By Ethan Sanitt
University Challenge, the Bake Off of early evening pub quizzes, is back. Hosted by three-time Oscar nominee, Jeremy Paxman, the show today seems to be at its best since the unforgettable highs of seasons 61 and 62.
If you knew that University Challenge has only been running for 51, not 62, seasons and that Jeremy Paxman is not an Oscar nominee (yet), then you should definitely apply for next year’s team.
Emily Mitchell, Isaiah Silvers, Jack Griffiths, Charlie Hetherington, and the team’s reserve, Alex Radcliffe, know how long University Challenge has been running for: a main way they practised for their time on the show was by watching back old episodes. Playing along with these past quizzes, and sometimes debating the answers, was “one of the best ways” the team prepared for their first round match against Trinity College Cambridge.
I ask if University Challenge has changed during its time on air. “Not really”, Emily says. Jack suggests that a few question topics have been updated since the show first aired—“quite recently there have been a lot of questions on anime”— but I’m told that the format remains largely the same.
What did change this year, inevitably, is how the team applied for the show. Essentially a series of virtual tests, each round involved something “almost like doing a Sporcle quiz”, Isaiah says.
After the initial Zoom stages, the team was then tested and interviewed by the show’s production team. About a month (and “quite a bit of admin”) later, they then got an email saying that they had made it on to the show. Jack remembers this as the moment the team knew that “all those Zoom quizzes didn’t go to waste”.
Like the application process, all preparation was done virtually. When they were first selected, the team compiled a big spreadsheet containing all the topics that they thought might come up, assigned two people to each section, and then attempted to memorise the relevant facts.
Isaiah notes that this original strategy was probably “a little aspirational”. He explains that the range of questions that can be asked in University Challenge makes it difficult to rely on memorising lists. It’s just “too broad a game to study like you would for a test”.
Instead, the team focused on preparing for the show’s buzzer-type format. Working with last year’s team helped them with this side of the quiz. Because Charlie was last year’s reserve, the team “had a really good connection with last year’s team” and even organised some joint training sessions, Emily says. Teams that have been through the process before, Isaiah adds, can “give you tips and tricks”, and teach you the “rhythm of the game”. All of the team agree that they would enjoy working with next year’s team: as “grizzled veterans” of this year’s show, they “have some wisdom to pass down”.
Some of this advice is about Wikipedia. Alex suggests that simply reading through the site’s pages can be an effective way to prepare. “About 90% of my knowledge … is just from randomly clicking through Wikipedia”, he admits. Emily, a fresher when she applied, advises anyone interested to attempt the trials: “Go for it, because you’ve got no idea what could come out of it”.
I ask what kind of rematch the team would like to challenge the Trinity College team to. A dance-off? Maybe a roast battle? “I’d fancy my chances in a dance-off”, Emily says, as a few other team members nod. Durham’s team captain apparently has an impressive fifteen years of training in dance (“I’ve got some hidden moves”). Isaiah agrees, “I’d go with dance-off too, it’s just more fun”.
Isaiah then floats the idea of a spin-off, in which the University Challenge teams compete in various sports leagues against each other. “There might be some surprise stars!” “I don’t think it would be quite Premier League level though”, Alex admits.
Interestingly, the team also choose a second rematch option: all agree that they would like to challenge the Trinity College team to another quiz. “It was definitely, incredibly good fun to quiz against them”, Jack says.
Rather than an “icy, closed-off” atmosphere, Emily adds, competing against Trinity College was more like taking part in a “nice quiz; there just happened to be four cameras and millions of people watching”. “We still keep in touch with them, as well”, Jack says. “They’re the loveliest people you’ll ever meet”.
At the end of the call, I ask whether they would want to take part in University Challenge again. Would they want to go through the Zoom quizzes, the preparation, the main competition, all of it, a second time? After all the intensely difficult, wide-ranging general knowledge quizzes they’ve done, this final question almost seems too easy for them. Durham’s team members answer immediately that they would.
Image: ITV Studios/ Lifted Entertainment
Image: ITV Studios/ Lifted Entertainment