Tag Archives: University Challenge

Great British Crystal University’s Got Talent: An Examination Of Why Normal People Want To Compete On Television

Last week something rather exciting happened – I went to one of the regional Britain’s Got Talent auditions. I wasn’t auditioning, mainly because the Queen doesn’t want to see someone get up on stage and translate 19th-century French literature or embroider a bookmark (mind you, The Great Pottery Throwdown…). No, I was working, by which I mean hustling contestants back and forth down a corridor, asking them whether they’d come far, and trying to stop the amateur magicians from setting fire to the little dancing girls in their puffy and highly flammable tutus. I mention this not because I have an exclusive story to share about how Ant and Dec take their tea (I didn’t even get to meet them – stupid Australia and its stupid celebrity jungles), but because I watched all these people queuing up to be on TV and it made me think, “Why? Why would you do this?”

Now I’m no stranger to the ethereal pull of celebrity. One of the dearest possessions of my youth was my autograph book (contents: lots of Disneyland characters and Dave Benson Phillips); I own more wearable fan apparel than Hot Topic; and at the merest mention of Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, elves, round doors or breakfast, I’ll immediately whip out my story about the time Sean Astin offered to play thumb wars with me. But, good lord, actually being famous – even for five minutes – must be terrifying.

Take talent competitions, for example. I’m going to be optimistic (/wilfully naive) and say that by the time the live shows begin, most of the bad contestants have been quietly rejected, leaving only those who are pretty good at what they do, whether that’s singing or dancing or beatboxing or baking or hunting for bargains. And yet they still fluff it, all the time. Think of all the people on The X Factor who’ve failed to hit high notes, forgotten the words, done a ball change instead of a box step or burst into tears in the middle of a song; recall the nonsensical catchphrases, bizarre product names and God-awful poetry that have been churned out as ‘good’ business ideas on The Apprentice; and what about Great British Bake Off‘s Custardgate (the year before Bingate, in case anyone’s keeping track), in which Deborah made the fatal error of using Howard’s custard?! These people aren’t complete newcomers to their chosen talent, so why are they sometimes so crap? I can only assume that the pressure is simply too much to bear: you want so much to do well and impress people that you lose all perspective, and everything you thought you knew becomes a distant memory as you suddenly find yourself desperately warbling a song about a man who can’t put his pants on properly because he hasn’t eaten breakfast.

So why do it? Well, obviously for the fame. And not just the ‘Get your thighs circled in red by Heat magazine then sell your wedding to OK‘ kind of fame either – it seems like a few people do manage to use the whole talent show process to their advantage. The number of cookery books released by GBBO contestants after appearing on the show runs into the dozens (witty titles include Edd Kimber’s Say It With Cake, Miranda Gore Brown’s Bake Me a Cake as Fast as You Can, Joanne Wheatley’s Ready, Steady, Bake!, and John Whaite’s John Whaite Bakes); and there are several people who’ve come out of singing competitions and actually managed to make a living as musicians, including Girls Aloud, Liberty X, Gareth Gates, Leona Lewis and ubiquitous pop-merchants One Direction. It’s a tiny percentage of the people who compete, and an even tinier percentage of the people who rock up to the auditions and queue for hours in the rain to get the chance to sing the chorus of an Adele song to a TV producer.

And, to be fair, some competitive TV programmes do look quite fun. I’m not the most active of people, but even I think it would be awesome to have a go at the Total Wipeout giant red balls. A long string of other contestants would already have made a complete mess of it, so you’d be in good company, and if the challenge is basically impossible for any creature without wings or a built-in propeller then you wouldn’t feel too awful about unceremoniously tumbling into the water, legs flailing like a drunken daddy-long-legs. Or, another show that would be amazing to take part in – The Crystal Maze. Screw the fame and the fabulous prizes (abseiling in the East Midlands, anyone?) – all a Crystal Maze contestant wants from their time on TV is the chance to get their hands on one of those crystals. A whole generation of Brits has surely dreamt about trying to unlock a small piece of shiny-ish plastic from a tiny cage as the room fills with water and people they thought were their friends scream at them and Richard O’Brien prances about in a leopard-print zoot suit. Well, that or plunging into the world of wonder and enchantment that was Fun House (it’s a whole lot of fun, prizes to be won, real wacky place etc.).

