University Challenge - 1999



First off, if you're expecting a bragathon here, you're probably going to be disappointed. Okay, a good general knowledge helps, likewise a good - and fast - 'random access memory.' However, the principal requirement for success in quiz games is LUCK - plain and simple.

For example, during our season, it soon became apparent that one of the question setters was heavily into astronomy. This was a real slice of luck for us, as it's a subject I've been interested in from the age of eight. That was when my father, an ex-World War II pilot, took me outside and pointed out the stars he used to navigate by. I was hooked for life.

The astronomy afficionado has since been replaced, apparently, by an organic chemistry fetishist, and the lovely familiar astronomy questions have been replaced by ones on esters and amines and telomeres and polymerases and mitochondrial D.N.A. and other such things as I totally wot not of. ::sigh:: So, like I say, we were lucky.

It has been said that eternity is the length of time it takes to learn everything there is to know. Certainly, I have found that the more I learn, the more I realize just how very little I actually know. I now regard what knowledge I have as a number of very tiny islands in a vast ocean of ignorance. Getting answers right in quizzes depends on the questions hitting those tiny islands. And that takes... LUCK - lots and lots of luck!

Getting Started

In 1997, with both children off our hands - more or less - I returned to the groves of Academe. Well, actually, it was more like its shores, seeing as the institution in question was the Open University, where study is undertaken at home.

There was a 'meet-and-greet' gathering for new students at Grimsby's Franklin Sixth Form College, so we could meet local tutors and other students. There was also a pitch from the Students' Union rep. I joined. It seemed like a good idea.

I don't recall how or when University Challenge cropped up, but I've always enjoyed quizzes and have been a member of the Grimsby and District Quiz League for over twenty years now. The only media quizzes I'd been involved in up to that point were The Village Quiz on B.B.C. local radio in 1987, and Star Choice, a pilot for an astrology quiz programme compèred by Russell Grant. Yes, you read that right - astrology, not astronomy...

However it came about, I ended up submitting my name for the Open University team. As the O.U. is the largest university in the country with 150,000 students to pick from, I wasn't holding my breath.

Some time later, I received from the O.U. Students' Union, a set of questions to be answered - without looking up the answers - and returned. There really isn't a lot of point in cheating anyway, because if you aren't good enough, you'll soon be found out - hopefully before one demonstrates one's ignorance on television! I didn't think I'd done particularly well and so was surprised when a second set of questions arrived through the post. I felt I done a little better on those.

By the time I was called for an audition at Granada Studios in Manchester, I'd pretty much forgotten all about it.

The Audition

Auditions take place at several venues and is quite an undertaking. Nearly two hundred university teams apply to take part in the programme. These have to be whittled down to just twenty-eight. Why twenty-eight instead of thirty-two?

University Challenge operates the commendable procedure of giving the four highest scoring losing teams a second chance in two additional matches. It must be really irritating in some quiz programmes where you're in a high-scoring heat and your runner-up score would have won in any other heat.

For instance, in our season, Magdalen College, Oxford won their first round match with a score of 170. Manchester University and Harris Manchester College, Oxford, each lost with 185, Balliol, Oxford, with 195 and City University with 200 points. In the following year, Durham University, who would otherwise have gone out in the first round, became series champions, beating Oriel, Oxford by 325 to 135. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There were fifteen people in my audition, three teams of four from other universities - including Hull, if memory serves me - two other Open University students whom I never saw again, and me. The audition was in two parts: a quiz and an open interview session.

The quiz section was made up of forty general knowledge questions, with short pauses between them, which were played on a tape recorder. Once the tape player was switched on, it stayed on until after the last question - answers to be written down on the paper provided. If you didn't catch a question, or couldn't immediately think of the answer, tough.

The Granada staff then went round everyone in turn asking, among more general questions, what quiz experiences he (mostly) or she had had, whether he was intimidated at the thought of being quizzed by Jeremy Paxman and how he would deal with him. I think had the least experience of anybody, and felt quite outclassed listening to the others' accounts of their previous appearances on such quiz programmes as Fifteen to One, but I don't find J.P. particularly intimidating. And that was that until June 1998.

