In case you can’t hear the fireworks (or possibly gunshots) in Beeston and the dancing in the fountains (or possibly a burst water main) in Headingley, the Leeds team just won the Christmas University Challenge final tonight, the first non-Oxbridge team to do so.
The people at ITV Studios (which as the former Granada, still packages University Challenge for the BBC) were incredibly grateful and solicitous for our participation, and kept restating that we “didn’t have to do this” and “were good sports.” I didn’t really understand such feather-stroking until I saw the opprobrium heaped upon our opponents in the first round. I don’t really have a reputation to lose, but some others risked ridicule if they weren’t on top academic form in what was only supposed to be a bit of seasonal fun.
I’ve heard some comments out there in the twittersphere both kvetching about certain gaps in knowledge, but also moaning that so many contestants were media types. But keeping your cool with six cameras and Jeremy Paxman in your face, in front of a live studio audience and remembering the nationality of a famous serial killer is no mean feat, and I suspect several of the contest’s less media-savvy contestants might have been too over-awed to press their buzzers. It takes a ridiculous degree of concentration to focus on an intricate question, and to weigh up the risk factors of buzzing too soon and getting it wrong, or waiting a fateful extra second in the hope that an opponent won’t jump in. You take to keeping one eye on Paxman and another on the rival team, so see if anyone’s shoulder looks about to twitch.
To be honest, Leeds were too dim to realise what was at stake. We only met each other on the day of recording, and unlike one rival team (who shall remain nameless), we had neither spent four weeks practising, nor presumptively bought a bottle of celebratory champagne on the way to the studio. It was only after winning the first round that we made any effort at planning, and even then that amounted to Tim Allen lying in the bath for an hour, listening to YouTube celebrity obits, just in case Andre Previn came up.
One lady, who shall also remain nameless, was so traumatised by her team’s defeat by Wadham College, Oxford, that she marched into the green room proclaiming: “Whoever wins the next round, I WANT YOU TO DESTROY THEM!” But Wadham turned out to be the friendliest of all the teams we went up against, particularly the affable Roger Mosey, who shook my hand and announced that the “best team had won”, and Tom Solomon, who even came along to our victory knees-up (and, I believe, took the photo at the top of this page).
And what do we get for our achievement…? Well, the eternal love and gratitude of the University of Leeds, I would hope. If 2% of the people who watch University Challenge bought just one of my books, I could pay off my mortgage, but looking at the sales figures this week, it looks like that only person who has been inspired to do so is TV’s Henry Gee, who is off to Japan this week with a copy of my Brief History under his arm. I guess that’s why they don’t bother to advertise books on the telly.
I’m sure I speak, too, for both Henry and Tim when I say that our thoughts tonight are with our captain Richard Coles, the night of whose triumph cruelly coincides with the funeral of his husband David, who died a few days after the final was recorded. Richard brought great joy to the studio, particularly when his frustrated “BOLLOCKS!” had to be redacted to avoid offending middle England, but also when he suggested that Vita Sackville-West should be played by Janette Krankie. I hope he finds the time to enjoy his victory, even as he mourns his loss.
Jeremy “Widow Twankie” Paxman didn’t like my Uranus joke.
“Isn’t ‘Uranus’ a little tired?” he grumbled.