On University Challenge (Illustrated)
All kinds of things about the show and our three matches for anyone interested.
With some colourful pictures for those who aren't really.
It's long, but this is really three-entries-in-one, and "he has only half learned the art of reading who has not added to it the even more refined accomplishments of skipping and skimming" ~ Arthur Balfour. Read what, if anything, interests you.
It's worth looking at the comments as well - Three other contestants, past and present, have left their interesting thoughts. You should comment too!
... and may I briefly highlight this journal for anyone who wants informed opinion on any University Challenge episode: http://lifeaftermastermind.blogspot.com/
Getting on it.
I go to Exeter's shiny new Cornwall campus. This is ~100 miles away from Exeter, and the train takes just under 3 hours of its sweet time to get there. No trials for University Challenge were happening, or have ever happened, at the little Tremough campus, so after showering everyone remotely relevant at the main campus with e-mails, I finally found out about some trials that were happening at Exeter. I asked the powers-that-be several times to let people at Tremough at the very least be informed about trials at the main campus, but this for one reason or another never happened. This coming year I am currently set to organize the trials down in Cornwall, so hopefully you won't have to leave the county just to scribble down some answers on a test paper! (Edit: Since writing this I have written and marked the exam paper for Exeter twice. This year (2010-2011) Exeter successfully made the television stages, including no less than three representatives from the Cornwall campus. Look out for them, they're great.)
I half-memorized the UN secretaries-general on the way there, an early symptom of things to come. I wandered through St Luke's campus and indeed the city of Exeter for the very first time in my life the day I took the test paper. To represent the University of Exeter. If I was an academic in human geography I'd make a career out of this oddity. The question paper was 40 questions (or thereabouts) which I could answer in my own time in the refectory. I recognized some of them as questions that had been on University Challenge before, even down to the episode for a couple. I remembered getting some of them wrong, but crucially I did not remember the right answers. Thanks, selective memory.
When the results for that came back I was in the top 10 people who were eligible to go to the audition in Bristol, which was held on the UWE campus. A couple of student-y people from Granada studios interviewed the 7 of us who turned up in order to determine that we weren't going to be 'rabbits in the headlights' material. A couple of people from the Open University with a collected age of ten million years also showed up, I do wonder if they just didn't include the Open University in this series out of a (rare) sense of fairness to all the younger contestants, rather than due to their ability.
A CD was played with 40 questions (or thereabouts) with an 8 second delay between questions. We had to write the answers to them on a sheet of paper. I think I got about 10-15 of them. Later, I would be informed that some contestants got in the 30s. I remember distinctly trying and failing to pin down the name of the film-maker Dalí collaborated with to make L'Age d'Or. I had a portrait Dalí did of him in my mind and desperately wanted to write 'the guy with the crazy dark eyebrows'. Instead I was left with vague grasping: "Brunel? No. Brunel? No. Burnel? No. Bunnual? That isn't even a name. Crap. Next question."
The four highest scores were added together, and if that puts them in the top 28 teams, that team gets on the TV, with the top scorer in the audition within each team becoming captain. Although it isn't quite so simple. Oxbridge are limited to the number of colleges that can appear, and we were told that they would "mix things up" to cover a wider geographical area should there be a number of fairly evenly matched teams. UC is a TV show, any part of it can be tinkered with, it's not a regulated standard of student excellence or anything so grand.
The Pembroke match.
The day before the Pembroke match I went down an abandoned Welsh slate mine with a friend in the pouring rain and driving wind. I'd never seen clouds have a clear boundary only 25 metres above my head before. I didn't have wellingtons or a waterproof coat on, the one I borrowed had been ruined with detergent. I was paranoid I was going to catch a chill and be sniffling &c. all the next day.
What I'm trying to say is: This is a bad way to prepare for University Challenge.
UC is filmed in batches over a few days. There are a batch of first-round matches, and highest-scoring loser matches, in June. Then second-round matches in July. Then quarter-, semi-, and final-finals in November. These are then staggered out over the coming weeks to give the illusion of constant employment for Jeremy Paxman.
