Varsity Matchless

University Challenge is a novel delight for an American

Late at night on the internet, when normal people are watching porn, I’m watching University Challenge — my favourite television show. It has been going since 1962, but I, as an American, had never heard of it until last year when I read news stories about the winning team, Gonville and Caius, Cambridge. One of its members, Ted Loveday, stunned the nation in the following way.

The host, Jeremy Paxman, asked the contestants for a two-word Greek phrase for a word that occurs only once. Immediately, Loveday buzzed in and said, “Hapax legomenon,” followed by a big grin.

Far away in New York, I started poking around YouTube, watching past episodes of the show. I was hooked. I love it for a number of reasons.

Start with the introductions, when one learns about the universities: redbrick, plate-glass, and all that. Foreigners like me can also learn about pronunciation. For example, “Caius” is “Keys”. Paxman also lists a few notable alumni from each institution. This information is always interesting, for some reason.

Then the students introduce themselves — revealing a vast variety of accents from all over the islands. I find it comforting and pleasant that such variety still exists. They also have a variety of names. On this past season’s University of York team, Barto Joly de Lotbinière sat next to Sam Smith. Really.

Often, the contestants are not the type of people who usually appear on television: polished, crisp, physically attractive. They are normal. Actually, they are often abnormal. University Challenge is a home for eccentrics, even misfits. It’s their hour in the sun. What’s more, University Challenge is a place where you don’t have to be ashamed to know things. Society sometimes scoffs at knowledge, as elitist, boastful, etc. Not here. Knowing things is the name of the game.

A key part of the show’s appeal, for me, is the host. Over the years, I have had my objections to Paxman as a political interviewer. But has there ever been a better host of anything than Paxo is of University Challenge? I admire his briskness, and even his brusqueness. He shows more warmth, humour and affection than he is sometimes given credit for. And his occasional snapping or snarking is, to my mind, part of the charm.

So is the lingo. I like the expressions foreign to me, or once foreign to me: “crack on with it,” “level pegging”, “a storming performance”.

The questions on the show are meticulously researched and well-worded. When we know the answers, they seem easy. When we don’t (and I usually don’t), they seem devilish.

Cult figures emerge, such as Hannah Woods of the recent winning team, Peterhouse, Cambridge. She won hearts with a cool yet feminine demeanour, and an amazingly arched eyebrow (just one). British culture is supposed to produce and honour such figures.

As a newcomer, I’m in love with University Challenge, and these affairs usually end, of course. But I have a feeling this one, via YouTube, will prove long-lasting.

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