Quizzing: University Challenge

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Beginnings

Monday, May 3rd 2004

November 2001. I enter UCL's selection process to pick the team for legendary quiz show University Challenge. Despite having been at the university for 5 years and always having been excessively sure of my phenomenal recall of pointless trivia, this is the first time I've got around to entering. I get through the first selection round, but then they tell me that the second round will take place while I'll be on holiday in Australia. Given the choice between a shot at TV fame and three weeks in the Australian summer, I head south. While in Australia, I spend an fun four days travelling along the Great Ocean Road. This will be crucial three years later.

November 2002. Let's have another go at this. This year, I manage to stay in the country through all the university selection rounds, and by the time the prospective contestants are whittled down to four, I am among them. Now to take on Granada, who give every aspiring team a quiz and an interview to see if they are a) clever enough and b) charismatic enough to look good on the show. Who knows whether we failed on a) or b), but either way, all UCL has to show for its efforts this year is a big fat rejection letter from Granada.

November 2003. The old 'third time lucky' trick. Once more into the breach, for three rounds of 100 questions, competing against UCL's finest trivia bores. A useless-information-sponge for a brain and a sense of television destiny carry me through to the final four for a second time. So who were the fine brains who also made the cut?

Meet the teammates

Thursday, May 20th 2004

UCL Usher

Oli does Science and Technology Studies, and is active in union politics, about which he is frequently observed to be angry. Specialist subjects: politics and really obscure science.

UCL Wesson

Doing a PhD in astronomy. Specialist subjects - science and geography. Excessively fond of stripy jumpers. Major weakness - chronic dependence on caffeine.

And their captain:

UCL Hinstridge

Medic. Turned up to the selection rounds wearing a suit, leading me to believe he was some kind of quizzing ponce, but apparently medical students actually have to look professional. Specialist subjects - medicine, Scotland.

UCL Polancec

Ivan was a fellow reject from the abortive 2002 effort. Nicknamed Plank by an errant spell checker. Historian. Specialist subjects - cricket and popes. Major weakness - chronic dependence on nicotine.

And in reserve:

UCL Cullen

Stu played a vital role as substitute, coming up to Manchester each time to psych us up and ensure that we reached our full mental potential, and also drinking more Granada cheap hospitality wine than the rest of us put together. Student of law. Specialist subjects - law, rugby.

So one beautiful May day, we all trooped off to see Granada on the South Bank, to see if we were good-looking and intelligent enough to get on TV. 40 questions and a bit of banter later, we trooped out of the building feeling confident, and about a week after that, we got a call saying yes, we were clever and beautiful and were going to be on television. Excellent!

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Round One

Wednesday, June 16th 2004

Preparations

We did not take our responsibility as representatives of our university lightly. Training, discipline, dedication, and total mental focus would be required. With that in mind, we bought a copy of 'Time Out' and looked up pub quizzes, and on finding that the Prince of Wales in Highgate was reckoned to host the hardest quiz in London, we headed up there for the evening. We finished second on our first outing - not bad, we thought - but successive weeks saw us humbled by people who were either phenomenally knowledgeable about absurdly arcane trivia, or cheats. We were sure it was the latter, and so come Friday 16th June, we headed up to Manchester, confidence un-dimmed, for our first round of filming.

In typical fashion, I was half an hour late for meeting everyone at Euston station for the train to Manchester, but luckily our train was 45 minutes late so all was well. On arrival we headed straight for the studios, where we found out our opposition for the first round was Warwick. But before we could get down to business and play the game, we had to go through make-up to make sure we looked good for the cameras, and wardrobe, to approve of our chosen clothes. Despite clear instructions that stripes were not good, my multi-coloured stripy jumper was grudgingly permitted to grace the nation's TV screens.

Game on

And so we approached the set. Warwick had brought about 100 supporters - we had managed two. So we walked on to polite applause, while Warwick brought the house down. Then came the warm-up, with voice-over man Roger Tilling getting to play Paxman to ask us a few questions. We didn't score a single point. Worried? Terrified, really, but the received wisdom was that whoever won the warm-up would lose the real thing.

So on to the game proper. A strange experience, to be on the set, listening to the theme music, wondering if I'd be crippled by the pressure of the situation. And we started disastrously, with an incorrect buzz-in on the very first question putting us on -5 points. Luckily, despite this we soon got going, and we were running neck and neck with Warwick until about half way. Then we hit our stride, with Plank quickest on the buzzer to identify Michael Jackson's Billy Jean, Pete knowing the technical term for nosebleeds and Oli knowing who founded Pennsylvania.

