Meet the Durham University Challenge team

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To watch the full interview, head to Palatinate’s YouTube channel

Whilst the combination of a Liberal Arts student, a History student, a Physics student, and a Biology student may seem random, it appears to be a winning one for this year’s University Challenge team. Harry Regan, Thomas Banbury, Holly Parkinson, and Thomas Wilkening stormed through the second round of the competition and will now progress to the Quarter Finals in the New Year. Profile Editor, Isabella Green, and Interview Editor, Claudia Jacob, caught up with the team to reflect on the key to their success, their most and least favourite questions, and their motivations for applying to the show.

From quizzing in Durham to the BBC

All four contestants agree that going on University Challenge was something that they’d always wanted to do but had never really dreamed of it being a reality. Regan jokes that they all sort of “fell into this”, whilst Parkinson admits that she was 50/50 undecided on whether she should actually go to the final round of the University’s internal trials, unsure as to whether it would be worth her while. Banbury adds that this final round of trials was marked in such a way that “the final team would have a good balance of subject areas”, and therefore scoring highly wasn’t the only aspect taken into consideration. Wilkening’s personal “good omen” was Badger, Durham Cathedral’s cat, who he saw after the final selection.

Regan recalls that the hardest stage of the application was actually the interview process for the programme itself. “That was the worst thing ever. I’d already told everyone that I was on the team so it would be really awful if I had to say, ‘actually, no, we didn’t get through.’” Parkinson explains that the interview stage is “to make sure that you’ll make good television. They’re looking for people who will be good entertainment – because apparently some people watch University Challenge for fun!”

Behind the scenes

Parkinson explains that “what you see on TV is pretty close to live”, adding that she’d read an article before going on the show saying that they read out hundreds of questions and subsequently edit out the ones that neither team can answer. In fact, she explains that there were probably fewer than five starter questions where neither team answered, and so, for the most part, what you see is what you get. Regan laughs, adding “I wish we had a hundred chances!”

L-R: Thomas Wilkening; Harry Regan; Holly Parkinson; Thomas Banbury
Image: Thomas Wilkening

The four explain that the show was a lot less sociable than it would have been in previous years, because the teams had to be separated in the studio due to social distancing regulations. One of the new precautions is the addition of transparent screens between team members, but Parkinson says that this actually made it easier as captain, “because you can easily hear the whole line of people to confer.”

Hot on the buzzer

All four members of the team confess to having both subjects that they love and dread coming up as questions. Regan enjoys obscure geography and literature, on the strength that “it makes me feel like I actually know my degree!” But as a Liberal Arts student, Regan admits that he does tend to switch off during the science-based questions, adding that the competition is about “breadth over depth” and that sometimes his knowledge was perhaps a bit too broad.

While Regan describes questions as a “nightmare”, Banbury is in the opposite position. “We were quite fortunate in the first two rounds to have bonuses. It’s not like I listen to exclusively so I don’t know why I’m so good at them. I’ve just made a career out of being the music guy on the team.” Aside from that, Regan obviously loves a History question – “the obscurer the better!” Like Regan, Banbury tends to leave science to the other two.

I’d like to see multiple all-female teams in the future

Wilkening, however, points out that “in a way, science questions are also what I dread – especially Biology, my subject – because, you know, greater embarrassment if you mess up.” Regan agrees that questions about your own subject definitely put the pressure on, adding, “It’s even more embarrassing if we lose five points for it… every time!”

Parkinson appreciates questions about flags, maps, and popular music but really wanted dark matter to come up: “That’s my exact field of research. Because it’s quite emerging, there’s only a certain amount of questions you can ask about it so that would have been quite nice.”

To prepare for the show, Regan, Banbury, Parkinson, and Wilkening all tried to memorise different trivia lists, including Nobel Prize winners, in the hope that this would help them cover more material. Wilkening explains how once you’re in that mindset “it becomes almost reflex” to try and remember everything you read. Parkinson confesses, “I’m still guilty of doing it and forgetting I don’t have to do it. A guy on my corridor was talking about amino acids and I was like, ‘do I still know all the amino acids?’ And then I thought, well, I don’t have to know them anymore!” 

Banbury adds, “You do become constantly switched on to random facts and it’s quite difficult to switch off again.”

A University Challenge first

Durham’s second round match with Edinburgh was the first show in the competition’s 50-year history whereby both teams have had a female captain. Parkinson says, “it’s a shame that it hadn’t happened yet. The show has been running for 50 series. I just hope we get more female captains.” She adds, “I’d like to see multiple all-female teams” in the future.

You do become constantly switched on to random facts and it’s quite difficult to switch off again

Despite the match marking a University Challenge milestone, the four did not find out that they were playing against Edinburgh until they arrived on the day. The teams have a personal history on the show, with Edinburgh knocking Durham out in the Semi Finals two years ago. Regan says, “When we heard it, I think we were lucky that we hadn’t seen them play already.” He explains that Edinburgh had won their play-off, giving them momentum going forward.

Banbury admits, “They had us in the first half.” In the end, however, it was the Durham team’s strength in the bonus rounds that led them to a close, yet triumphant, victory. They progress to the Quarter Finals in 2021.

To watch the full interview, head to Palatinate’s YouTube channel

Image: Clare Parody

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