University Challenge: An interview with the 2023 champions

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Palatinate recently spoke to University Challenge contestants and Durham winners Alex Radcliffe (Maths), Harry Scully (Physics and Chemistry), Chloé Margaux (Sociology) Bea Bennett (English Literature) and Tom Haines-Matos in reserve, about their success following their win early this June.

When asked how it felt to win University Challenge and their experience since the final, Chloé Margaux said that they “get recognised a lot; Alex has been recognised on the tube twice which seems very far away from the Durham bubble.”

She continued, “I have got emails from professors who hadn’t talked to me in a while, who I thought had forgotten about me so that was nice. When we were in Tesco, someone went ‘Durham Bennett’ so, people do engage and it’s quite nice because it’s weird knowing that lots of people know who you are, but I mean, 3 million watched the show.

“So, it’s nice, everyone has been lovely when we have met them. We have had such a positive reaction.”

Harry Scully added: “It’s a relief as well because I am not great at keeping secrets and it was over a year since we filmed for the final. Last April, we filmed it and then it aired at the end of May, so it’s been a long time keeping that a secret.”

“On the first episode, everyone was just so excited that we were on the show but when people started saying stuff like Durham might be the favourites to win, people started putting more pressure on us”

Chloé Margaux

Agreeing, Chloé Margaux said that “the pressure got applied so close when we got to the final.

“On the first episode, everyone was just so excited that we were on the show but when people started saying stuff like Durham might be the favourites to win, people started putting more pressure on us.

“Especially going into the final, there is a 50% chance that we did win – it was very difficult not to let that slip. I just tell them to watch the show but then I can’t look too excited or too sad.”

Bea Bennett added: “I think I ended up saying something like ‘oh, we did our best’ and ‘we’re proud of how far we got.’”

Palatinate asked the University Challenge contestants what the night of the final was like and the audience reactions. Bea Bennett told Palatinate that herself, Alex, and Harry were in Hild Bede and had invited around 60 people on a Facebook group; not expecting many people to show up.

She said: “By 8:15pm, they told us people were just having to stand because there was no room to sit anymore. It was just so lovely to see so many people turn up.

Talking about their success, Bea Bennett told Palatinate how “It was so wonderful to share it with everyone else because it’s just so nice to have news that only has a good effect on people”

BEA BENNETT

“They were all so supportive of us. It was so wonderful and so nice to share it with everyone else because it’s just so nice to have news that only has a good effect on people.”

Chloé Margaux added that Josephine Butler college was also quite full, stating: “What I found quite funny was that people were coming into Butler bar on a social and then they’d all just stand and watch the TV.

“It was quite cute because there were lots of random people that I didn’t know but I feel like all of us have been very spoiled. We all got cake from Butler and Hild Bede, I’ve gotten cards from the Butler principal and the Head of Sociology.”

She continued, “It’s very sweet to be celebrated by not only friends and family but celebrated by our colleges.”

When asked about the toughest opposing team the Durham team during recording, contestants agreed that there were quite a few they could name. Alex Radcliffe said “I think special credit has to be given to the final.

“We were definitely going into that dreading it and we had already played Bristol once and we knew how incredibly close that had been. But almost all of the teams we played got very close to the final and were really tough teams.

“I think we had almost no easy matches that we didn’t have to fight for.”

When asked about the toughest opponent, Alex Radcliffe said “They were all difficult matches and I think that was reflected in the scores in general”

alex radcliffe

Bea Bennett added: “UCL was a really hard match,” with Alex Radcliffe agreeing, saying: “That one went right down to the buzzer, and I think that was the most scared I was at any point in the tournament.”

Bea Bennett agreed, telling Palatinate: “We had to win that one to progress to semis and it got to a point where we were a good chunk behind.”

Captain of the Durham team, Alex Radcliffe, also said it was worth mentioning the match they had lost as one of the hardest the team had played. He told Palatinate that “they were all difficult matches and I think that was reflected in the scores in general.”

When asked what it was like regarding elements of sentimentality when filming University Challenge due to announcements that host Jeremy Paxman was stepping down, the Durham team told Palatinate that they didn’t know at the time.

Chloé Margaux said: “It was so long ago that it hadn’t been announced yet.”

“Even when we talked to members of staff on the crew, they told us they were not sure whether he was leaving. I don’t think we realised at the time that we were his final ever winners but obviously it means a lot now and he was a lovely person to us.”

Harry Scully added: “I think we all kind of knew his run was coming to an end. It was only announced a couple of days before our first episode aired in August last year so.”

