Follow TV Tropes


Series / University Challenge

Go To

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. After nearly 30 years, Paxman stood down as host at the end of the 2022-23 series; he was succeeded by another BBC news presenter, Amol Rajan.

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. For the picture and music rounds, the bonus questions will be similar to the starter question, but otherwise each bonus round is on a random topic entirely unrelated to the starter question it follows.

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. For the similarly difficult individual equivalent of the show, see Mastermind. (Though neither is as difficult as Only Connect.)

Since 2011 a shorter spin-off series has run each year at Christmas time (simply called Christmas University Challenge) contested by teams of distinguished alumni rather than students. In this version, while most questions are of the same general knowledge sort as in the main series, there are usually a few Christmas-themed ones and a few about things that either happened or had a significant anniversary in the just-ending year.

In the 2000 100 Greatest British Television Shows the show was rated 34th.

    List of winners 

Bamber Gascoigne Era

  • 1963: University of Leicester
  • 1965: New College, Oxford
  • 1966: Oriel College, Oxford
  • 1967: University of Sussex
  • 1968: Keele University
  • 1969: University of Sussex
  • 1970: Churchill College, Cambridge
  • 1971: Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
  • 1972: University College, Oxford
  • 1973: Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
  • 1974: Trinity College, Cambridge
  • 1975: Keble College, Oxford
  • 1976: University College, Oxford
  • 1977: Durham University
  • 1978: Sidney Sussex College, Cambridgenote 
  • 1979: University of Bradford
  • 1980: Merton College, Oxford
  • 1981: Queens University, Belfast
  • 1982: University of St. Andrews
  • 1983: University of Dundee
  • 1984: The Open University
  • 1986: Jesus College, Oxford
  • 1987: Keble College, Oxford

Jeremy Paxman Era

  • 1995: Trinity College, Cambridgenote 
  • 1996: Imperial College, London
  • 1997: Magdalen College, Oxford
  • 1998: Magdalen College, Oxford
  • 1999: The Open University
  • 2000: Durham University
  • 2001: Imperial College, London
  • 2002: Somerville College, Oxford
  • 2003: Birkbeck College, London
  • 2004: Magdalen College, Oxford
  • 2005: Corpus Christi, Oxford
  • 2006: University of Manchester
  • 2007: University of Warwick
  • 2008: Christ Church, Oxford
  • 2009: University of Manchester note 
  • 2010: Emmanuel College, Cambridge
  • 2011: Magdalen College, Oxford
  • 2012: University of Manchester
  • 2013: University of Manchester
  • 2014: Trinity College, Cambridge
  • 2015: Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge
  • 2016: Peterhouse, Cambridgenote 
  • 2017: Balliol College, Oxfordnote 
  • 2018: St John's College, Cambridge
  • 2019: University of Edinburgh
  • 2020: Imperial College, Londonnote 
  • 2021: University of Warwick
  • 2022: Imperial College, London
  • 2023: Durham University

This show provides examples of:

  • Animation Age Ghetto: Jeremy Paxman doesn't seem to hold a high opinion of animated (or at least Disney) films. In the picture round of one episode, when the team that's losing correctly identify a still as being from The Princess and the Frog, he snarks that the team has to get points from wherever they can. In another episode's music round, a team identify "Part of your World" as being from The Little Mermaid (1989), leading him to remark that it's an embarrassing thing to admit knowing.invoked
  • Aside Glance: Lee from Imperial College London (2023/24) did one of these in the contestant introductions when Amol Rajan said his team had "cruised through the first rounds". If it was intentional, it was done very well.
  • Badass Decay: Ian Bayley of Balliol College, Oxford, who is a legend among quizzers to this daynote , 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 the captain, "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. invoked
  • Bookends: The first episode of the 2022-23 series featured a match between Durham and Bristol, which Durham won by just ten points. Both teams would subsequently reach the final, which Durham also won.
  • Catchphrase: 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..."
  • Celebrity Edition: A mini-series runs over Christmas since 2011, with teams made up of prominent alumni of the same college. The participants can be quite varied in nature, with the 2018-19 series featuring comedian Simon Brodkin, former leader of the Conservative Party Michael Howard, TV presenter Rick Edwards and Oscar-winning visual effects designer Tim Webber.
  • 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 Auguste 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.
    • In the final of the 2017 Christmas series, Keble, Oxford beat Reading by 240 points to zero.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Jeremy Paxman. He was originally only slightly friendlier to the students than he was to the politicians he used to interview (interrogate, really) in his main job as a journalist, but since retiring from the latter job he's lightened up noticeably.
  • 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,note  the lowest under Paxman is Lincoln College, Oxford (30 points) against Manchester in 2009.
  • Friendly Enemy: Despite facing each other in the semi finals of 2016, Eric Monkman of Wolfson College, Cambridge and Bobby Seagull of Emmanuel College, Cambridge with the former coming out on top, Seagull wished Monkman luck in the final.
    • Their friendship continued in 2018 with Monkman and Seagull's Genius Guide to Britain.
    • Although they didn't play each other in the 2020-2021 series, The Unversity of Warwick's George Braid and Durham University's Thomas Wilkening developed as much of a friendship as COVID-19 would allow and mutually wished each other good luck on three or four occasions. Durham slipped up in the Quarter-Finals, but Warwick went to to win.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Obvious Rule Patch: The 2020-21 series was midway through filming when it was interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic (the perspex screens protecting the panellists from each other only appear during the first round play-offs). For this and other reasons stemming from the pandemic, the rule about contestants being ineligible if they had already finished their degree was temporarily relaxed.
  • Parody Names: There have been many, many parodies of the show, and about 90% of them use the same parody name - "Universally Challenged".
  • Pet the Dog: During the 1998 grand final, there was an extremely difficult question about differential equations which the team had to admit they didn't understand. Jeremy Paxman politely told them not to worry, as he didn't understand it either and he doubted anyone in the studio did.
  • 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?
    Paxman: NO!
  • Retired Game Show Element: The last two Bamber Gascoigne series involved an odd format called "Pass The Baton". Here, teams would play two matches (Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday), the first being the standard game with the score being carried forward to the second. That second match featured a Baton (two sticks with six lights that slid across the desks), which started to the left. The leftmost player from the trailing team would select from a list of about 60 categories, from which questions were given to the players with the Baton for five points. The first player to get two correct answers would gain the usual bonus questions for their team to answer. The Baton would then slide to the next players in line, rinsing and repeating the above. A segment in a team's Baton would light up for each correct answer; the first team to get six correct answers would get a points bonus and both Batons would reset. The highest scoring team at the end would progress to the weekly final. This confusing mess of a format was an attempt at reinvigorating the show and increasing viewing figures, but it ended up being one of the reasons it was cancelled in 1987.
  • 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.
  • Signing Off Catchphrase: (Paxman/Rajan era) "It's goodbye from (losing team), it's goodbye from (winning team), and it's goodbye from me. Goodbye!"
  • Slobs Versus Snobs: This dynamic is sometimes in danger of breaking out when an Oxbridge team plays one from a less-celebrated university. Once invoked for a Comic Relief "town vs gown" special.
    • Anarchic comedy show The Young Ones parodied this to the extent of it being a savage Take That! against the popular perception that TV producers and executives who went to Oxbridge will of course favour their own old colleges. When Scumbag University comes up against "Footlights College, Oxbridge", quizmaster Gryff Rhys Jones greets the Footlights team by name, and suggests a round of sherries, once they've trounced those utter oiks. note 
  • 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. There have also been at least two rounds about Iron Maiden.
  • Stealth Pun: In one 2006 episode, the two picture rounds were on identifying common birds and sporting equipment. More specifically, tits and balls.
  • 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 McLuhan) 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 moderator was Allen Ludden from 1959-62, replaced by Robert Earle for the rest of the run when Ludden started doing Password full time. The rules originate with North American Quiz Bowl (as do those of Jeopardy!). Granada didn't bother asking the format owners for permission at first, thinking they wouldn't notice them from across the Atlantic, and it indeed took them a few years to catch on. 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.
  • Worthy Opponent: As mentioned under Friendly Enemy, the Cambridge derby between Emmanuel and Wolfson was regarded as this by Paxman in 2016.