It took me until three quarters of the way through the game to give a correct answer, but when it came I thought it was easily the finest moment of the show by far. The second picture round involved naming a famous Australian landmark and the state it was in. On hearing the word Australia, I was ready for action, knowing my team mates would expect me to get it. The picture appeared, and where should it be but one of my favourite places, the Great Ocean Road. No sooner had the picture appeared than I buzzed with the correct answer. 'Wow!' said Paxman. UCL Wesson was pretty happy with that.

We correctly identified three more Australian landmarks for the bonuses, and then it was plain sailing to the end. We had found our confidence, and our rapid buzzing broke Warwick. I got three more answers right in the last few minutes, and the gong went just after I'd buzzed in on a question about metalwork with the right answer of 'filigree'. It was 265-100 to us, a performance Paxman described as 'magnificent'.

Reaction

I was very surprised that we won, especially by the margin we managed. I really had no idea what to expect, so a win was as much of a shock as losing would have been. Warwick were not a bad team at all, but we had the inspired buzzing of Ivan, who was responsible for eight of our sixteen correct starter questions. Ivan and I had taken part in a University Challenge-style buzzer quiz a year previously, in which he'd been awarded a special prize for the most incorrect buzz-ins, so it was good to see that that form had clearly been a one-off.

With this victory under our belt, I decided that the extra confidence of a good win would be enough to get us through the next round, and that if we made it to the quarters we could probably win that as well. And if we found ourselves in the semis, well, surely we wouldn't slip up just one step from the final. We only had three weeks to wait before we'd find out if this wild optimism was in any way justified.

Somehow after the first round was broadcast we chanced across a column called Weaver's Week, in which someone who likes quiz shows - really likes quiz shows - all quiz shows - is truly let off the leash. If there's something even better than seeing yourself on television, it's finding out that someone you don't know cared enough to watch. We all became devoted readers of Weaver's columns.

Weaver's Week review

Round Two

Sunday, July 4th 2004

To Manchester again

Before Round Two, we carried on with our pub-based training routine, losing heavily in each of the three weeks we went. Losing at the Prince of Wales had worked very well before the Warwick game, and was fast becoming an important part of our preparations. Feeling confident, we headed up to Manchester for a second time. Journeys on non-smoking trains were always an ordeal for UCL Polancec, but this time I shared that ordeal when the terrifying announcement was made that no hot drinks were available. I got steadily more anxious as we headed north, and by the time we reached Manchester, my caffeine levels were dangerously low. Luckily we were not playing until the following morning.

We stocked up excessively on carbohydrates with the complementary Travel Inn breakfast, and for a while I was worried I'd fall asleep during the game. Luckily, adrenaline picked me up a bit, and after the usual poncing about in make-up and getting our clothes approved, we headed in to the studio. To our slight consternation we were on the other side to where we had been in our previous game, giving us a whole different view of the studio, and a bell sound instead of a honk when we buzzed. Fortunately, we were not badly affected by this, and settled down to face our second-round opponents, the University of East Anglia. They'd been disarmingly friendly in the green room beforehand, but we all knew that once we were on set, we'd no longer see human beings across the studio floor - just enemies.

Frantic buzzing

Once again we lost the little warm-up pre-match, but this didn't worry us. The quiz started off noticeably more cerebrally than the previous round, with a question about Wittgenstein. Ivan got us going with that one. UEA then psyched me out a bit when they buzzed in ridiculously early on a question about actresses who had played Miss Marple, and we were taking nothing for granted. We traded answers fairly evenly, and by the first picture round the scores were close.

Luckily the picture round was geography again, as we were required to identify an island from a picture of the southern half of it. It was Manhattan, and I buzzed in for it before anyone else. We then had to identify three districts of Manhattan which were highlighted. For the first one, Pete listened to all our suggestions before ignoring them and saying Soho, which was the right answer.

The first round had seemed to be over in about 45 seconds, but this one, to me at least, seemed like it lasted for hours and hours. I never felt like we were pulling away very much, but after about a day and half filming was interrupted for technical reasons. We were leading 175-75, and I allowed myself to feel a little bit confident. Once filming resumed, we were on to the second picture round, for which we had to name pasta shapes. Ivan buzzed in to identify farfalle. During the bonuses, Oli knew one of the answers but Pete didn't entirely believe him. On the broadcast Oli could clearly be heard angrily whispering "It's radiatori. It's radiatori - I'm not joking, it's radiatori". Luckily Pete finally accepted this, and it was the right answer.