Team Bonding

My first contacts with my fellow team members were 'phone calls from David Good and John Burke. David already knew Lance Haward from local quiz matches. We discussed our strengths and weaknesses. This suggested that we'd got most subjects covered to some extent - that is to say, we had flags planted in a reasonable number of those tiny islands - and therefore stood a good chance of doing well. I thought we would do well to bear in mind that our advantage in knowledge gained from life experiences could well be negated by the speed of youth on the buzzer...

Granada arranges and funds overnight accommodation for those who can't manage the trip in a day. The convention was for students to stay over on the night after the recording. As we had never met as a team before, I enquired if it would be possible for us to stay over on the night before instead, so that we get to know each other. This was considered a good idea and perfectly acceptable.

We were booked into the Britannia Hotel, I think it was, in Manchester. It's one of those grand old hotels of yesteryear with blue and gold carpeting, a commissionaire at the door and an enormous chandelier, hanging from about three storeys up, in the foyer. We decided to go out for a Chinese meal in the evening with a view to bonding as a team.

As I am reasonably familiar with Manchester (where it very rarely rains, but comes down in stair-rods when it does) I recommended the Yang Sing. We had a wonderful evening discussing tactics - well, that came into it anyway - and didn't overdo things on the alcohol front as we wanted to stay sharp for our first match. Killjoy here didn't think that having a hangover and concomitant slower reactions was likely to improve our chances any.

I like to think I'm a moderating influence, at least I try to be. For instance, one of the first things Lance cheerfully said was that his sole aim in going in for University Challenge was "to get up Jeremy Paxman's nose." I thought this was a very bad idea and said so.

Lance disagreed on the grounds that an answer is either right or wrong and 'Paxo' couldn't very well deprive you of points if you were right.

I agreed that this was fine when the answer given was entirely correct but pointed out that answers aren't always completely right. There are occasions when your answer 'hits the inner' as it were - in the right ballpark but not the exact answer required. In this case, it's up to the question master to adjudicate, and if you've been annoying, he's less likely to be generous.

It turned out that I was right... Nowadays, when a contestant gives a not-entirely-accurate answer (it's usually in science subjects {G} ) and is grudgingly given the points, Rod and I look at each other and say with a sage grin, "Lance wouldn't've got away with that one!"

It also concerned me that Lance, with a law degree already, quite happily told people that he'd only taken an O.U. short course in Classical Greek so that he could go on University Challenge, like this was something to be proud of. This subsequently came back to bite us, too— all of us.

Another concern is that there is a tendency among male contestants to buzz in at the first familiar word. Females tend to be more cautious and wait to be sure of the direction the question is headed before hitting the buzzer. (There is a sound biological reason for this, but I won't go into it here.) Starter questions have a nasty habit of setting off in one direction before taking a sharp hairpin bend on to a totally different track. The effect of that is something like this:

J.P.: "Your starter for ten: The Pilgrim's Progress— "
: ::buzz:: "John Bunyan"
J.P.: "No, you lose five points... was written by John Bunyan while he was confined in which prison?"
: ::buzz:: "Bedford jail."
J.P.: ::surprised smile:: "Quite right."

So buzzing in too quickly can be very expensive. Besides the forfeited five points, the loss of the ten points you might have got if you'd been a little more circumspect, and the automatic loss of a possible fifteen conferred points, the opposition have the leisure to hear the whole question and consider the answer carefully before buzzing. They then have a crack a the three conferred questions. This can make a potential difference to the score of fifty five points; instead of being twenty five points ahead, you're thirty points behind.

Of course, it doesn't usually work out quite that badly but it can certainly convert victory into defeat, as Birkbeck College found out.

Round 1

We showed up at the studios in good time the following day, and were thus left kicking our heels at the 'guard post' outside until collected and taken to our dressing room to dump our things. We visited the canteen which was nearly empty and later went into 'make-up.'

Everyone has to wear make-up. The men get the bare minimum; the default for women is the lay-it-on-with-a-trowel option. I opted for a natural look. It irritates me that women are still automatically expected to be made up like fashion models and men aren't. It's going back to the bad old days when women were regarded either as dithering helpless things that needed protecting, or maids of all (house) work or sex objects. I don't want to be thought of as any of these things.

