Scumbag FTW

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.

The Mighty Leeds

The friendly waitresses at the Manchester Media City Holiday Inn all have tattoos peeking out of their clothes, like they are an undercover roller-derby team. This is strangely comforting to me at breakfast, as I round up two of my team-mates, the third still being en route on a train.

Sun Tzu says that the best battles are won without fighting, I say, so this is how we prepare. The questions in Christmas University Challenge are often seasonal or commemorative. So if Jeremy Paxman shows you a map of Israel and wants you to identify a town on it, it’s probably going to be Bethlehem. If he wants to know something about an odd bird, it’s probably going to be a turkey. Not all the time, but just enough to make a difference if you’re stumped.

As for commemoration, more often than not there are going to be questions about someone who has died this year. We’ve already made tits of ourselves by not knowing anything about Toni Morrison (doubly embarrassing to the vicar, who not only owns her books, but owns copies personally signed to him); let’s not get caught out on Ginger Baker or Chewbacca the Wookiee.

As for our specialties, Henry Gee will handle dinosaurs, sciency things and old people’s music, the Reverend Richard Coles will handle the Bible (we hope) and the Ibiza rave scene (for some reason), and Timothy Allen will handle photography in a cold climate and things to do with a dead yak. And I will absolutely be your go-to guy on Japanese cartoons, which come to think of it, are really unlikely to show up. In fact, if they arise at all, it will be in the form of: “Numerically the worst mass-murder in post-war Japanese history, an arson attack killed 36 workers at which studio this year?”

In commemoration terms, there was an outside chance that Paxman might offer a bonus round on adaptations of works by Kazuo Koike, or possibly: “With a pseudonym combining a common type of simian with a common boxing move, which Japanese comics artist created Lupin III?” But those have to be the only occasions this year when anime and manga news has stood a chance of being an identifiable part of the mainstream. Unless, of course, you count your own correspondent showing up on Christmas University Challenge, representing Leeds, where as an undergraduate he was infamously late for his Japanese language finals because he’d been in a studio playing V-Daan, the most powerful sorcerer on the battleship Uranus.

Leeds has never won University Challenge in any form, so making it through to the final is our chance to redress fifty-six years of hurt. Although we had watched the other semi-final from the green room, and so got to see Wadham College, Oxford, completely demolish Trinity Hall, Cambridge. So it’s us versus Wadham in the Christmas University Challenge final, a final which has never been won by a non-Oxbridge institution. So wish us luck.

Get Your Fight On

Daredevil photographer Timothy Allen snapped this candid picture of the chaotic, cramped elevator down to the studio in Manchester for the semi-final of Christmas University Challenge, containing the Leeds team (Tim, TV’s Henry Gee, who has decided to tell a joke in binary during his introduction, the Reverend Richard Coles, and Art of War translator Jonathan Clements), anointed by Twitter as “the Forces of Good”, as well as three visible members of the team from University College London (Arctic explorer Pen Hadow, former China correspondent Poppy Sebag-Montefiore, and BBC news reporter Maryam Moshiri).

And below is a Tim’s-eye view of our panel at the semi-final, which goes out on BBC2 on 2nd January. We’ve been swotting up on who died this year in the hope of getting some of the usual commemorative questions. As an Essex boy, I am hoping for a music round on the tunes of the Prodigy, in memory of Keith Flint. [Time Travel Footnote: I don’t get one.] #leedsleedsleeds

Your Starter for Ten

Your starter for ten: where are you likely to find the biographer of Confucius, the senior editor of Nature magazine, the vicar of Finedon, and an award-winning photographer?

Yes, that’s me on the Leeds team in this year’s Christmas University Challenge, alongside TV’s Henry Gee, former Communard Richard Coles, and Mongol-herding filmmaker Timothy Allen. I just hope there’s a question about Eurovision, or I’m in trouble. [Time Travel Footnote: There wasn’t]. 23rd December, 19:30, BBC2.

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