University Challenge past and present

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Current student Jamie Lee recounts how Balliol’s 2004-5 team attempted to emulate their predecessors of 1963-4

University Challenge

In June 2004, the intrepid Balliol University Challenge team of Peter Baker, Marshall Steinbaum, Jennifer O’Donnell and Jamie Lee went all the way to Manchester for our first recording session, having beaten over 100 other institutions in the rigorous offcamera selection process. We went into the competition as Oxford Inter-Collegiate Quiz Champions 2004, so we felt we were in with a chance.

When we arrived, we discovered that we were to play against Downing College, Cambridge, in an ‘Oxbridge’ clash. So, not only were we representing our mighty Domus de Balliol, but also the entire University. We therefore had the added pressure that, for the sake of Oxonian pride, we could not afford to lose.

The rigours of the selection process were nothing compared to the assessment of our clothing for the programme: we each had to bring three outfits, with various prohibitions on logos, stripes and checks. Having survived that ordeal and a session in make-up (very traumatic for the boys!), we went to the Green Room to meet our opponents and the other teams who were recording that day. There is a peculiar mix of camaraderie and competitiveness amongst the teams: everyone is petrified of being ridiculed by Jeremy Paxman on national television (for example, we succeeded in identifying the smile of Dr Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, as that of the Brazilian footballer Ronaldo!) but also everyone wants to win. It is, strangely, a lot harder to dare to answer a question when recording the show than when screaming at the television from one’s sofa. Teams become wonderfully relaxed after their recording, taking advantage of the drinks and nibbles in the Green Room.

Another aspect of the experience which makes it all the more enjoyable is the friendliness of the researchers and production team. The researchers set many of the questions and eagerly watch to see how they are received. Often they can be quite challenging: University College’s music round was: ‘Name these songs from The Sound of Music, played backwards.’ Over the four shows which we recorded, we got to know the team very well, and we are tremendously grateful to them for their integral part in our great television adventure.

But to return to the match reports. The match against Downing was pretty close, with a raging off-camera dispute over whether ‘grenadine’ was the same as ‘pomegranate’ (it isn’t), but Marshall buzzed in with several starter questions to pull us away from our opponents in the closing minutes. We won by around 60 points and so were through to the second round.

Through the generosity of the Master, who later paid for a minibus to convey our supporters to Manchester for the semi-finals, Marshall was able to fly back from the USA in July to take part in the second round match against the University of Durham. This match, screened on Valentine’s Day this year, was amazingly exciting. The lead changed hands several times: Balliol were 40 points up with four minutes to go, then Durham were 40 points up with two minutes to go, and Balliol came back to win 215-195. The match was shown on the JCR Big Screen, and there were many cries of desperation and exhortation throughout, but we won in the end, in no small part due to Jen’s knowledge of Arthur Miller, and Peter’s ability to answer questions on his Master’s Physics topic under pressure.

The quarter-final in October, against the University of Edinburgh, was less exciting, but nonetheless enjoyable and played in a very good spirit; they were very pleasant opponents. We beat them by over 100 points.

The semi-final, which took place the next day, was something of a grudge match against Corpus Christi College, Oxford, whom we had beaten in the record-scoring final of the Oxford Quiz. It was again a very close match, with both teams scoring over 200 points, but sadly, we were just pipped at the post. We therefore had to content ourselves with being one of the best four teams in the country. But throughout, we should like to think that we maintained our dignity and represented our College as populated by the nice, normal and bright people that it is.

It has been surprising to discover how many people watch University Challenge, and equally surprising to learn how very many people are happy to chastise a competitor for confusing Stravinsky with Bach and vice versa. Parents, friends, Open Day and interview applicants, students at other colleges, Old Members, tutors, porters, scouts and countless others have contacted us to send their congratulations. We are very proud to have been able to represent Balliol, and should like to express our gratitude to all who have expressed kind sentiments.

A member of that earlier team, David Wickham (1961), recalls his experiences

University Challenge 1963

Balliol’s participation in the second series of University Challenge seems to have been undertaken in what one might call ‘Middle Period effortless superiority’. Nowadays we hear of universities running numerous quiz-heats to select a team. As I recall it, late in 1962 a notice went up unannounced somewhere in College and, before it was removed, five interested undergraduates had signed it. So that was our team of four and a reserve, self-selected from fewer than 400 undergraduates!

On the way to the Granada TV studios in Manchester to record the first programme on 1 January 1963 Oliver James (1961, Physiology) somehow emerged as captain of the team, while Guy Brown (1962, Chemistry) drew the ‘short straw’ to become the reserve.

The programmes did not worry us. We knew the answers – or not. Bamber Gascoigne (Eton and Cambridge), for so long the question-master, was every bit as charming as he always seemed. One was hardly aware of the studio or the audience. We all sat at floor-level and few, if any, realized in those innocent days that it was simple camera-trickery that put one team above the heads of the other.

Each round was played for the best of three games, with at least two played and recorded back to back, e.g. at 5.30pm, 6.00pm, and 6.40pm (if necessary).

In the first round (broadcast on 14 January) we beat Newcastle University by 310 points to 115. My memory is that we won the first eight games, against four teams, straight off, though it is possible that we lost one game by five points, so necessitating nine games to defeat the four teams.

Then came the last round. We were up against Leicester University. The public attitude to University Challenge at that time is hard to credit today. The most popular long-term television programme then was Coronation Street. We were told that we were regularly surpassing its ratings! Newspaper articles attributed this to the public’s being able to see where money spent on higher education was going, while television critics bragged if they understood the questions, let alone successfully answered a couple of them in a programme.

We lost the first programme in the final round. Then we won the next. Popularity soared higher. Ratings peaked. ‘Come on, Balliol,’ was one headline. ‘You can’t be beaten by a girl who sucks her pencil!’ This was Madalane Hall, the only female in either team. She seemed to be psychic. It is, of course, possible to answer a question successfully well before it is finished. How many Polish musicians are you likely to be expected to know? How many of the obscurer Shakespeare plays are simply too unknown for a question to be framed? She seemed to be buzzing after ‘What … ?’ and ‘How far … ?’ and pulling answers out of the ether. Leicester won that final programme and so two out of three in the final round. It was Guy Fawkes Night 1963.

Granada had always paid our fares, accommodated us overnight, supplied meals and allowed us incidental expenses of £3 per person per visit. After the final programme they gave us a formal diner at the Midland Hotel, with all the production staff and the Bernstein brothers, the money behind Granada, present. I do not think we were very upset. After all, Balliol already owned a copy of the series prize, a first edition of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. I think a modest sum was given to College funds and we were each given a suitably inscribed copy of the Shorter OED, half-bound in Oxford blue leather. Doubtless I was not the only member of the team to be asked for my autograph and recognized in the street afterwards, to receive fan letters and to be written up in my local newspaper. The article spelled my name wrongly and mis-reported my team status, but I was described as ‘brilliant’ – which was nice!

When I returned to Balliol after the final defeat, Stephen Jessel (1961, Greats) happened to meet me in the Lodge. Without any preamble he said, ‘Oh well, I expect you did your best.’ I have always thought this one of the kindest things anyone has ever said to me – along with Granada’s approval, given about then, to hire me as a retained question-writer for the programme for some while to come.