When not involved in actual recording, contestants wait in the Green Room which is supplied with a large T.V. monitor. We were therefore able to watch the match that was currently being recorded and get in a little free-for-all practice at answering questions. It also gave contestants a chance to check out some of the opposition.

At the appointed time, we all trooped along to the studio. We were given instructions about what route to take to our seats. The 'backstage' floor, from the studio door to the 'arena,' was an obstacle course of cables. It was like making one's way across a beach covered with very large octopus tentacles.

Once seated, it seemed ages before the match began. There are a whole lot of little details to be sorted out before we got the go-ahead; buzzers were tested, glasses were filled with water, the make-up lady came round adding extra dabs of powder to prevent shiny skin dazzling the cameramen, and so on. We were given our orders, and the members of the studio audience were coached in their role in the show. We also had our photographs taken.

The Open University Team with Jeremy Paxman

Before the match proper began, there was a short rehearsal in which Jeremy read out several starter questions for us to practise on, presumably to calm nerves and to get the contestants into the swing of things.

Our first round opponents were representing Lancaster University. We soon hit our stride and ran out convincing winners. Lance managed to begin his campaign to 'get up Jeremy Paxman's nose' fairly early by splitting hairs over a conferred picture question on a plan of the Houses of Parliament.

The sound of the gong is not necessarily the end of the recording, by the way. Some bits have to be re-recorded, for instance, where Jeremy's fluffed his lines. ;-) He can be quite amusing then. I surmise that, once the match has finished, he can relax a little and have a bit of fun.

Open - 350 : Lancaster - 145

Round 2

The fourteen first round matches and, I believe, the two highest losers' matches were played in the summer. The rest of the matches were played in November. Our next match against Magdalen College, Oxford provided, as expected, much tougher opposition. Magdalen College had produced team champions in both 1997 and 1998. (Although all the matches in our season were played in 1998, the final was not broadcast until April 1999.)

Obviously, our opponents - an entirely different team from the previous two years' teams - were very keen to make it three in a row, especially as no university had ever won the trophy three times. Magdalen did eventually achieve a third win, but not until 2004.

As it was, they did come very close to beating us in Round 2. We began well enough, but Magdalen weren't going to give up as many students do if they fall behind, and coming up on the rail, very nearly caught us.

At the beginning, I mentioned the importance of luck, and luck played quite a significant role in our victory. Several days before this match, I had been browsing in our local branch of Ottaker's book shop, and noticed a paperback copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

This is a very well-known - and very interesting and entertaining - reference book. I'd been thinking I ought to have a copy for some time, so it seemed like a good idea to buy the one that happened to be in my hand. There was just one snag. The cover was bent. Presumably someone, who didn't have a proper respect for books, had jammed it back on the shelf without bothering about catching its cover on one of the books to either side. Philistine!

I therefore had to make a choice; do I order a pristine copy and buy it in a couple of weeks, or do I haggle for a reduction? I was born in Yorkshire. I haggled. Successfully. I bought.

I spent that night browsing through my new treasure; it's a great book for dipping into. One amusing section was on Biblical misprints. I guess pretty much everyone has heard of 'The Wicked Bible' in which the word, 'not,' was (accidentally?) omitted from the seventh commandment, so that Exodus 20:14 reads: 'Thou shalt commit adultery.'

There is actually a surprising number of these special editions. I read quite a few of the funnier ones out to Rod, like: 'Thy son shall come forth out of thy lions' instead of 'loins,' and 'blessed are the placemakers' for 'peacemakers' (predating Monty Python by over four hundred years), 'sin on more' for 'sin no more' and 'printers have persecuted without a cause' instead of 'princes.'

During this particular match, we had a set of three conferred questions on Biblical misprints. The first was about the Wicked Bible. The next two concerned misprints that I'd just been reading. The others were quite impressed by my Biblical scholarship ::cough:: as they hadn't heard of them.

