Meeting the Challenge of ‘Christmas University Challenge’

Over the Christmas period five York alum took part in the Christmas alumni special of University Challenge. Alumni Voices caught up with the York team to hear about their experiences taking part on the legendary television show. 

David Conn (1987)

Even the gruff master of broadcasting Jeremy Paxman describes the ageing participants on Christmas University Challenge as “distinguished alumni”, so I admit to feeling very honoured at being invited onto York’s team, so long a time since my student days faded away. It seems impossible for it to be approaching 40 years since my generation rolled up in the mid-1980s to York’s formidable grey breeze block colleges, murky campus lake, and mysterious rule against dancing at gigs in Central Hall.

None of us met before the day we filmed our first round match against Durham, and as we gathered at the BBC’s studios at Salford’s Media City, that aspect of the experience was rather like university itself – a crowd of different characters chucked in together, making friends and trying to support each other. It was all very civilised as we got coffee, introduced ourselves, then were gently talked through the rules and rituals of Britain’s famously most brain-teasing quiz institution.

When we were finally led into the studio, there it was: the classic set with the surreal sight of our own names on it, in inescapable black capital letters. It was very moving to see Paxman, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, being helped to his quizmaster’s chair, and we were told that the final of our series would be the great presenter’s last ever day of broadcasting. There was a still moment just before the classic theme tune played, when it felt like everybody was appreciating the privilege of taking part in such a time-honoured fixture of British culture.

Then we got going and it became apparent very quickly that I had landed on my feet with our team. We stormed into a lead, held it, and ended up with the most points of any team in the first round. We turned up again for the semi-final hoping it would go the same way, but while it started so well for us, Hull’s team were fighters, their captain, the actor Sian Reese-Williams, a gutsy interruptor, and they eventually overtook us to make the final.

When the time came round to the programmes being on TV I watched at home with my wife and daughters, and they were mercifully nice about it. Messages came in from friends and family, who were mostly also kind enough not to focus on the windswept spaces in my general knowledge. Realising how many people do watch University Challenge added another dimension to the privilege of being asked to be part of it, and how enjoyable the experience was. But it is surprising how hard you kick yourself, and for how long, over the questions that got away. 

Tom Scott (Team Captain)

The show was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t turn down, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intimidated — particularly about the responsibility of being captain. However, a lot of those worries went away on meeting the team: a friendly group with a wide range of knowledge, some pub quiz experience, and (as I was soon to discover) an incredibly competitive streak.

University Challenge isn’t just about knowledge and pure buzzer skills: there are tactics involved, and the captain’s job is partly to keep an eye on the scores and guide your teammates’ play. If your team is behind, you may want to take more risks and play fast in order to catch up; if you’re ahead, it’s important to deliberate, take your time, and make sure you don’t make mistakes. Hull played this perfectly in the Yorkshire derby semi-final, and the result was a back-and-forth match that was hopefully as exciting for the audience as it was for us in the studio. (Hull were also a delight to meet and play against!)

The thing I’ll remember the most isn’t being in the studio — that’s mostly a blur. Instead, I remember the team going out for lunch together after our final show, taking time to excitedly debrief and compare our notes, all of us making sure that we were happy. I know from experience that it’s always tempting to focus on the things you mess up on camera. (I’ll kick myself for dismissing “Gibraltar” for the rest of my life.) But between us, we were all able to focus on the moments when we’d shone, the answers we’d pulled from the depths of our brains, and the points we’d scored. 

All of us had things to be proud of, and those are the memories that I’ll carry with me.

Professor Sophie Woodward (2001)

I received an email asking me to be on the team at the start of the week before filming. I have never really wanted to do TV but I have always been a massive University Challenge fan, so after mulling on this for a day or so, I decided to ignore my fears and said yes.

I had never auditioned for it as an undergraduate but had always been curious what it would be like to be on it. I was very nervous and realised that it isn’t the sort of thing you can do any preparation for, other than watching old episodes of the programme. I felt slightly better then as I was able to get quite a few right sitting in the safety of my own home. However, the experience of being in the studio was very different! I have never been as nervous about anything in my life and I remember one moment when I tried to smile but I was shaking so much I wasn’t able to.

My York team-mates were lovely people and we did our best to put each other at ease. I didn’t realise that it would be Jeremy Paxman asking the questions until we were walking to the studio (which didn’t help with the nerves!).

Doing so well in our first match was definitely a boost and even though we didn’t have the outcome we would have hoped for with Hull, I still have no regrets. After recording, I focussed on the times I didn’t buzz in when I knew the answer as I wasn’t 100% sure, or when I said something wrong even though I knew the answer (Twelfth Night!).

By the time I came to watch it this Christmas, I realised that didn’t matter and actually what was really lovely to see is how well we worked as a team. I have never met the teammates before, but feel so privileged to have done this with them and also to be there on Jeremy Paxman’s last day of broadcasting.