For me, personally, it seems like being on a good old-fashioned quiz show would be good fun. I love ’em, and they seem like the kind of thing I’d be quite good at… until the cameras turned towards me, at which point I’m 97% sure I’d throw up and run away (AKA ‘do a Mia Thermopolis’). Because, I mean, imagine being on University Challenge. Imagine actually sitting opposite Paxo (as well as some three million viewers) and having to do maths in binary and remember the reigns of all of Britain’s monarchs and recognise Così Fan Tutte from the first three notes played by the bassoon. No wonder the contestants often look absolutely petrified, and no wonder they sometimes mess up a bit, like the poor girl from Glasgow University last week who knew the right answer to a question but for some reason, unbeknownst even to herself, heard her name announced and immediately said something completely different. Massive kudos to her, though, for putting it behind her and carrying on with it. Equally massive kudos to her team-mate Brejevs (my personal favourite for this series, now sadly departed) for playing in his second language, and especially for staring Paxo down when his answer to the question about Chinese lunar modules was technically right, but not what Paxo had on the card. (“I asked for a translation” – you got one, mate, just not the one you expected. Synonyms, bitches!)

That said, some other quiz shows do seem as if they’d be a bit less scary to play. Not Mastermind, obviously, since the whole black chair / spotlight combo was clearly dreamed up by secret government ‘enhanced interrogators’. But something like Eggheads or The Chase – I think I’d be too busy wanting to wipe the smug pudgy smiles off the Eggheads’/Chasers’ smug pudgy faces that I’d forget how afraid I was. Or, of course, Only Connect, the other show that makes up Quizzy Mondays (I didn’t come up with that name – it was the BBC continuity announcer – but I wish I had because it’s so fantastically lame). Contestants on Only Connect always seem like they’re having a lovely time, perhaps because Victoria Coren Mitchell is (a) very sweet about saying how hard all the questions are and (b) so bonkers that viewers will be focussed on her anyway, regardless of how badly the players do. I mean, they don’t tend to smile much during their introductions, but that’s because the introductions are filled with the most banal facts known to man. I originally assumed that these just happened to be the most diverting stories that contestants had to offer, but the more I watch, the more I think they’re doing it on purpose – the fact that a person has watched Flash Gordon over a hundred times simply cannot be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to them. (Interestingly, I recently saw a very early episode on Dave, and even during the intros the contestants were laughing uproariously. Then again, much was different back in the heady days of 2008. For one thing, the beloved lion, horned viper, two reeds, water, twisted flax and Eye of Horus had yet to appear, with the clue icons being the – quite frankly run-of-the-mill – first six Greek letters.)

You know what? Maybe I could do it. Maybe we all could. I mean, I’ve been on the radio and it really wasn’t that hard. (I had to read out the names of some sharks on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House – that’s what you get for going to a live recording of a programme and apparently looking like someone who might be able to read stuff into a microphone.) Maybe if you ignore the cameras and pick something you’re quite good at, competing on TV would be a nice day out and something pleasant for you to remember upon Christmas Day. Crawling round a maze carrying bits of rope? Doable. Mixing a bit of flour and sugar together? Easy as pie. Sitting in a chair and answering questions about stuff you really like? No probs.

One day, my friends. One day. And on that day, I will sit behind a shiny blue desk, keeping a perfectly straight face, as Victoria Coren Mitchell turns to me and says, “And to my right we have Screen-Eyed Monster, a television runner, who once nearly played thumb wars with Sean Astin.”

And I bet I would’ve won that too.

No, And You Lose Five Points

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.

What's fourth in the sequence?

What’s fourth in the sequence?

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.