Had the match been played a week earlier, I would have been similarly clueless and the scores would have tied on 200 apiece. What would have happened with a tie-break question is anybody's guess. But that didn't happen, thanks to a big slice of luck.

Open - 210 : Magdalen - 200

The Quarter Finals

This match was recorded on Friday 13th November, 1998 and probably took years off our lives! Looking on the bright side, it couldn't be unlucky for both teams...

We were playing against Birkbeck College, London. Like ourselves, the team members were all mature students. On paper, they had been the better team, having disposed of Warwick University in the first round by 300 - 110, and had then beaten Balliol College, Oxford, in the second round by 270 - 205. It was always going to be a close match.

Before the match was recorded, one of their team*, whose name sadly escapes me (Robert maybe? He was a nice guy) got into a pissing contest^W^W^jokey discussion with John about which of them was fastest on the buzzer. I think he was trying to psych John out. It was all very good-natured though and quite entertaining. John happily conceded that he was very good and very fast, but...

However, it did seem to fire up his opposite number who appeared intent on getting in first more often than John did. This occasionally contributed negatively in that he fell for several of those 'googly questions' and buzzed in a little too quickly.

The match began well for us. We went into an early lead after the first couple of questions. Then it suddenly went downhill very fast as Birkbeck surged into an apparently unassailable position. Even with the self-sacrifice of a number of five point penalties by the opposition, it looked like we'd had it.

At this point a lot of teams would have given up - thrown in the towel. You can tell when this happens. Shoulders will droop, eyes glaze over, and heads go down and you known they've accepted defeat. We didn't. It wasn't over until the gong sounded and we weren't going to give up until it did.

With adrenaline pumping, we clawed our way back into contention and took back the lead. With seconds to go, the scores were 225 to them, 240 to us. 'Hotshot-on-the-buzzer' beat us to it on the next starter question - a heart-stopping moment. They were now only five points behind and with a possible fifteen bonus points available if they got their skates on.

The first conferred question was on classical literature - the Brontës or George Eliot, I think. Birkbeck were sitting to the left of us, directly to my left, and I could hear them discussing possible answers, including the correct one. I was willing the gong to sound...

Instead of giving the correct answer as soon as it was given to him, the captain took the time to double-check with the other team members. Meanwhile, the gong rang out and we'd won. They don't come much closer than that!

Open - 240 : Birkbeck - 235

The Semi Finals

It was around about this time, or towards the end of the Quarter Finals, that Jeremy went down with laryngitis. He struggled on gamely but the director decided his voice wasn't strong enough. He was sent off to bed and the rest of us went home for a few days until the matches were rescheduled and extra accommodation booked.

This time, we were booked into an entirely different hotel. The Hotel Campanile was less Victorian grandeur and more modern 'Travelodge' in style. It was brilliant, especially the breakfasts. Instead of pre-cooked food keeping warm/drying up on hot plates under lights, the chef cooked to order while you watched. It very fresh and very, very good.

Another alteration, occasioned by the change in the dates, was that the mystery guest who was to have presented the trophy was unavailable for the rescheduled date. We found out much later that it was to have been Salman Rushdie.

The three other teams to make it to the Semi Finals were Oriel College, Oxford, Durham and Bangor. For some reason, it was thought that we were the team to beat. I'm not sure what the logic was behind that as, in terms of points scored, we were third, and of points conceded, we came last. Perhaps we were just plain scary? {G}

We drew Durham in our Semi Final, and we certainly seemed to put the frighteners on them, as we cruised into an early lead and never lost it. Well before the end of the match, they were looking defeated and dispirited, and we felt kind of sorry for them as they were a nice bunch of lads.

Open - 310 : Durham - 120

The Final

Our opponents were to be Oriel College, Oxford - David Stainer, David Brewis, Toby Cox, and Robert Dougans. They had beaten Bangor by 235 to 130 in the other Semi Final. They were still ahead of us in cumulative points and had conceded fewer and so must have been favourites to win. We were still surprised when we saw them coming out of make-up though.

We were wearing our usual clothing for the match. - Hey! It's just a quiz game! I was wearing one of my butterfly T-shirts from Alison Bell, the same dark blue one I'd worn in our first match - our biggest win - rather than the cerise and turquoise ones I'd worn in the close matches. The butterfly is my 'totem,' sort of.

