I am not sure when I became aware that I was in possession of a more than passable store of general knowledge, but I believe the seeds were planted when, in lieu of a more traditional bedtime story, my father decided to quiz me on world capitals and English football grounds. I also fondly remember a couple of childhood puzzles I had; one contained all the flags of the world and the other was a jigsaw made up of country shaped pieces that needed assembling.
The Tutor Group Quiz
At my secondary school, a Maths teaching quiz enthusiast by the name of Mr. Arnold (nicknamed “Spud” for a reason I never fathomed) ran an annual tutor group quiz competition, complete with ’80s songs that we were all too young to know. With the help of another boy in my year by the name of Duncan Fudge, we took the title either two or three times. I can still visualise our quiz master, sandwich in hand fiddling with the tape deck. The only correct answer I can remember giving, however, is “42”. Not bad, considering how long Deep Thought took to come up with it.
As a result of these victories, I was invited to take part in a national competition for schools based on the University Challenge format representing the Portsmouth Grammar School. Mr. Arnold drove us in the school minibus to Lord Wandsworth College (where Jonny Wilkinson went to school) and then to the prestigious Westminster School (too many famous alumni to mention) in Central London. Remarkably, we emerged victorious from both tussles only to fall to Brighton College in the quarter-finals.
Several quiz book gifts from friends and relatives later, I was studying Modern European Languages at the University of Durham and had managed to qualify for the Hatfield College team on the basis of a written test. My performance was just about enough to get me into a play-off quiz for the final university team. An encounter with the infamous Jeremy Paxman was coming closer to becoming a reality.
I did it! A place on the team was mine.
I can still remember the glee with which I shared the news with my bandmates after rushing to a gig. But actually, we had not qualified for the TV programme yet. We still needed to finish as one of the top colleges and universities in the UK in another written test to reach the broadcast stage. Yes, Durham qualified nearly every year, but that was no guarantee we would this time. What if we let the side down?
With that aim in mind and not a few butterflies in the stomach, I boarded the train to Newcastle with my teammates: Mike (reading Politics), Mary (Chemistry and Biology) and Pete (Archaeology), our team captain. The test venue was right next to Newcastle United‘s stadium, still called St James’ Park, well before all the Sports Direct nonsense.
Once on site, we were all given the same test to complete separately and then went on our merry way about half an hour later. We never got any results, privately or individually, but it was enough to qualify. Onwards to Manchester!
Who to take?
I, like most people who enjoy taking part in quizzes, also enjoy making them. So it seemed natural for me to create a quiz to see which of my friends would join me on the trip to Manchester as part of the live audience. It was only later that I realised that I should probably have invited my family along first. Oops. That was certainly some motivation to reach the second round!
Manchester – Round 1
This was my first visit to “Cottonopolis”, home of the darlings of non-Mancunians Manchester United, and the much less successful (at the time) Manchester City, countless excellent bands and Oasis. Engels and Marx also met for the first time in the city, but unfortunately we didn’t have time for much socialising. Instead, we headed over some tram tracks to Granada Studios, the spiritual home of “Corrie“, a staple of British life I have never and will never watch.
Next was make-up time with our adversaries, Bristol. Schott’s Miscellany, a repository of quiz wisdom from the pre-smartphone age, was quickly consulted as we were all “touched up”. Then our team captain, exiting make-up a little too quickly, walked straight into…Paxman. “You’re toast!” was all the quizmaster said.
A good start then.
Once into the studio, we got a quick briefing on the dos and don’ts of live television. Then it was straight into the warm-up. I think I buzzed in incorrectly on two of the three practice starters for 10. So, -10 before we had even got going. Never mind. Now it was for real!
If you’ve never watched it before, University Challenge questions are extremely long. I think the idea behind that is to include enough clues that you can at least make an educated guess. However, not switching off and giving up on a question early is vital.
“Findings published in January 2003 (nope) in “The American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (science, definitely nope) show that all mammals, including man, are descended from an early species with genetic similarities to which animal (no idea, how long is this question?), with a Dutch (ok, like German then, got a chance) name meaning “ground pig”?” (Ok, in German “ground” is “Erde”, animal beginning with something that sounds like erd…how about aard…)
And just like that we were 10 points ahead.
I would get two other starters later on. In the first, I recognised a “Kyrie” from the mass setting, and the other answer was “Diego Rivera”, the artist who I just happened to be studying at the time in my “Latin American Texts” module. A stroke of luck!
I was also beaten to the buzzer twice by teammates on “The Twist” (my half-uttered expletive fortunately cut out by the editor) and a cricket umpire’s signal. With our captain being a cricket umpire himself, the bonus points were a formality.
I got overconfident at one stage, buzzing in on a chemistry question I should definitely have left for my teammate, Mary. Fortunately, it didn’t matter in the end, as a tight 40-40 start turned into a 225-70 rout.
Post Match Reflections
Watching back now, there are five questions we didn’t get the points on, including two starters, that I would have got had the quiz been today (Milan Kundera, Dracula, Picasso, Pastiche, The Smiths). However, my inability to recognise songs by The Smiths would be rectified shortly afterwards by one of the audience members.