The studios themselves are in Manchester. Granada put you up in a Travel Inn and let you claim back your basic expenses but that's it. We arrived at the studio and only then were we told we were against Pembroke College. Oxbridge colleges are so massively variable on UC that it didn't mean a lot to me in terms of expectation. Though, there is of course greater incentive to win against an Oxbridge college compared to Scunthorpe Polytechnic.
The studio isn't made of marble or stone in life, it is grey board with haphazardly daubed white paint all over it, MDF and obvious wiring trailing behind the desks. This is obvious when you think about it, but it brings home how much you buy into the façade watching at home. Roger Tilling, the announcer of the names, threw out some practice questions to start. He's actually incarnate and everything, not just a voice, in his thirties, tall and has short black hair.
We proceeded to lose all of the knockabout questions, and the hideous thought that we were in for a real thrashing by Oxford's brightest came to mind. In the event, we did well. Katy in particular was absurdly good, really quick on the buzzer, and everyone else got starters. I managed to invent a word halfway between a colour and an element for two of the bonus answers (verillium), something so ridiculously stupid I spent part of summer learning about valencies and periodic groups for the first time since GCSE.
The match was exciting, but I didn't contribute as much as I'd have liked, and when we won it had an air of unreality about it for that very reason. Still, I was delighted that we got through the first round. The Pembroke team, like every other team we played, were friendly to us afterwards. Now there was only the wait to the next round, which afforded the chance to 'size up the opposition'.
Seeing Corpus Christi beat Durham on television.
"Wow. They must have psychoneural links to Wikipedia."
After the match had finished, the Durham captain looked like someone who'd had his gut pierced with a straw which drained all the smiles out of him. I tried to forget about them, hoping someone worse than CC would knock them out, somehow.
The Sheffield match.
I thought Granada would feed us. We all went to get lunch at a nearby Italian restaurant, and I tried chilled cucumber soup. Which turned out to be as ghastly as it sounds, so I didn't eat it. Granada's canteen was shut. I ended up literally begging the production team for food prior to the match, and I raided the make-up room for cereal and milk, eaten with a plastic teaspoon. With that I was fuelled by randomly gathered cheese, crackers and nuts brought by the pitying Granada staff. Most teams are gearing up mentally for the coming match in the green room. I was stuffing my face ASAP. What I'm trying to say is: This is a bad way to prepare for University Challenge.
Sheffield are good at University Challenge, they knocked Exeter out last year. I placed a lot of importance on that. They were louder and more forceful personalities than the Pembroke team, and I was peculiarly determined that we had to win this one.
Roger Tilling, in human form, asking the practice questions.
We lost our knockabout questions again, but Katy got us off to a good start and for a time things were looking good. Imperceptibly our lead started to fade until we were in a losing position. Good thing I interrupted a starter question on double-blind that I (and anyone basically familiar with empirical testing methods) knew the answer to way too early, saying something vaguely related but very wrong instead. Somehow, though, we pulled back. I can scarcely describe what those last few minutes were like. I barely ever adhered in any moment of it. It was all a tumultuous flow where every second felt lengthened and tortured, I was desperately reaching for answers and found things sprang to mind in instants. My heart was going at an amazing rate, and my mind was in a state of total, fraught concentration. I was still reeling from feeling like I'd thrown away every chance of winning with my premature answer, and was already preparing in my mind how I was going to deal with being knocked out at this point, 'the end of the dream'. And then on that last starter everything changed, and we were *elated*. In contrast were the scarcely credulous and dejected, annoyed faces of the Sheffield team. It was, literally speaking, incredible, and took ages to sink in. The match was a true team effort, everyone's contribution being absolutely vital to the final result.