Oriel, on the other hand, were very smartly attired in dinner-jackets, all ready for receiving the trophy... I don't suppose they really were counting their chickens; Oxonians just inhabit a different world, I guess, and there was nothing stand-offish about any of them. It did rather look like the posh town mice versus the plebeian country mice, though. Even Jeremy was moved to pass comment.

I'm not particularly superstitious, but if I were, I'd say we had a good omen before the match. It's funny, isn't it, how nerves go straight to the bladder? Part of the 'fight or flight' mechanism, I guess. So I headed for the ladies just before we were called. On the shelf above the washbasins was a box of paper tissues. The tissues were white with small blue butterflies sprinkled on them. I have never seen that design either before or since. I took one for luck. No, not particularly superstitious!

David was on absolutely cracking form, buzzing in on at least seven starters, including some I would have thought were outside his field— questions on art and fashion for instance, the latter one going right over my head! He played a complete blinder and I was really happy for him. 8-)

It was during this match in particular that Lance's chickens came to roost and my earlier warnings were vindicated.

The question asked for the meaning of the term 'ab urbe condita.' Lance beat me, the less gung ho female, to the buzzer and hedged his answer: "From the foundation of Empire." Given that 'urbs' means city not empire, I'm not sure why he hesitated.

At this point, Bamber Gascoigne, the original question master, would have commented that Lance's answer, while not fully correct, was far too close to the correct answer to offer to the opposition for a bonus, and would have asked a new starter question.

Jeremy didn't. He instantly denied Lance the points and passed it over to Oriel, who not being in the least bit dim, quickly supplied the precise answer, "From the foundation of Rome." [ 753 B.C.E. if you're interested, which you probably aren't. {g} ] Fortunately, this didn't affect the final outcome.

Open - 265 : Oriel - 210

Because of the hasty rescheduling, it had not been possible to find a celebrity willing and able to present the trophy, so Jeremy did the honours. Afterwards, there was champagne party for the finalists, staff, family and friends.

Lest anyone think that Jeremy is stand-offish or full of himself, this is not the case. He seems genuinely interested in students— and why not? They're an interesting and amusing crowd on the whole. 8-) When not required in the studio, Jeremy joins the contestants in the Green Room and socializes which is very nice and much appreciated.

The late Jim Pope, who did the voice-overs before Roger Tilling took over, also joined in. He was a lovely man, very interesting and entertaining. I count myself very fortunate to have met him and enjoyed talking to him.

During the party, Jeremy made himself available for anyone who wanted autographs and also gave an extempore speech thanking the boys and girls from the backroom who rarely get any credit and without whom the show couldn't go ahead. It was a very nice touch, I thought.

The Aftermath and Apologies

That was back in November 1998. We were all sworn to secrecy about the scores, particularly about the final. It was very hard keeping quiet about it when people asked. We couldn't even grin broadly and say, "Yes, we won!"

The gentlemen and women of the fourth estate also knew the scores in advance and were under an embargo not to reveal the results until after the show had been broadcast. After all, who would bother to watch the show if they already knew the result?

Consequently, we all flabbergasted and annoyed when the Observer let the cat out of the bag the Sunday before the final aired with a big article headed:

Open minds thrash Oxford's brightest
Mature students rise to Paxman's Challenge -
but, sorry Jeremy, they still hanker for Bamber's good old days

Along with many others, I sent an e-mail to the editor, expressing my disapproval thus:

Your article I read,
And red is what I saw...
How could you spoil our secret
And give away the score?!

For five long months we've kept
Our triumph under wraps
And then you went and ruin'd it -
It's just not on, you chaps!

We don't all favour Bamber -
Jeremy's style is neat -
You don't go on the programme
If you can't stand the heat.

We'd expect this of the tabloids -
They get on ev'ry nerve -
But for all future finals,
For God's sake, JUST OBSERVE!

