University Challenge is back this week, and quiz-heads across the land rejoice! For the next thirty-seven weeks (yes, it really is that long), we can spend our Monday nights wracking our brains for every scrap of knowledge we’ve ever had, searching for the next Gail Trimble or Alex Guttenplan, marvelling at universities that didn’t exist this time last year, jumping out of our chairs in celebration when we get an answer right and gaping vacantly at the screen when we don’t even understand the question. More importantly, we can once again balance precariously on that wafer-thin tightrope between harmless nerdy fun and intellectual snobbery.
University Challenge is a quiz show that steadfastly refuses to dumb down. There’s no chitchat about what contestants do for a living (since they’re all, by definition, students, this would get pretty repetitive) and no attempts to dress it up with technology and flashing lights. Instead, pretty much every episode will be full to the brim of questions about Shakespeare, British history, quantum physics, medicine and of course classical music, except of course on those rare occasions when Jeremy Paxman puts us and the contestants off our strides by announcing, “You’re going to hear a piece of popular music…” And it’s Paxman who can barely disguise his withering scorn when a contestant fails to know all the words to every poem in Keats’ oeuvre or the correct formula for turning lead into gold – or indeed when they get their King Williams mixed up.
Contrast Victoria Coren Mitchell on Only Connect (which rather pleasingly shows on BBC4 just after University Challenge on BBC2). When a contestant makes a booboo on Only Connect, they’re assuaged by Victoria’s winning smile and the refrain “Now this is a nasty little question…” – any mockery is directed at the show itself, the audience, or Victoria’s drinking problem*. Also, the contestants have amusing (and/or vomit-inducing) team names: the Wordsmiths, the Gourmands, the Corpuscles (who all went to Corpus Christi College, Oxford – you see what they did there), the Brit Poppers, the Francophiles (who didn’t speak French), the Pool Sharks, and of course the Cat Lovers (see ‘vomit-inducing’). Mind you, that’s not to say that Only Connect is an easy ride: most of the questions are mind-bendingly difficult, and, in perhaps the most deliberately obtuse move by any quiz show ever, contestants choose which question to answer from a series of Egyptian hieroglyphs.
There’s none of that sort of nonsense in Pointless, the third in the King of Quiz Shows trifecta. Here, contestants are given a topic and simply have to think of as many answers as possible that fit – the twist being that if no one else has thought of it, you get more (or rather, fewer) points. Unlike University Challenge and Only Connect, Pointless does spend a bit of time talking to the contestants, but this is forgivable because it often turns into an excuse for the two hosts, Alexander Armstrong and Richard Osman, to talk to each other – and that’s something I would watch an entire hour of on its own. Plus, Pointless is the only one of the three where you can actually win money (as opposed to self-esteem, glory, bragging rights for the next three hundred years and so on), which means that the final round is usually edge-of-seat stuff.
So University Challenge, Only Connect and Pointless are in some ways very different shows, but they do share some traits that set them above The Weakest Link, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and all the others.
First, they have a lot of questions. (Hold on, this is less idiotic than it sounds.) University Challenge is question after question for half an hour; Only Connect has slightly more jokes but each round is basically one elongated brain workout; and Pointless, although it has small talk, does some of that during the rounds so you can be thinking about the questions in the meantime – also, it’s 45 minutes long so you get extra question time for your money. This is a distinct improvement over Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, where most of the time elapses in Chris Tarrant asking contestants whether they’re sure about their answer, Mastermind, where half the programme is used up on specialist subjects that no one apart from the contestant knows anything about, or Eggheads, which is substantially more about tactics than it is about actually knowing anything. I watch quiz shows to practise being clever, not to watch other people trying to size each other up. Stop it.
Also, the best quiz shows have a range of questions. It’s true that University Challenge is mostly pretty highbrow (see Shakespeare / British history / classical music above), but it does sometimes throw in a pop culture reference when you’re not expecting it: this week, for example, one of the picture rounds consisted of naming the cocktails drunk by the characters in Mad Men. Pointless, too, is very good about mixing it up – sometimes you’ll get a question about past winners of Britain’s Got Talent, sometimes you’ll have to translate from Latin. (Should I be concerned that I did miserably of the former and aced the latter?) And Only Connect is the absolute best at this. Yes, you have to know about computer programming and DNA sequencing and mathematical functions, but you also have to know about Mario Kart and… well, I won’t tell you – you can work it out for yourself.
Perhaps as a result of the eclecticism of the subjects, all three programmes also get a lot of mileage out of wild stabs in the dark. The connections between the clues on Only Connect are consistently baffling, which leads to regular refrains of “Um, they’re all books written by a man?” and “Are they all words in English?” In University Challenge, a safe bet with any question involving the words ‘x’, ‘y’, ‘equals’, ‘function’ and ‘to power of’ is usually 0 or 1, but there are other times when you just have to come up with something; for example, when asked, “The names Cheesemongers, Cherry-pickers, Bob’s Own, the Emperor’s Chambermaids and the Immortals have been used for which groups of men?”, a student from UMIST went with… yep. But the best answers by far are given on Pointless. Ignoring for a moment the episode where at least three of the contestants didn’t know that a mallard was a duck or the one where no one guessed that ‘estómago’ was the Spanish word for ‘stomach’ – on one occasion, the question ‘Who was Anne Hathaway’s famous husband?’ was answered with the impressively literal ‘Man Hathaway’. (The actual answer is William Shakespeare, in case you were wondering.)
Of course, on Pointless Alexander Armstrong will also have a go at the questions; usually this shows off his impressive knowledge of more or less everything, but once or twice it’s led to a teensy weensy mistake – such as the spelling round in which his ‘Word that ends in –ind’ was ‘Penfriend’. Awkward.
But actually, that answer (and Richard Osman’s subsequent reference to the incident as ‘Friendgate’) is exactly the kind of reason I like Pointless, Only Connect and University Challenge: they’re friendly shows. Xander and Richard make jokes, take the piss out of each other, and are genuinely pleased when contestants win the money; Victoria Coren Mitchell is chirpy and enthusiastic and always looks impressed when the teams unravel a particularly tough clue. Even Jeremy Paxman is grudgingly respectful of contestants who know their stuff, and it’s not uncommon to see him smile along with laughter from the teams. All of them are a world away from The Weakest Link, where contestants are actively encouraged to gang up on each other, or Eggheads, where the eponymous Eggheads seem out to prevent anyone else from getting the slightest shred of glory. I don’t want to see that – I want to see normal people getting to be on TV for a day and having a jolly nice time.
Oh, and I also enjoy feeling like a smart-arse. Eye of Horus for me, please, Victoria.
*I’m pretty sure she doesn’t actually have a drinking problem. Wouldn’t want to start a rumour.