After every show they re-film bits, where people fluff answers or aren't recorded properly &c. One of the members of the Sheffield team had to buzz in with a wrong answer and look dejected. He did so, and looked dejected in a somewhat theatrical way - with a hint of a curl of his lower lip. They asked him to do this take over and over again, telling him 'just move back into your chair and look down' and people began to laugh because it was farcical. I could sympathize, it's like someone saying to you 'just stand there and act NORMAL for a bit'. Eventually they either lost patience or had recorded something they were happy with because the endless re-takes finished. This is the way they rub salt into your wounds.
Now I had to re-take something also. I had to say to Stearn, for one of the bonus questions, 'tendrils', which I am happy to say was the right answer to the question. I looked to my left, resting my head on my left hand naturally, and said it.
Jeremy Paxman: "You, next to Stearn, don't be such a poser throwing these Auguste Rodin poses."
(laughter from the audience)
He is of course referencing the statue Le Penseur or The Thinker. Throughout the episode I'd, unlike everyone else, rested my head on my hand and looked at a nondescript bit of the desk so I wouldn't be distracted by a thing when listening to Paxman's question, so I'd been unintentionally resembling the famed Thinker for the whole episode...
The Corpus Christi match.
Driving up to Manchester on the day before the match we got stuck in traffic, I was shouted at needlessly by the guy driving me, I ended up at the wrong travel inn, and eventually fell asleep at 3am after getting the reluctant receptionist to get the moronic people in the next room to turn their bloody television down. I woke up about 8am the next morning and spent most of the afternoon unsuccessfully trying to sleep. What I'm trying to say is...
It was all very interesting this time, finding out who had made the quarter-finals. At this point only a few second round matches had been shown on TV. Everyone who I'd guessed would make it made it, with the exception of St Andrews.
When we arrived at the reception I thought one of the guys waiting there was from the City team. That would be a tough match, but at least we weren't up against Manchester or Corpus Christi. We'd be in with a shot.
I don't know what's happening with that painting either.
In the dressing room there was some discussion about whether or not to 'smarten up' now, or wait till a later stage. I was very much in the 'now' camp. I asked the guy who was looking after us who we were up against, we hadn't actually been told yet.
Better smarten up for this one.
(Incidentally, the pairings in the quarters are not random, they're chosen, so there was never any chance of us being matched against a comparable team, like Queen's or City. A member of staff told us later that we were deliberately placed with CC so as to keep the stronger teams apart. Whether that's good or not can be argued both ways, but in either case it must make for better television else they wouldn't do it.)
The 'green room' where we waited before the match.
We were the third quarter-final. When we were waiting for the knockabout questions to start, I tried to talk things up in my head. I looked over at the Corpus Christi team "You can't be that great, you look just like people to me." This is in retrospect like an Amish Luddite threatening Terminator with a stick.
I love the intros. I don't remember them exactly but they went something like this: Exeter got here, maybe with the help of black magic. No one can prove otherwise. As for Corpus Christi, angels weep when they pass.
When it got to the stage that we were 120 points down without a single question, I looked at Tom Pugh and we just laughed. They were simply so much better. One thing that doesn't come across on screen is that a large part of their victory is down to their being faster than us, whereas on TV it looks like we just didn't know any of the answers bar two. Many times someone would press the buzzer either side of me, I'd look over to them expecting their name to be announced, and then Tilling would announce 'Corpus Christi, [___]'. When finally a starter came around that I did know and could recall the answer to before them, I was rather disproportionately happy. I expected the Nietzsche quote question to ask more than it did, expecting him to ask which work it was in. I know the Thus Spake Zarathustra 'God is dead' passage to heart (Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition?[...]) because it is one of the most stirring passages of melodramatic philosophy I've ever read. I'd heard the other 'God is dead' passage Paxman quoted before, but didn't know which work it came from. It almost took me by surprise that he wanted just the name of the philosopher. Then they hammered us for a while more.