Surprisingly, that audience member was there supporting Bristol, not Durham. In a bizarre twist of fate, this charming fan, Luke, would become my housemate in Spain a matter of months later. A couple of years on, he would be my housemate, bandmate and co-songwriter in Poland and then Edinburgh. How’s that for a coincidence?
After the quiz was over, Paxman joined us briefly in the green room and quickly downed a can of Foster’s. Quite a surprise, considering his generally staid image. However, after the researchers, many years his junior, had said they were going home rather than out on the town, he made his exit, slightly crestfallen, just as we had to leave ourselves.
We smuggled out a bottle of wine for the train journey back north, and the train conductor was good enough to open it for us when we realised we didn’t have a bottle opener. The evening ended at the Durham Student Union’s “Planet of Sound” (nicknamed “Hounds”), a tradition still going to this day!
Round 2 – Journey from the Swiss mountains
The filming for our second round encounter with London Metropolitan University took place in the summer. The problem with that was I was working in Davos, Switzerland, as part of my year abroad. I had to negotiate time off with my hotel and then travel for hours by train before flying to Manchester. Fortunately, a friend living nearby was kind enough to put me up, as well as some supporters. My parents, who were invited this time, stayed elsewhere.
There were a couple of shocks when we arrived at the studios. The first was for the researchers when I handed them my not insignificant travel expenses. I was reimbursed, but they strongly requested my college partially fund me should we reach the quarter-finals. I would feel bad about using the BBC’s money, but…Gary Lineker’s salary.
The second shock was the age of our opponents. Combined, they must have had about 100 years on us. One was in his 60s, another in his 50s and the others either 30s or 40s. Considering my earlier comment on how many questions I would have got right today (aged 39 rather than 21), it just felt wrong. They would be asked questions on things they had lived through. We had just read about them in books.
The questions were much, much harder. I was clueless throughout the first half of the show, but it didn’t stop me buzzing in a couple of guesses on starters when it looked like nobody else would have a go. I watched a movie version of Titus Andronicus a few months later that would have allowed me to answer one starter question correctly, but I had got lucky with Diego Rivera the round before. Swings and roundabouts.
Thanks to my teammates, we remained in the fight until finally…FINALLY…there was a music round! I was quick off the mark on Quentin Tarantino soundtracks and managed to back it up with some knowledge of Danny Boyle movies.
60-90 became 75-90.
Then a turning point! Buzzing in early is always a gamble, because you have to guess what the question is going to be. Knowing an answer is not enough. You need to get it before the other side do.
Our captain went early with his answer to an athletics question…
The full question asked for which marathon she broke the world record at, not the athlete who broke it.
London Met got the correct answer of “Chicago” and went on a run that ended with us staring down the barrel of defeat with a 125-70 deficit to make up.
It wasn’t over. Gradually, we clawed our way back to take a 130-125 lead with the gong just 90 seconds away. It would have been 135-125 if my captain had gone with my answer of “Bologna” on one bonus question. I lost my cool a little at that point, but we were still in the lead. Just needed to focus!
Jeremy always increases the speed of question delivery and hurries you for answers as the end approaches. Starter questions came and went which nobody knew on either side, ramping up the tension even more. This was on a knife edge.
Then London Met got a starter. And three rapid bonuses to move 150-130 up. Devastating!
But the next starter was coming. Focus!
We got it! 150-140.
Get the 3 bonuses right and we’re ahead.
Out! Just like that! Totally gutted. We had come so, so close, but it wasn’t enough.
Post Match Reflections
Initial reflections: Awful! How could there not be time for our bonuses? How could they let people so much our senior enter this competition? Wasn’t this supposed to be for young people?
Later reflections: Similar. Until today, I had not been able to watch it back and I had totally forgotten how close we came. There were two starters I would have got if I were to do the same show now: Titus Andronicus and the band that Mark E. Smith was in, “The Fall”. I also would have got “Emilia-Romagna” for a bonus five. Combined, that would have been more than enough to see us through. And who knows how many extra questions my three teammates would be able to answer twenty years on?
Having said that, the vast majority of the questions were still impossible for present-day me. Watching now, I was zoning out just trying to follow them. Perhaps the focus I was able to maintain back then was a benefit we had going for us with our relative youth? Perhaps it made us quicker on the buzzer and allowed our brains to retrieve answers from our long term memory faster? Perhaps…perhaps not.
University Challenge is filmed well in advance of it being aired, so it was necessary to wait a few months before we would actually appear on TV. Both contestants and the audience are told not to share the results with anybody in advance. I doubt that happens in reality, considering the number of people involved in the shoot, but I did my best.
Much praise was proffered by the inhabitants of my village of Hambledon for my first round performance after it was aired, just before Christmas. I accepted it gladly, but with the knowledge they would be watching a painful defeat in the New Year.
My grandmother, however, was less impressed, her only comment being to “get rid of that awful beard”. I had actually had to shave for my job in Switzerland, so in the second round her wish came true. Personally, I think I looked better with the facial hair.
One final coincidence to finish this tale. If we had gone all the way to the final and won it, the trophy would have been presented to us by the poet, Benjamin Zephanaiah. Benjamin would later be taught Chinese by my sister-in-law and become the godfather of my nephew. Everything is connected!
PS: In case you think the contestants are being slow on picture rounds, they see the image a second or two after viewers do. We all buzzed instantaneously on the cricket question, but on playback it seems as if we didn’t.