Series / University Challenge
Your starter for ten...
British quiz show centering on teams of university students competing against one another. It's been running for so long
and is so popular that it's become pretty much a part of the cultural landscape. In other words, it's a British institution about British institutions—which is somewhat ironic, as it originated as a Transatlantic Equivalent
of the American College Bowl
(airing the national championships of the College Bowl Quiz Bowl league). It ran from 1962-87 on ITV
under the stewardship of Bamber Gascoigne, and was revived
on The BBC
in 1994, hosted by famously acerbic news broadcaster Jeremy Paxman.
Each round is a contest between two teams of four students. Each team represents a different university, except in the cases of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge
, London and Wales, which can enter multiple constituent colleges. The way in which questions are asked, though modified quite a bit during the ITV days, has now been settled as this: The host asks a starter question worth 10 points, for which the contestants buzz in (they may not confer
). A correct answer gets the team the points and three bonus questions on a specific subject, worth five points apiece (for bonus questions the teams confer and the captain gives the answer). An incorrect answer to a starter gets the question passed over to the other team, and an incorrect interruption
to a starter loses the team five points and gets the question passed over. Aside from picture rounds (twice an episode) and music rounds (Once an Episode
), that's pretty much it.
There is something slightly unusual about the way passing through to the next round works: in the first round, the four highest-scoring losing teams get through to playoffs against each other; the two winners that emerge from that round also pass through to the next round. Also, as of the 2009-2010 series, teams will have to win two matches to advance from the quarterfinals to the semifinals; if a team wins two matches, they get through, if they lose two, they're out, and if the lose one then win one they have to play another match to determine whether or not they get through.
The quiz is known primarily for two things: the extreme difficulty of the questions compared to most game shows, to the point where among many people, getting one
right in an episode is a point of pride, and the rather irascible temperament of Jeremy Paxman as the host.
In the 2000 100 Greatest British Television Shows
it was rated 34th.
This show provides examples of:
- Badass Decay: Ian Bayley of Balliol College, Oxford, who is a legend among quizzers to this day* , underwent this during the 2000-2001 series. He utterly dominated his first round match, answering more starter questions than the other seven contestants put together and feeding his team captain so many bonus answers that Paxman asked, "Are you his glove puppet or something?" and Balliol looked unstoppable. In the second round he still did very well but noticeably less so. In the quarter-final he seemed to have burned out completely and Balliol lost.
- Catch Phrase: Paxman has many.
- "Oh, do come on!", "Let's have an answer!", or "Let's have it, please!"
- Original presenter Bamber Gascoigne's equivalent phrase was "I have to hurry you!"
- "You may not confer, one of you may buzz!"
- "We're going to take a picture (or music) round now..."
- "Another starter question now..."
- "Uh, yesss!"
- "And at the gong..."
- "And it's goodbye from me - goodbye!"
- "I'm sorry - if you buzz, you must answer!"
- "No, I'm afraid you lose five points..."
- "Anyone want to buzz from [Team X]?"
- "...'Nnnnno!" (Hard to represent in text; a dismissive 'no' after a team has spent a long time conferring before giving an incorrect answer)
- And the two most famous catch phrases of the show (often heard one after the other): "Fingers on buzzers" and "Here's your starter for 10..."
- Character Tics: Gail Trimble was noted for smiling and flicking her hair every time she got a starter right (which was a lot), another contestant would take a drink of water every time he buzzed-in correctly, and the unfortunate Jacob Funnell got told off by Paxman for adopting a pose resembling Rodin's The Thinker whenever he was conferring.
- Contestants Are Geniuses: The questions are really, really difficult. Of course, it appears that some contestants actually are geniuses, given how much they can get right.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: Corpus Christi, Oxford vs. the University of Exeter in 2009, although that officially doesn't count (see Downer Ending below). The same year, Manchester defeated Lincoln, Oxford.
- Deadpan Snarker: Jeremy Paxman.
- Downer Ending: Corpus Christi, Oxford won the 2008-09 contest under the leadership of the famously incredibly knowledgeable Gail Trimble, but were disqualified for fielding an ineligible player in the final. Said player apparently put down the date his course was going to end on the entry sheet, but none of the producers questioned the fact that it ended before the competition. Furthermore, the 2008 and 2004 winning teams had one ineligible player each, but no one got disqualified on either of those. This led to all sorts of controversy over the ambiguity of the rules and annoyance at the producers, with whom the responsibility to check these things lies. It wasn't a particularly happy ending for the Manchester team who were given the title instead, as one of them commented that they didn't really feel like they'd won.