Professor Vanessa Kind, DPhil (1995)

My many hours enjoying University Challenge include the spectacle of students scuppered by questions I can answer and their recall of obscure facts on topics about which I know nothing. I never thought of taking part, until in early October, an invitation arrived to play for the York University alumni team in the short Christmas 2022 series. 

Three days later, we met as a team at Salford’s Media City. We started to gel in the Green Room, observing our opposition, Durham University. With Tom Scott as captain, we agreed to work together to make quick decisions, including no recriminations on 50:50s, and, as far as possible, no passes. We were briefed on the quiz itself – each game is a series of mini-quizzes comprising a starter with three bonus questions, interspersed for variety with two ‘picture’ and one ‘music’ question sets. 

An assistant led us through labyrinthine corridors into make-up and wardrobe where our clothing was checked for conspicuous logos and patterns, and faces daubed expertly to handle studio lights. Eventually, the ’10 minutes’ call came. The studio felt welcoming: I was in an oddly familiar world behind my TV screen. We took our seats and ran through technical checks, which included meeting Roger Tilling, the programme’s ‘voice’, who calls players’ names live during recording from an eerie above the studio floor. We filmed our introductions, careful not to slip up, with Tony, our team’s cameraman. Finally, quizmaster Jeremy Paxman appeared, sadly physically diminished by Parkinson’s but still combative in voice and spirit.

The famous ‘College Boy’ theme tune started up, and within a few minutes, the match began. Spurred on by Tom’s media confidence, nerves vanished, and I found myself answering starter questions about the composer Harrison Birtwhistle, Daniel Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and a snow-scene by Munch. As a team, we solved bonuses about the Russian Revolution, geneticist Gregor Mendel and chemical indicators, among other topics. By the mid-point, when Tom won 10 points for the music starter question, we were 65 points ahead, with a good chance of winning. A hiatus occurred as we challenged two answers Jeremy claimed were incorrect, allowing time to reflect on progress. ‘We take no prisoners,’ I said. ‘We are going to finish this.’

We kept going as planned, and almost too soon, the gong sounded to mark the end of the game. We had scored a further 100 points, while Durham only managed 10 more.Our total of 200 earned a semi-final place as the highest scoring team of the first round matches. As I was not available on the next filming day, my contribution was over, but the sense of fun from playing with a great team, satisfaction in winning comprehensively and my pride in representing York remain.

Dr. James Mooney (2001)

Initially, when I was invited to participate in University Challenge, I was asked to be a ‘reserve’ member of the York team. This meant that I wouldn’t appear on the programme unless one of the main team members became unavailable—though I would need to attend the filming on a Saturday in October to be ‘on standby’ in case that happened, plus another filming session the following weekend if the team got through to the semi-final. 

I actually couldn’t attend the first day of filming due to prior commitments, but about a week later, Clare emailed me again: the York team had got through to the semi-final, and one of the team members was not available to compete. Was I still available, and would I be interested in participating as a team player in the semi-final? Well, I couldn’t really say no, could I!? So that’s how I came to replace Vanessa Kind in the semi-final.

I received the email on Wednesday and the filming was due to take place at 9am on Saturday morning, so I didn’t have a huge amount of time to ‘prepare’ as such—though I was able to exchange brief introductory emails with a couple of my teammates (whom I hadn’t met yet). The fact that it was so last-minute also meant that there wasn’t much time for me to get too nervous about it —though I did spend some time lying awake in bed on the Friday night wondering if I was about to make a total fool of myself!

On arrival, I met Tom, Sophie, and David for the first time, all of whom were lovely and made me feel welcome. They had (obviously) already had the experience of participating in the previous week’s contest, so they were able to tell me what to expect. We went through make-up, then we had a briefing from a member of the production team who explained the rules, then we were on set—it all happened very quickly and efficiently. We were able to chat a little bit about tactics while that was all happening—mainly stressing the basics like making sure you listen to the question and don’t zone out (which is harder than you might think). During our discussions I learned that Vanessa had made a strong contribution in the previous round, and I started to feel as though a high standard had been set that I needed to live up to. I’m not sure whether I did or not—but I was pleased to be able to correctly answer the very first starter question of the competition (about neural networks), plus one other starter question. 

We conferred well on bonus questions when we got them, I felt. We led for the first half of the game, but then Hull nudged ahead—so it was an exciting competition. We didn’t win in the end, but I think we all felt that we’d given it our best shot, put on a good show, and that Hull had beaten us fair and square, partly by being quicker and more confident on the buzzer—and by getting the answers right, of course! Tom was a great team captain and took us all out for lunch afterwards, where we were able to unwind a bit and chat about how things went. Although we perhaps kicked ourselves a bit that none of us buzzed in to answer “Serena Williams” when we were all thinking it, my abiding feeling is that we were all in it for the experience, which was fun and memorable.

It was an honour, and quite poignant, to be involved in what I later learned was Jeremy Paxman’s last day filming University Challenge. He’s presented that programme since 1994, and I feel privileged to have been present at the end of that long run. It was a unique “through the looking glass” moment and an experience that I will never forget!

You can watch the York UniversIty Challenge episode on BBC iplayer.

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