I thought it was probably a waste of time, but it made me feel better. It was, however, taken seriously by the editor who took the trouble to reply and apologize:

I am so sorry about spoiling the final of University Challenge. I thought it was a good story and couldn't resist running it, but vastly underestimated the number of readers who follow the quiz and were outraged at learning the score. It makes matters worse that you, a member of the winning team, managed to keep quiet about it, but thank you for complaining in the charming way you did. With hindsight I realise the story should have carried a health warning alerting University Challenge fans of its contents, but instead I can only apologise again. I am an idiot!!
Yours in sackcloth and ashes,
Roger Alton

Six or seven weeks later, more trouble blew up. Jeremy had a little difficulty co-ordinating mouth and feet at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival. He made some off-the-cuff remark, à propos Lance's previous quiz experience and John's having previously been on Mastermind, about the Open University team being 'professional' quiz players.

Unfortunately, this was made in the hearing of a journalist who managed to spin the story into an unpleasant slur on our good name. This included a suggestion - where it came from, I don't know - that we had a deep laid plan to waste time while conferring so as to reduce the oppositions' chances of scoring.

This was hurtful and ridiculous and doesn't stand up to scrutiny. Over the five matches we played, the combined number of points scored by both teams in each match was 2,285. This gives an average of 457 total points scored per match.

By comparison, in 1998, the average score per match played by the champions, Magdalen College, Oxford was 406. In 2000, the average score per match (over six matches) played by Durham University was 450, and in last year's championship [2006] the average total point score for Manchester's matches was 353.

Time-wasting is, frankly, a waste of time, and highly likely to backfire. Indeed, John was constantly geeing us up so that we could get more questions in; he is the very last person who could be accused of dragging his feet! In any case, had we resorted to time-wasting tactics, our scores would probably have been a lot lower.

It was particularly irritating that we were thus accused but only John, I think, was contacted for his opinion. Naturally he refuted the charges absolutely, but somehow this didn't seem to be particularly newsworthy...

I did write to the letters column of one of the offending newspapers to point out that:

1. The individual members of the Open team participate in local quiz leagues whose questions are not generally pitched at University Challenge standard - hence our wish for something more challenging - and only met the day before the programme.

2. Other universities run thriving quiz societies of a similar standard to that of University Challenge, and their teams also have experience of playing together. Furthermore, the teams from Baliol, Oriel, and Durham had all been to America to play in the N.A.Q.T. Intercollegiate Championship coming 30th., 39th. and 40th. respectively.

3. That at least two 'University Challenge' winners from Bamber Gascoigne's era had been a finalist on 'Mastermind,' and a semi-finalist on 'Brain of Britain', and no one said anything about it then...

Did it get printed? Not that I know of.

I also contacted Jeremy via e-mail to Newsnight in a similar vein, commenting the similarities in temperament between himself and Lance. His response was:

"You know how to hurt a guy! Me and Lance two of a kind? AAAGGGGHHHHHHHH."

{LOL!} I replied:

{g} That's quite an accolade from an expert in the field.

Sorry, Jeremy - I take that back... now that you've read it :)

We did find your comments hurtful though, especially as a lot of students take quizzing far more seriously than we do.

[ ... ]

We appreciated your expression of admiration for O.U. students, earning a living and studying into the early hours. John, I know, has put a lot of effort into both, and it's not surprising if he feels as if he's been kicked in the teeth just because he appeared on 'Mastermind' seven years ago. We *were* really pleased to have won - yes, we know it's more luck than knowledge that decides the victors - but your comments have really taken the shine off our victory :(

[ ... ]

I do wish people would realize that there are three other people in the team. Please be assured there was no deep-laid plot; John wouldn't have had any truck with it if there were, and he was the captain, not Lance. Nor would David or I have gone along with it come to that.

He sent a further response, apologizing for 'taking the gilt off our gingerbread.' It would have been nicer if the apology had been public, but at least he did apologize, and I am grateful for that. 8-) I'll take what I can get. ;-)

And finally, the Trophy...

The Trophy

...and a sketch of the images:

The images on the Trophy

* It was Ken Brown - thanks, David! 8-)

If anyone is interested in more details about the show and results,
Sean Blanchflower has a pretty comprehensive site HERE

That's it. There is no more.

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