Jeremy Paxman hosts University Challenge

    The Ten Commandments of University Challenge

    20 April 2020

    Tonight the two big beasts of student quizzing appear before us one last time. We’ve been with them all the way, smashing screens, throwing tablets and spluttering our drinks in excitement and fury. If you doubt that watching eight people conjure up arcane trivia can get lively, try following #universitychallenge to see Twitter at its tartest.

    Uni. Chall. contestants are bright as buttons: whether their expertise lies in Ancient Greek crowd psychology, converting birds of prey into attack drones, or the ins-and-outs of sphincter preservation, their general knowledge is truly gargantuan. But, with the stakes so high among the competitors, and with patience so low among the viewers, we’d do well to remind the contestants of the ten essential rules to make University Challenge a sufferable spectacle of genius.

    1. Don’t drop your surname

    Recent years have seen the fashion spread for first-name-only intros: a Henry here, a Josey there. Don’t be tempted: you are strangers who for the rest of the contest will be called on by surname alone. So a five-point penalty, please Jeremy, for every name suggestively dropped. After all, if you’re really serious about the quiz, you’ll have turned up with your surname as a secret weapon: the longer the name, the longer the thinking time:

    2. Don’t invent a mascot for the sake of it

    Spot the brick – Keble College Oxford’s unusual mascot

    OK, maybe we do want to see Isambard Kingdom Brunel as a duck, or a jaunty fish-cum-photograph combo. But it comes to something when you’re wheeling out a crudely crocheted phallus, or dragging in a bear so big it lurks in the shadows as a fifth player. If you’re stuck, and you can’t dig out a scarf, settle for a self-deprecatory brick.

    3. Dress as you would to the pub.

    Perhaps you do indeed wear leather vests, dungarees, York City’s 1975-6 home kit, or a beret in your own social circle. But whatever you do, leave the gowns at home.

    4. Don’t play it too cool

    This is a show that celebrates unhinged geekery and nothing else. Just think of the popular excitement caused by quickfire answers from a Morley, or Binnie, or Guttenplan. The genuine good cheer of Loveday, Trimble, Woods and Monkman will rub off on everyone. But delivering your correct answer is not an easy business: the audience hopes for the impossible triple combo of smiling (it’s a fun game), not smirking (no-one likes a show-off), and engaged insouciance (caring but not obviously so). Whatever you do don’t treat yourself to a sip of water.

    5. Don’t play up to the camera.

    Rule number 5 – never fist bump

    Remarkable facial contortion and rollercoaster emotions are all par for the course. But too much becomes incredible. Be sure to ignore any attempts at hi-fives and never fist-pump. Although The Young Ones could have their fun, nobody wants to see you do an Aaranovitch.

    6. Don’t buzzer-bluff

    While it may look credible for you to flourish in frustration when you’re beaten by oh-so-few-microseconds on the buzzer, if the opposition get it wrong and it comes back your way, your bluff will inevitably be called. We’ll be watching.

    7. Don’t hedge-whisper

    Bonus questions are not conference calls to put on public record all the tangential facts you know, or to give a running commentary on what the answer is not. Confer in a conspiratorial whisper, or shrug with conviction. (Captains: if completely stumped, panic-nominate the player farthest from you.)

    8. Never pass: always guess.

    Remember your training: if it’s a Maths question, the answer is very probably 1; if that’s already been guessed, it’s most certainly zero. For any other topic, guess either your favourite element or American President. If you only know one answer in the bonuses, keep pinging it out, as third time’s a charm. One other tip: the answer probably won’t be ‘homosexuals’.

    9. Don’t be afraid of the buzzer

    I don’t mean pressing it, as that will be crucial. But the sound of it. Yes, it’s loud(Pasternack) and it’s shocking (Tsang). But it’s a friend, not a foe (Clegg).

    10. Say goodbye with good grace

    When it’s all over wave cheerily, whatever your woes. Raise a fist if you must, but – come on – don’t sulk.

    All of these must be remembered without abusing the Paxman Paradox. By the end of the season’s filming, the man should be at his most irritable and impatient; instead, his soaring admiration for the teams still standing renders him all the more forgiving of their foibles. Enjoy that – but don’t filibuster by conferring as slowly and as aimlessly as possible. In days gone by it took the charm of Stephen Fry to make Bamber Gascoigne, Paxo’s predecessor, pardon a long delay.

    So, good luck one and all. May the better team win.