University a challenge? Try being these guys

By and

With an average age of just 20, it seems that being the “babies” of the quiz world has not reduced their impact. However, it seems the biggest impact was felt behind the screen, as the team unanimously agree “it’s changed our lives.”

“From about 16 I wanted to go on” Toynbee begins, and despite the fears that come with being on national television and the rigorous selection process, his only regret is “that I can’t do it again.”

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]My only regret is that I can’t do it again[/blockquote]

For Yule, it was his housemate that encouraged him to try out for the show, but the experience was nonetheless life-changing, and at the very least “it’ll be quite helpful on the CV’s.” More than just being part of a team, they have become part of a wider University Challenge network, and even beyond the screen “you still move in the same circles”, with Toynbee having “met three of the four people who went on University Challenge” while at a quiz competition in Edinburgh just that week.

“There are no real egos” Yule adds, and the contestants even have a Facebook group to keep in touch and support one another- recently working together to write a response to a controversial Telegraph article. If you were wondering “how many University Challenge contestants does it take to write a letter?” The answer is “too many.”

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]He’s aware of his own importance[/blockquote]

In search of tips on becoming a genius, it was hard to hear that not as much went on behind the scenes as we’d like to think. Beyond practising quizzing and buzzer technique together, they admit they “don’t really prepare.” They may not be walking encyclopaedias, but they believe their knowledge comes from a natural interest and willingness to learn. Yule admits he gets “distracted very easily”, but channels this productively into clicking “through Wikipedia when I’m working and some of it will stick.”

Beyond this, they recommend podcasts – “In Our Time is the best one” and “Guardian Long Reads is quite good”, and a word of advice to all students, future quizzers or otherwise: “if you’re a science student, pay attention to your lectures – they come up more than you’d expect.”

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]Pay attention to your lectures – they come up more than you’d expect[/blockquote]

Meeting was also an experience for the team: “How he appears on TV is not an act” they claim, and diplomatically add “he’s aware of his own importance.” However, there was one crack in Paxman’s powerful persona: “If Jeremy makes a mistake- for example, there’s a lot of long biological words- they go back and re-film it, that’s usually quite funny.”

Although they enjoyed the filming, they admit that they’re less keen to see themselves on TV: “I couldn’t watch it you know, I tried but I was trying to hide and not watch it!” While details on upcoming episodes are kept under wraps, “there’s a round coming up where we definitely get laughed at” they admit, “Matthew and I sort of looked at each other and just thought, let’s chalk that one down to experience.”

Other people’s reactions to seeing the team on telly have been much more favourable. “Some people have stopped me for photos – in the library, Castle, Grey.” Even beyond Durham, Yule received a request via Facebook messenger from a taxi driver asking “to join their London taxi drivers quiz team,” and has accidentally become something of a fashion icon, receiving multiple questions on where to buy the famous fleece.

CV benefits and prestige aside, University Challenge hasn’t yet offered the ultimate reward- despite all the college bar recognition, “no ones actually bought me a drink yet for it!” Perhaps he’s right in thinking “maybe it hasn’t paid off- maybe I should go on the Chase!”

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]Maybe it hasn’t paid off- maybe I should go on The Chase[/blockquote]

Despite enjoying the albeit “mild fame” that comes with being on the show, their new exposure can also have negative consequences: “People on Twitter,” they begin, “can get very self-righteous about it.” Yule lends the example of a Twitter troll who criticised a contestant for his enthusiastic celebration for not being a very British way to behave- but Yule adds “if anyone of us had done what he did, literally buzz in at the last second and win the match, all of us would have been absolutely ecstatic, it makes perfect sense.”

[blockquote author=”” pull=”normal”]It’s very easy for people online to forget contestants are real people[/blockquote]

Twitter feedback also proves near-impossible to avoid, and although none of them seek out online reactions to their appearance, it’s “not really optional” when friends pass on comments. Toynbee admits there has been some “horrible stuff”, but is quick to add that women get a “disproportionate amount” of backlash, especially relating to their appearance. There is no sugar-coating the fact that University Challenge is a male-dominated space, and the team speaks freely about the imbalance the show is trying to combat. One-quarter of contestants are female, and Siân Round calls herself “lucky” to be one of them who hasn’t received anything “explicitly sexual or violent.”

A recent Telegraph article entitled ‘Leave it to the geeks’ also sparked controversy, after claiming women were not suited to the environment a quiz show creates. Although it was perhaps just a chance for the writers to “cause a reaction”, it perpetuated “dehumanising myths” about quiz show contestants being “superhuman geniuses”, without recognising how the media contributes to a lack of diversity.

Despite the challenges women face on the show, the team is keen to emphasise that budding female quizzers should not be disheartened. University Challenge is increasing the number of questions concerning women, in an attempt to shift the show’s image away from a celebration of men’s achievements to one which “celebrates human knowledge in general.”

The trials for Durham’s next University Challenge team take place in November. When asked for advice for those nervous to apply, Toynbee is succinct, “Be courageous.”

Photograph: University Challenge via BBC

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