Win number two

By now we had passed 200 points, but I was still hugely relieved when the gong went. Up until pretty near the end I'd though UEA could come back at us but we'd managed another convincing win. I'd had a very good round, getting seven starter questions right and equalling Polancec for buzzing speed this time. Our final question before the gong asked for the least-dense planet in the solar system - everyone knew it was Saturn but I got on the buzzer first, and we had 245 points to UEA's 105. Paxman told UEA that they had never really got going, to which the team of mature students pleaded slower reflexes on the buzzer - shouldn't enter a buzzer-based quiz then, should they?

We hit the town to celebrate reaching the quarter-finals. UCL had achieved that feat several times before, but had never got any further. Could we break the jinx?

Weaver's Week review

Quarter finals

Saturday, October 16th 2004

Back to the Travel Inn

There was an inordinately long three month break before the final weekend of filming, and autumn was becoming winter when we headed up to Manchester for our third and final visit to Granada studios. And this would be our last trip - the quarter-finals, semi-finals and final would all be filmed this weekend. The quarter-finals were filmed on the Friday evening, and if we lost we'd be on the train home in the morning. None of us wanted that.

Our quarter-final was to be against Jesus College Cambridge, and history weighed heavily on our shoulders as we took to the stage. Of the four UCL teams that had previously been on University Challenge, two had made it to the second round and two to the quarter finals. Could we become the first UCL team to make it to the semi-finals? We could take some hope from the disturbingly detailed statistical analysis of Iain Weaver, which showed that over the first two rounds, only one team had answered more of their questions correctly than we had, and Ivan was the second-best contestant overall.

Slipping up

In contrast to our apparently serene progress through the first two rounds, we were a little bit shaky for this one, and buzzed incorrectly many times. I think I lost us at least 20 points, including two successive incorrect buzz-ins very early in the game. One of them was about the documentary which most recently won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. I buzzed too quickly, said Bowling for Columbine and lost us five points. Paxman offered it to Jesus, who said "Michael Moore". Paxman gave them another chance, which I though was a bit generous, and they got the right answer, Fahrenheit 9/11.

But we slowly inched ahead. The music round helped us - from the music we had to name the composer and the year (to within five) of the classical piece. I don't know anything about classical music at all so I just sat back and listened. Jesus buzzed in, offering Elgar and 1910, but they were wrong. The question was all ours now, but I gazed blankly into the middle distance, surplus to requirements for the moment. Oli buzzed in, offering Elgar and 1916, which was good enough for Paxman (the actual year was 1919).

We gave away more points with over-hasty buzzing, but so did our opponents. Following a long and complicated question which boiled down to "which element has the symbol Ru?", Jesus buzzed in with rubidium. I knew it wasn't that, and given the couple of extra seconds while Paxman gleefully said "No!", I realised it was ruthenium. The gong went soon afterwards, and we found ourselves the winners by 175-110. We were officially the best UCL team in the history of the programme.

Onward

After our previous two rounds we'd gone out clubbing in Manchester to celebrate. This time we couldn't, as we'd be filming the semi-final early the next morning. We had to limit ourselves to a quiet-ish night and we were in bed by 4am. The following morning saw some major carbohydrate loading at breakfast, the consumption of a huge quantity of violently strong coffees, and a slightly wired UCL team in the studio to face home team Manchester in the semi-final.

Weaver's Week review

Semi finals

Sunday, October 17th 2004

Under pressure

We stared disaster in the face in this round. Manchester had done very well in previous rounds - in both the first and second rounds they were the only team to score more than us. But their performances were largely a one man effort, whereas ours had come as a result of team-wide ability. At this stage of the series, we expected a challenge, and we certainly got it.

Manchester started strongly, reaching 50 points before we'd got off zero. But then Oli got us off the mark, giving the Stanford Prison Experiment as the inspiration for the 2002 German film, Das Experiment. We pulled back to within five points, before Manchester had another good run and led us by 110 points to 60 at the half way stage. Again the advantage shifted our way, and I brought us level by being the first person to work out that 'grub' was the word implied by the series of definitions Paxman was reading out. It was 115 points each.

A close shave

Manchester then got the next two starters right, we were losing by 170-125 and things looked bleak. "Four minutes to go", said Paxman. Surely UCL couldn't let down their faithful supporters? Not at this stage of the game? We rallied, and after pulling back a starter and getting some bonuses right we were back within touching distance. A couple of minutes to go, and we were just 5 points behind. With the word 'Caret', Ivan took us into the lead by five, and then we heard the words no team wants to hear at this stage, "Your bonuses are on English translations of German novel titles". We were required to give both the English title and the author, from a German novel title. First up was a Kafka, not too hard. Next was one that Oli knew, and as the pressure got to us, Pete eschewed the usual "Nominate Usher", preferring instead to shout "Oli! Oli can say it!". And then Ivan knew the last one, and didn't even wait to be nominated. We'd got three out of three, and we were 20 points ahead.

