Approaching Menace

Whether you have form or whether your experience is shouting answers from the sofa at the screen, taking the next step and actually answering the contestant call for Mastermind (wiki), filling in the form, passing the audition (which was done at Bvsh House, which was quite exciting in itself) and then accepting the place are all reasonably straightforward.

Even the realisation that you should be revising again, however many years since your last exam, isn’t too bitter a pill; you should be picking subjects that are fun or little real effort. Fortunately I’d given a relatively small bibliography, but that’s where the worrying started. When I’d filled in the form and was searching for specialist subjects, I’d turned to my bookshelves and plonked down a few things for which I’d both interest and several books already. Bletchley Park was an obvious choice given the couple of feet of shelfspace donated to it and, once I’d got over my surprise that they’d not had anyone do it before, I got down to re-reading the books and noting down question fodder. (I heartily recommend Mental Case for a desktop/iPhone assistant.) That’s when the nerves first raised their head. GC&CS is such a wonderful story with such a number of people interested in it, that my worries were now that if I made a big mistake, or the question setter misunderstood my description of the subject (I’ve just about to managed to forget the disastrous semi-final of the radio version), or if I just froze, there would be lots of people watching the eventual broadcast with a huge sense of disappointment. I had to perform well for the sake of the people who have a vested interest in the subject.

The day dawned. The train struck out from London and the last few pieces of reading and revision were trying to get stuck in.

I walked to the studios, as much to clear my head as to enjoy the quirky post-commercial, architecture of central Manchester. Entering by the same gate as about 15 years ago was a fun little trip down memory lane. In reception we were collected at a similar time to the Countdown contestants (and saw Jeff Stelling, Susie Dent, Sharron Davies and Rachel Riley in make-up, so that was a plus for the day before anything else). We were briefed and the four of us got our first introduction to each other: confirming the order for the first round (I’m to go third), the text that will appear on screen and a first hearing of the other specialist subjects and a review of the rules. Then a little dancing in the conversation: who’d done it before, any previous TV credits. So who had the form?

I’ve always suspected that your draw isn’t complete coincidence, there are generally two strong entrants in each heat, perhaps one a slight favourite, then two others who might not be quite as strong; strong enough to merit their place but whose recall is a maybe a little off the pace, whose specialist choice was a little too broad or who don’t revel in the spotlight. Who’s who? Which are you? (As the old business cliché goes, if you can’t spot the mug around the meeting table, it’s probably you.) Chatting while wardrobe ironed the duds didn’t really help, the nerves were out, but the chat wasn’t giving anything away. My money on my major oppo was on the slightly older chap with the subject closest in our heat to serious culture (I suppose mine probably counted for that as well).

Then we were changed and being miked up, before walking into the studio and being introduced to the audience. Still no sign of John Humphrys, though. Indeed, apart from being behind the desk and in the line up for the opening shot, we had no time with him – very unlike Paxman’s behind the scenes persona. We were the first recording in the day, so maybe it was not surprising that he didn’t come back afterwards, but a little surprising that there was no chit-chat.

Sat in our seats on the set, with a bit of banter from Ted Robbins, the warm up king, and Humphrys arrives. He runs through his intro autoue a couple of times, then boom. The iconic music is playing, Paul’s up first and he’s already answering real questions. I was expecting some warm-ups, some level checking, but no. He’s already well into his two minutes. Maybe this is a good thing, kill the nerves as quickly as possible.

He’s chosen FIFA World Cup Finals since 1970 and, to be honest, it was a little too broad, with questions on goalkeepers, sendings off, teamsheets and strike threats, just asking too much of him. His tally of eight points is decent, but I’m relaxing. Robin, the older chap, is next on the TV plays of Alan Bennett. It’s a decently small canon, some scope for slip ups, but generally a solid 14 points with a few passes and there’s the line drawn in the sand. I was right – he is serious. But now it’s me.

“The next contender, please.” And I’m walking. I see some tape on the floor, taking the curved route and making sure to not fall off the stage, then I’m sitting down, making sure not to slide off the chair. That would be embarrassing. He’s asking my name and I’m coping with that, I even get my specialist subject right. Almost coming a cropper on the alledged open goal first question, but then I’m off to the races. One genuine guess, then the last question – the buzzer goes and I probably should have had him repeat the question as I know as soon as I’ve answered that I’ve gone for the other chess champion … (There’s always a clue in the question and I knew that Stuart Milner-Barry had never been British chess champion.)

Still 15 points and no passes isn’t bad, and after Steve does a grand job of 13 points on U2, I’m leading at halfway. That has to be seat you’d choose; the ability to sit and wait and know what to do. Paul’s GK at least overtakes me, Steve sets a better target, then Robin’s off. He fluffs a couple but, especially with the extra half minute in the second round for this year, he’s climbed to 27 (albeit with a fist full of passes – hindsight says I really should have paid attention to that).

It’s me again, to chase a decent target, but should be gettable. I start well, with the first 4 or 5 out of the gate, but then a few go begging and maybe my aim of guess not pass might not have been the best strategy. I’m getting some wrong and Humphrys has to correct me, burning valuable seconds. I confuse the character and the author with Rankin and Rebus, and then a question about an attraction named for the Greek word for movement and all I can remember is the UC final and hippodrome. Then it’s the last question on the city where Jane Austen lived and based some of her novels. I don’t know, but as a guess, I can’t go away from the city of my youth, I know she lived (and died ad I think is bured) there, but I don’t think it’s right. “Winchester.”

Bath. And while I’ve only passed on the one, I have burned too much time, and I’m one short. 26. Only one more correct amongst a handful which I should have claimed would have done it.

But how good is it? Will it be enough for the semi final? We’ll have to wait for the next round of filming. 6 from 24 heats will get the nod. It would have been enough last year, but with that extra 30 seconds it probably won’t be. I’m in with a shout, but I can’t really say more than that at this point.

(For the next week, it’s still on iPlayer.)
Update: mentions

Universally Challenged

It’s been a funny old week for the old lady of student quizzing.

Probably the most press and PR successes for any winning team; we had a bucket load in our year in comparison to most recent winners, but our page in the Evening Standard and interview in Times 2 can’t compete with the shed-load that Trimble et al. have received since overcoming Manchester in a great final.

But all of that is forgotten because one of the ‘winning’ team forgot to read the rules and has been disqualified.

University Challenge is generally recorded in two blocks. The first (and these days the high scoring losers’ repechage and second) round in June and then the remaining knockout rounds in a long weekend in October and November. These two blocks are in different academic years and thus they required that any competitor in the first block was intending to still be at the institution at the time of the second block and subsequent broadcasts.

And, let’s be absolutely clear on this point because the rules were absolutely clear – and they’ve been that way for the entire run of the show under Jeremy Paxman – if you were in your team you had signed a form expressing your intentions.

When we competed in 95/96 we knew that we had to ensure that we’d still be students until the Final was broadcast (in May ’96 in our case). If the circumstances changed in between the two dates, you had to tell Granada.

The Corpus team claim not have realised they’d broken the rules, but then it would have been their fault for not reading them closely enough. Sam Kay should have thought to at least mention it – it beggars belief that four obviously intelligent people wouldn’t have given it any thought.

It is unfortunate for Manchester to “win” in such circumstances but it’s only a quiz show – as they told us when we discussed topics like unfair draws and dubiously phrased questions, “we’re not running the British University Quiz Championshship; it’s a TV show, it’s entertainment.”

It’s not really headline news, it’s not really important, but if you’ve just been plastered on the news pages of half the press in Britain as being intelligent and Google in human form, it is just a little embarrassing to be proven as being unable to read an application form for a TV show.