By-far the best way to take part in University Challenge is to settle down in an armchair with a generous glass of sherry while muttering, ‘I can’t believe they didn’t know that’.
I’m certain of this because I’ve just spent several hours beneath the studio lights as, along with fellow graduates of Wadham College, Oxford, I summoned up the courage to take part in the annual ‘alumni’ version of the long-running show.
Nerve-racking doesn’t come close to describing it. Even our tiny teddy bear with an ancient college crest on its T-shirt looked precariously balanced on the edge of the desk.
University Challenge quiz master Jeremy Paxman is pictured above with Wadham College team members Tom Solomon and Anne McElvoy
I’ve adored University Challenge since I was a small girl growing up in a remote part of the North East, one of those places now swept up in the Boris blue wave.
This was the show that made me announce at the age of eight to my stunned mother that I was ‘going to Oxford’, and I raced round the living room in triumph if, by chance, I got the answer to a question right.
I had zero knowledge of where Oxford was, of course, just a sense that it looked like a place where you learned stuff and played a game where you pressed a buzzer.
So when, 30 years after I graduated, the producers rang out of the blue to ask if I’d take part in UC, the temptation to say yes felt overwhelming – even if it’s not entirely clear what the upside could possibly be.
Paxman is shrewd in teasing those who are messing up – particularly if it’s a subject that is supposed to be their specialism. But he never picks on a lame duck and jollies along the teams that lag
I certainly feel I’ve taken my midlife reputation in my hands. My family say I’m heading for a sure-fire humiliation.
This ‘special’ edition of the quiz involves 56 contestants from 14 universities and university colleges, people apparently chosen because they have some tenuous claim or other to a place in public life.
We play by the same rules as the fresh-faced students who usually appear, and quiz master Jeremy Paxman is every bit as fierce.
Our gang, Team Wadham, first meet up on a windy Saturday in September at a pizza restaurant just around the corner from the Manchester studios where the show is filmed.
I already know Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian columnist, and Tom Solomon, professor of neurology at Liverpool University, because we were at Wadham together.
I still remember Jonathan as a would-be journalist with a fetching small ponytail, pitching into every argument with vigour.
Tom, who these days is a world expert on the Zika virus, lived on the same creaking corridor as me. We used to converse cheerfully through the plywood partitions of the communal bathroom.
The three of us are joined by Roger Mosey, former head of BBC TV news and sport, who was at Wadham a few years before us and is now master of Selwyn College, Cambridge.
For reasons of academic pride, Roger is particularly anxious that we avoid the career-destroying prospect of leaving with nul points.
As he points out on the WhatsApp group we set up together, no one is more scathing about the failure to know stuff than academics. By way of encouragement, he sends us all a picture of his dog revising in front of a large art history book.
Once we start recording the show, the surprises are in the details. I’m a little disappointed by the white plastic buzzer, for example. I’d expected something grander, but it looks like one of those cheap oblong doorbells.
I’m certain of this because I’ve just spent several hours beneath the studio lights as, along with fellow graduates of Wadham College, Oxford, I summoned up the courage to take part in the annual ‘alumni’ version of the long-running show. A college building is pictured above
Our surnames are printed on large strips of plastic fixed on the front of the desk, which means they can be quickly peeled off if we’re knocked out. I’d imagined something grander and more reverential.
The studio is rather bigger than you might think and the teams sit a good way apart in a V-shape facing Jeremy. (As a child, I was convinced the two teams really sat on top of each other, as we see on screen – and wondered where the staircase was).
The audience is relatively small and quite far away and we don’t even know how much time is left on the show because there’s no clock on view. We have to peer at a single watch behind the desk to see the seconds ticking down. To be frank, it feels a bit lonely up there.
Recordings take place on Saturdays and Sundays and, as the contest continues, those who continue to get through the rounds can find themselves playing two games on the same day.
Clare Parody, the formidable associate producer, has asked me to be team captain. I suspect this is on gender grounds as I am the only woman on the team.
We have no idea who we’re up against until we arrive at the studios. It turns out that our first opponents are Birmingham City University – featuring Jim Crace, a novelist I have long admired; Bunny Guinness, the Gardeners’ Question Time expert; and Carole Boyd, who plays Linda Snell in the Archers. It would be a fabulous dinner party, if only we don’t have to answer questions.
FIRST comes make-up. The production crew take a look at one colleague’s crumpled shirts and whisks them away to be ironed. Then we loll on the green room sofas, plied with coffee and sandwiches we’re all too nervy to eat.
We can see what’s going on in the studios through the monitors on the wall. A round is already under way – we give our own answers as we watch and score pretty well.
Then there are tactics to be discussed. We should relax and ‘do what we do’, says Jonathan. No, no, no, says Roger, who organised the Olympics coverage for the BBC.
We must be agile: if we fall behind, we must start taking chances. Then we file into the studio and the truth dawns: this is all going to happen very fast indeed. I feel as if I’m standing at the top of a ski slope but can’t quite remember how to do the turns.
Unlike a lot of broadcast quizzes, there’s no stopping for retakes till the game is over. We don’t waste time recording extensive additional material so the producers can make panellists look suave.
A few ‘pick-ups’ – small corrections recorded after the show – smooth out the gremlins, but there is never any messing with the answers. What takes place is what’s broadcast.
The first thing friends and family ask (after ‘Did you win?’, which of course we cannot yet reveal…) is, ‘What is it like working with Jeremy?’ The answer is that he’s charming on set, but with a sliver of ice in the soul.
As we chat in the make-up room, he says he knows ‘about half’ of the answers, which is pretty good going. Knowledge, he says reassuringly, is ‘contextual to its time’.
Most teams now will know fewer of the Greek and classical allusions that used to feature heavily, for example. But today’s students are ‘brilliant’ when it comes to science or technology, he says.
Our Wadham team seems to be dominated by politics and humanities graduates, with just the single medic to field tricky science questions. Oh God!
Once seated in the quiz master’s chair, Paxman starts out shuffling the question cards and looking decidedly reluctant, as if he’d prefer to be elsewhere.
Then we hear him grumbling at the producers in his earpiece: ‘All right. Let’s get on with it.’
By-far the best way to take part in University Challenge is to settle down in an armchair with a generous glass of sherry while muttering, ‘I can’t believe they didn’t know that’. Anne McElvoy is pictured above on the show
Nice Paxman vanishes and the chivvying ‘Hurry up, Wadham’ Paxo takes his place.
And, with just one test question for practice, we’re off. Fortune favours the brave and Jonathan gets us off to a good start with a correct answer to a Charles Dickens question – it is Christmas, after all.
I’d probably underestimated just how much my speed of thought would be tested. The name of a famous artist was just beginning to dawn when some other fiend buzzes in with the answer.
Visual co-ordination is really tricky on the picture or map rounds. I find myself looking in a daze at the images, still figuring out which bit of the world we’re looking at.
The line between glory and ignominy is a fine one – a starter question botched, an interruption on the buzzer too soon or the terrible feeling as your mind fumbles for an answer you know all too well.
When you’re on a roll, the show speeds along. When you hit a rut and are staring at the periodic table with blanks in it, a minute feels like an age.
Having seen us gurning and sighing in the practice question, the producer points out that ‘we’re on air all the time’ – which is to say that we should try not to look too fidgety or bonkers.
Paxman is shrewd in teasing those who are messing up – particularly if it’s a subject that is supposed to be their specialism. But he never picks on a lame duck and jollies along the teams that lag.
Then disaster strikes – I break an unwritten rule of broadcasting which is not to swear gratuitously on an early-evening show for family viewing. Fumbling for the name of a book character I should know off by heart, I am so annoyed with myself I let out an ‘Oh sh**’.
At the end of the show, I get a hard Paddington stare from Paxo, who announces that I have ‘given the producer something to do’.
We re-record the question and I eat humble pie.
So we’re now University Challenge veterans, and that feels pretty good to my eight-year-old self. It’s one of those moments that you wish your late parents had been around to see – a small milestone in the road through life that starts when small inspirations set light to bigger ambitions.
Even so, I reckon the best way to take the Challenge is at home.
You can shout your answers as loudly as you like – and correct them, too. You can drop the odd curse, and have an extra sip of sherry for each starter for ten you get while those dopey souls on screen are still conferring.
And if it feels like Paxo’s starting to get on your case, you can just switch him off.
Anne McElvoy is Senior Editor and Head of Podcasting at The Economist and frequent presenter on BBC Radio 4. She appears in Christmas University Challenge on BBC2 at 7.30pm on Tuesday.