It's a very left-wing college and had a lot of state school students. We were a lot different from the usual teams that went through at the time. The producers love having new blood on the show, and the audience love seeing colleges they have never seen before."

Somerville were a 50-50 male and female team which was pretty unusual at the time. "I don't know if I played a single female on the whole way up to the final," says Victoria.

The issue of diversity – or, specifically, a lack of diversity – on the show is one that often comes up; in last year's semi-finals, Paxman himself used his intro segment to ask why there were no women left in penultimate round of the competition. Out of the 112 contestants on that series, only 26 were women. The BBC subsequently said it would be asking universities for more support in ensuring diversity in their teams.

It's not just issues of gender politics that boil over around the show; since the advent of social media, contestants regularly end up trending on Twitter or becoming the subject of Metro articles, for anything from their unique facial expressions to the fact they're studying sphincter preservation.

Unsurprisingly, Victoria is relieved that she was on the show in a time before social media. " I think our souls would have been crushed if we went online after a show and saw the reactions that were coming through," she says.

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It's safe to say the birth of social media has stripped the humble quiz game of some of its innocence. Take the the Tumblr page "Cuties of University Challenge", for example: a collection of recent competitors deemed attractive by whoever maintains the account. A close-up photo of St Peter's College, Oxford's Yaroslav Sky-Walker with the caption "Dat pout and dat side eye combo" is the standard kind of post you'll see on there. Mind you, even before the rise of Twitter and Tumblr, the kind of people who might now tweet dick-pics at female celebrities found a way to get in touch with women who'd appeared on the show. Victoria recalls receiving adoring letters from a number of prisoners, and requests to pose nude for life drawing classes.

Ted Loveday, a member of last year's winning team from Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge is the poster boy for the modern day University Challenge. In fact, his face is the avatar of @UniversityChal, a Twitter account which has over 14,000 followers and regularly posts video montages of Jeremy Paxman savaging previous contestants to the soundtrack of Notorious B.I.G.

Ted was hailed the "best ever University Challenge contestant" and went viral after he buzzed to answer a hugely obscure question on Greek terminology before Paxman had a chance to finish asking it. The camera zoomed in on Ted's beaming smile and he confidentially uttered the words: "Hapax legomenon" – the correct answer. Since then, Ted's been immortalised in various Vines, YouTube videos and, most notably, through an appearance on Gogglebox.

A Vine remix of Ted's "hapax legomenon" moment

Ted is proud of this moment – now an iconic one in the history of University Challenge. "What's really great is that so many people on the internet are so enthusiastic about this weird, obscure bit of linguistic geekery," he says. "I'm grinning when I'm answering, clearly not ashamed of knowing such a random phrase – so I guess it tells people you don't have to be embarrassed about your knowledge or education."

Ted is now a certifiable celebrity in areas with a high density of BBC Two viewers. "The most times I've been recognised have been at events like the Boat Race, Wimbledon and the Edinburgh Fringe," he says. "The best one was when a pair of bin men in Cambridge stopped their lorry at around 5AM to ask for selfies."

One moment on the show also sticks out for Victoria; some younger researchers had just joined the show and had come up with a picture round question in which contestants had to name the Oscar winner and the designer of their outfit.

"Apparently Paxman had roared at the researchers, telling them that a question like that shouldn't be on University Challenge," says Victoria. But as an avid reader of Heat Magazine at the time, she got all of the answers correct. "I remember Paxman's jaw dropping, thinking, 'Oh my god, what do you do with your time?' I just smiled. Paxman would always remember me as the magazine girl after that."

For both Ted and Victoria, much of their time on University Challenge was spent in the green room with the opposing team.

"I found the lack of friendliness from some of the other teams really shocking," Victoria recalls. "The opposing teams knew about all our statistics and would know our strengths on certain subjects and would try to psych us out. I just sat there drinking a can of Coke, taking it all in."

Unlike Victoria, Ted found it all quite friendly, but was more concerned with the amount of caffeine he and his teammates had been told to drink by their captain before the cameras started rolling. "Anthony [the captain] insisted that we all drank three espressos exactly half an hour before the final so that we'd be extremely alert when we started filming," says Ted. "I don't normally drink coffee, so maybe that explains my reaction speeds."

The green room was not only a venue for excess caffeine consumption, but also for post-win celebrations. Victoria remembers how Paxman jumped up on the sofa to congratulate their winning team, and, later, when the show was eventually broadcast, how he sent bottles of champagne to their college. Celebrating their own win 13 years later, Ted's teammates Jez and Michael went to a karaoke night somewhere in Salford with the show's producers. According to Ted, it was a great night: "I've seen the videos and, believe me, it looks messy."

A year on from his win, Ted is still very much an avid University Challenge watcher and commentator, tweeting relentlessly whenever the show is on. He says he's still great friends with his teammates, too: "There's a bit of a reunion coming up – we're going to be appearing on BBC Two's Eggheads soon!"

I ask Victoria if she too feels as much love for the ghost of University Challenge that inevitably follows all competitors around.

"When I was first working as a journalist, I didn't ever speak about it, because people do make an assumption about you when you say you've been on the show," she says. "But recently I've become incredibly proud of it. I've realised that you do totally have to own it. University Challenge is a huge national institution and simply a gorgeous show."

@ameliadimz

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