- Fake Ultimate Mook: Despite being supposedly the United Kingdom's top universities, Oxford and Cambridge teams can be anywhere from astoundingly knowledgeable to utterly hopeless. For years the lowest score achieved under Paxman was by New Hall, Cambridge (35 points), and since the 2009 Corpus Christi, Oxford vs. Exeter match doesn't count, the lowest under Paxman is Lincoln College, Oxford (30 points) against Manchester in 2009.
- Getting Crap Past the Radar: In one 2006 episode, the two picture rounds were on identifying common birds and sporting equipment. More specifically, tits and balls.
- Insufferable Genius: A surprisingly popular view of Gail Trimble. Also, George Woudhuysen, captain of the 2009-10 St. John's Oxford team was considered this by a lot of people, probably primarily due to his habit of nodding to his teammates when he got something right.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Jeremy Paxman may be a tad on the belligerent side, but he's usually pretty good about consoling the teams who lose and is apparently a fairly welcoming guy in person.
- Market-Based Title: The format is a fairly straight import of the US College Bowl, but both of those words have particular meanings in the US that they don't have in the UK.
- The Mean Brit: Yes, it's a British show, but Jeremy Paxman's famous grumpiness and snark in the direction of the contestants and sometimes the questions has to be mentioned on this page, and he's usually too excitable to really count as a Deadpan Snarker.
- Medium Awareness: The two teams sit at panels which are situated next to each other, however in order to view both teams at once, the broadcast shows them one above the other, as though one is on an upper floor (and from 1985 to the end of the ITV run, they actually were seated in this fashion). This has caused a few teams to play on the format for the sake of comedy.
- One episode during the ITV run featured an all-women college, who were placed on top for the broadcast. The all male team they were competing with discovered this and made sure to keep looking up whenever they were on camera, to make it seem as though they could see up the girls' skirts.
- Another episode featured a team who found out they were on top and so kept screwing up paper into balls and dropping them over the front of the desk. The paper would 'disappear' in mid-air when watched on the TV.
- Nerds Are Sexy: The (in?)famous Gail Trimble was asked to pose for a lad's mag (she respectfully declined). The show has had quite a few good-looking contestants over the years, and more recently Alex Guttenplan of Emmanuel College Cambridge and Gilead Amit of Imperial College managed to become sex symbols with their exceptional skill.
- Nintendo Hard: "Challenge" is right.
- Oxbridge: Always fairly prominent in the competition.
- Parody Names: There have been many, many parodies of the show, and about 90% of them use the same parody name - "Universally Challenged".
- Repeat What You Just Said: An amusing exchange from the 2007 Manchester vs. Wadham College Oxford match.
Jeremy Paxman: Which distribution emits a probability density function f(x) equals 1 over square root of 2π times e to the power of minus x squared divided by 2?*
Manchester Team Captain (deliberately): Could you repeat the question?
- Retired Game Show Element: The last two Bamber Gascoigne series involved an odd format called Pass The Baton on certain days, explained in better detail here.
- Sacrificed Basic Skill for Awesome Training: Although the contestants are all capable of answering the brutally difficult questions, they can still miss the 'common knowledge' ones entirely - for instance, in this final, both teams fail miserably at identifying a photograph of Nikola Tesla. The next question is answered halfway through with the much more obscure Victor Grignard.
- Shout-Out: During a picture round in which one team were required to identify Church of England dioceses from their shapes on a map, they were clearly heard discussing the "baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells" from Blackadder II.
- Slobs vs. Snobs: This dynamic is sometimes in danger of breaking out when an Oxbridge team plays one from a less-celebrated university.
- Small Reference Pools: Inverted. The questions cover a ludicrous range and while most are pretty highbrow, there was one starter question about episodes of The Big Bang Theory and a picture round about identifying Defence Against The Dark Arts teachers from their screen portrayals.
- Take That: Paxman occasionally delivers these towards the subjects of the questions.
(describing a picture of George W. Bush and his dog
) The dog's the one on the right.
(to a team that had been messing up a bonus round on the theories of Marshall MacLuhan) You've confirmed what I thought: nobody reads this nonsense anymore.
- Transatlantic Equivalent: Of the American College Bowl, which aired on CBS 1959-1963 and on NBC 1963-1970. The rules originate with North American Quiz Bowl (as do those of Jeopardy!). Interestingly, in the years following the cancellation of College Bowl, PBS aired broadcasts of one of the two US national tournaments as... University Challenge.
- Who Writes This Crap?!: It has been noted that Paxman is often rather disparaging about certain questions (mainly the ones on popular culture, or those which require him to read out long explanations that he plainly doesn't understand himself). More recently, he's taken to mocking the two-wins-to-progress structure employed at the quarter-final stage.