When the gong went, it was strange to see that '15' next to our team. I didn't think anything quite that drastic would happen. Shortly after the end a woman from the staff came and told us it wasn't the lowest score ever - not a consolation you want to be in a position to receive. But I felt oddly happy about the whole thing. I'd grabbed a couple of starters, as good as the two Oxford lads. You just had to hand it to them, their performance will rank as one of the best in the history of the show, and hey, it was fun to play the best team in the competition.
The Corpus Christi team are well-balanced subject-wise, and are lightning quick on the buzzer. Furthermore, they're very good at guessing and anticipating questions, a skill that's probably honed by the intercollegiate University Challenge style competitions that are held at Oxford. Their captain, Gail Trimble, is the quintessence of these abilities, a truly remarkable player in the same exclusive class as Kaufman and Christodoulou of previous series. It doesn't quite come across on screen what it's like to be on the end of their intellectual Blitzkrieg - listening as hard as you can to question after question and hearing them answer it, often before you've got much of an idea of what it's about. It puts a mass of pressure on every question to buzz in early, too early, and you end up getting surprised if you get anything.
A little snippet of conversation afterwards:
Me: Did I hint at the answer at all, when I said saprophyte?
GT: No, I could work it out from the 'epi' part...
Me: ...oh of course the Latin...
Me: Ah, right, yes, sorry. Of course.
More than anything else, pretty much sums up my day.
When the member of Granada staff assigned to us, who had been working there for years, escorted us from the television studio for the last time, he told us they were the best team he'd ever seen on the competition.
Differences between the show in life and at home.
It is harder. A lot, lot harder. And a lot more fun. If you want an idea, pick a team next time it's on. In life you have no choice who you're with, so you should probably flip a coin. Take something vaguely buzzer-shaped and place your finger on it. When a question is read out, push it when you want to answer and then answer within two and a half seconds. You must push it a *clear half-second before* Roger Tilling announces anyone's name, else another player got there before you, and that's you out. Also, if one of your chosen 'team mates' answers and happens to get it wrong, that's you out. For extra spice only answer those bonuses that you or one of your 'team mates' get the starters to - so as to experience the frustration of hearing easy bonuses that the other team fails to get. 'Playing at home' is *comparatively easy*, you can hold back answering until Tilling's voice kicks in. Figuring out for yourself when you've heard enough whilst listening to the rest of the question whilst assessing where the question is going whilst assessing your potential answers whilst wondering if one of the people next to you has a better idea, is a lot harder. If you end up guessing incorrectly more than two or three times, consider how much that would dent your confidence, and how much you'd be letting down the team. If you keep getting questions right despite all this, get on the show ASAP.
The 'wild guesses' that you can throw at the TV at home are generally a no-no in the studio. Twice on our episodes I would've guessed Tchaikovsky for starters because he's one of the few composers I know. It would've been the right answer twice, I would've 'got that' at home. But on TV I wasn't nearly confident enough to waste a potential chance for a team mate, and it was the right decision, I think, not to buzz.
I never really judged people that harshly before being on it, but now I'm all the more sympathetic to contestants on screen. It's harder than it looks, and you have to be very good indeed to get more than 3 or 4 starters in an episode.
Finishing things / peroration.
I had a handful of goals for myself, and the team, the biggest being matching the previous year's Exeter team quarter-final spot. Both team and individual goals were lucky enough to be met - bar one. I still don't know who won, despite the semi- and final-finals being the day after our quarters. Knowing that a winning team almost certainly wouldn't have someone of my age (I was 19 in our first two matches) and ability on it, I always hoped that whoever we lost to would be the eventual winners. So I'm in the same boat as everyone else, oddly hoping for outcomes that have already happened. If anyone did beat Corpus Christi, that team should probably be captured and dissected to prevent them taking over the world with General Knowledge.
Jeremy Paxman has a bit of a reputation for being an irascible martinet, but in person he's quite friendly and was very nice to us at the end of all our episodes, coming over to say a few words of praise or consolation. He only really gets irritated if you waste time, and generally he was very fair.
All that's left now is to grow some dodgy hairy facial fungus, wait ten years, and appear on The Professionals.