With just seconds to go, the score was 190-170, but disaster struck again as I buzzed in incorrectly, offering 'TNT' where I should have said 'Cordite'. Manchester got it, shouting the answer over the voiceover in their haste, and the gap was down to ten points. If they got their bonuses right it was all over. They didn't get the first one, but got the second to close to within five points. As they thought about the third one the gong went. We'd done it - we were in the final.

Wreckage

The match had taken its toll. I was on an adrenaline high and ran around talking nonsense. Oli looked as if he'd run a marathon, Pete could hardly talk coherently, and Ivan was on the point of collapsing to the floor in some kind of trembling fit. Would we recover in time for the final, just a couple of hours later?

Weaver's Week review

The final

Sunday, October 17th 2004

End of the road

The long story which began more than three years ago was finally coming to an end, and we'd made it right to the final hurdle. Would we trip, or was national glory really in our grasp? I could hardly believe we'd made it as far as we had and spent most of the few short hours after the semi-final just saying "Guys, we're in the final! We're in the bloody final!" to my team mates. They probably already knew this.

For the final time we psyched ourselves up in our dressing room, got our faces powdered, and headed for the studio. We waited in the wings until we were announced, and then walked out to take up our positions. Out of all the people who had applied, and the 28 teams who had taken part in the televised stages, we were down to the best two. Our opponents in the final were Corpus Christi, Oxford.

Bad start

The first few questions went Corpus' way, and they quickly pulled out a lead. We didn't buzz in until after the first picture round, and when we did disaster struck. Asked when various events including Princess Diana's Panorama interview happened, Oli said 1994 instead of 1995, and we were down 85 to -5. So far this wasn't going to plan, but there was plenty of time. Could we pull back and avoid disgracing ourselves? With the score at 105 to -5, Pete managed to work out that the sum of the atomic number of hydrogen, the number of novels Anne Bronte wrote, the number of feet in a yard and the number of fingers Bart Simpson has on each hand was 10, and to an almighty cheer we moved into positive scores.

Things were much more level now, and the gap stayed at 80-100 points as both teams' scores rose. I impressed even myself by identifying taiga as a type of forest before Paxman even said the giveaway word Siberia, but although we were now keeping pace, we couldn't close the gap. The final picture round could have helped - I'd be surprised if any team in the whole competition would have had much trouble identifying countries on a map of the Balkans. But Corpus Christi buzzed the instant the map appeared, knowing they would know the answer. We probably should have done the same rather than wait to actually see the map, but I thought it was a bit outside the spirit of the game. I was a bit angry but not as angry as half-Croat UCL Polancec.

Finishing off

The last few minutes of the game saw our score reach respectability. We buzzed often and correctly, and when UCL Hinstridge tried his luck by guessing Cyprus for a Mediterranean island related term and got it right, it seemed things might be going our way. But it was too little, too late, and the gong went with the scores at 250-140.

It would have been nice to win, but really there was no way I could feel disappointed. I'd never expected to get this far, and it was great to have achieved maximum television exposure and to have done better than UCL had ever managed before. I identified three main factors in our loss. Firstly, as well as the usual pre-match listening to Deodato's magnificently overblown 70s jazz-funk version of Also Sprach Zarathustra, Oli made us listen to a disco remix of Beethoven's 9th symphony, which wasn't as funky and ruined my equilibrium; second, my jumper only had two colours, thus breaking my previous pattern of alternating between two-tone and multicoloured; third and most importantly, we'd won the quiz at the Prince of Wales the previous Tuesday, for the very first time. It had clearly taken too much out of us.

The trophy was presented to the winners by Pete Postlethwaite, the greatest actor in the world according to Steven Spielberg, and a great guy. After a brief word from him about how good the final had been, the credits rolled and we walked down to shake hands with the winners. In a fantastic display of churlishness the cameras quite clearly revealed me saying 'Bastard!' to one of the Corpus Christi team, but that was later bettered by Manchester Mills from the semi-final, who clearly felt badly robbed and told us his team would have done better than we had. Luckily his team-mates were much nicer and we had a great time in the green room afterwards, chatting to Jeremy, voice-over man Roger Tilling, Pete Postlethwaite and all the teams who had made it this far.

Then we went out for the evening, to the sleaziest bar we could find. We invited the Corpus Christi people, but they seemed slightly shocked by the idea of going to sleazy bars and said no. I think Stu invited Jeremy as well, who also politely declined. We had one more fun night out in Manchester before heading back to London with just a hint of regret that we hadn't made it all the way.

Weaver's Week review
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Clips

Monday, May 16th 2005

Here are a few bits from the shows: