Magazine article The Spectator

Why Did I Agree to Appear on University Challenge?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Did I Agree to Appear on University Challenge?

Article excerpt

The worst thing about going on University Challenge, I now know, is when you interrupt a question and get the answer wrong. This is bad, not only because you lose five points, but also because it can mess up the general filming of everything, somehow, which means they make you do it again. And sometimes again. And while it's one thing to say something quite stupid in the white panic of contest, with Jeremy Paxman glaring at you over his cue cards, it's quite another to have to say it repeatedly, like an actor playing the imbecile you've just been. With Paxman repeating the same question, and you repeating the same, hopeless answer. Sort of like Michael Howard, I suppose.

Although I get ahead of myself. Yes! I did University Challenge! Only it might not have been on yet, so I'm going to have to be cagey about whether my team did well or middlingly or terribly. All I'll say is that if it was good, then this was entirely down to other people on my team - my fellow Emmanuel alumni Rory McGrath, Simon Singh and Mary-Ann Ochota - being so very clever.

And if it was bad, then this was also down to them being not quite clever enough to cope with the handicap of me. And if you think that's faux humility, well, just watch it.

This was not, of course, true University Challenge. What they do is this Christmas alumni special, which is much the same, but features vaguely prominent graduates of various institutions. It's nice to be considered vaguely prominent, but it does make you feel like you've a lot to lose. 'It's very good of you all to do this, ' Paxman said to us beforehand, in the slightly incredulous manner of Sir Humphrey telling Jim Hacker he was about to be brave.

On the train to Salford, all I could think of was the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones, and the point at which Viv, Adrian Edmondson's punk shouts 'I'm completely bloody sick of this!' and lobs a second world war German hand grenade at his rivals from Footlights College, Oxbridge.

Although, given that our opponents were from Reading, I suppose we were Footlights College, Oxbridge. Tweeting fretfully, I had a reply from the journalist Grace Dent. 'I said no, ' she wrote. 'I said I'd rather appear naked on The One Show.' And I suppose I might prefer to do that, too. It would rather depend on the fee. University Challenge, though, feels like something special. I tried to get on as a student, actually. My three housemates and I would spend our Monday nights shouting at the television, and eventually one of them came back with a form. …

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