When asked what it was like regarding elements of sentimentality when filming University Challenge due to host Jeremy Paxman stepping down, the Durham team told Palatinate that they didn’t know at the time

Palatinate then asked contestants at what point in the show they started to believe that they could win. Alex Radcliffe said: “I think for me it was after the final buzzer in the final match.”

Telling Palatinate how the episodes were filmed around an hour after each other, Bea Bennett disclosed that “we filmed the final quarter, the semi-final and the final, all-in close succession of the other and I remember I never had the feeling of ‘we could win this’, but it was kind of just like ‘oh, we are in the semi-finals.’

“But when you actually think about it, it kind of dawns on you what that actually means.”

Alex Radcliffe added: “I think you can tell how shocked we were when you watched the final and our expressions.”

Harry Scully followed: “We knew we were getting to the final and then we were anxiously waiting in the hotel lobby because they made us check out, so we didn’t have a room to go back to. We were all just waiting in the hotel restaurant to get an email saying, ‘come back.’

“I mean we all had things to do; Tom went back because he had an exam to do, I had a nap, Alex was working on his project that was due in two day’s time because this was all filmed only a month before exams.”

Chloé Margaux told Palatinate that she never would have expected this to happen following the announcement that she had made it onto the team but when they got onto the show and progressed through rounds “we got more and more excited.”

“Before every match we were like we had a great time already, whatever happens happens, like we weren’t ever going to be sorely disappointed to go out – it was more fun looking back”

harry scully

Harry Scully added: “Before every match we were like we had a great time already, whatever happens happens, like we weren’t ever going to be sorely disappointed to go out. It was more fun looking back.”

Bea Bennett then said: “The production team were also lovely as well because obviously for all of us it was our first time in a proper studio filming and it’s fun to see the behind the scenes but that also can be quite daunting.

“You don’t take it in, it’s like oh yeah we have to go film and then we have to sit in the studio and then there’s lighting and there’s the makeup and camera’s and all that, but they were all so lovely.”

They agreed the experience was quite stressful as Chloé Margaux added that “The people working there made it easy. Lots of the people had been on the show which was also very nice because they were obviously very understanding because they have felt the way we have felt.

“That was really nice because it wasn’t an us and them thing between the crew and the competitors, it felt like we were like a team.”

When asked if there was anything unexpected about being in a studio, filming a TV show, the team mentioned COVID protocols. Chloé Margaux told Palatinate “We wore a mask the whole time, except for when we were filming, we had the screens between us and we met the other teams when we were playing but there wasn’t a more communal thing.

“For me it felt very different to how I was expecting it because it was all still in full COVID. Obviously, I understand they wanted to make sure that we were as safe as possible but because we had to stay where we were quite often, it was different to how I expected it.”

Alex Radcliffe added: “It was interesting being in the hotel with all the other teams. You see a group of five people who look like they might be at university, you sort of look at them and wonder where they are from.”

When asked what their favourite moments were during University Challenge, Chloé Margaux said “It might sound really cheesy but just spending time with everyone”

Chloé Margaux

Palatinate then asked the Durham team what each of their highlights were on University Challenge.

Tom Haines-Matos, a reserve for the Durham team, said: “Obviously winning. But I think probably the end battle at the end of the very first match. I was sitting in the back of the greenroom with the other reserves, and it was just like ‘wow.’”

He continued, “We knew what we were good at, but I was so impressed with all of them.”

Alex Radcliffe agreed: “I think in terms of good television, the first match might well have been some of the best television that we were part of.”

Chloé Margaux then told Palatinate her favourite moment during University Challenge: “It might sound really cheesy but just spending time with everyone. I feel like lots of teams would have filmed their episodes, gone back to their rooms, lived their own lives but we would not leave each other’s side.

“Harry’s room had two beds in it for some reason which meant that we were constantly in his room. We would have breakfast together, lunch together, dinner together, we would go for walks together, to the imperial war museum together. All five of us were glued together at all times and it was just so fun.

“It’s not very often that you get an all-inclusive holiday with four of your friends, and there’s occasional stress in it but it was also very fun. We got good food, and we would watch TV in Harry’s room – it was just great vibes.

“I don’t want to spend my whole life stressing over the episode. Obviously, we revised a lot during the time together, but we also chatted about ourselves, we didn’t just want to be so obsessed with winning, so we made sure to enjoy the experience as well.”

“I think one of the most important things about this show is being able to work as a team because almost every episode we were in, we had to stage a last-minute comeback”

alex radcliffe

Harry Scully agreed: “It was nice, before we even knew we were on the show, we were spending time over zoom just meeting up and practicing. It was nice to have an excuse to hang out with these people.”

Alex Radcliffe also agreed, stating: “I think all of the socialising and stuff did help. I think one of the most important things about this show is being able to work as a team because almost every episode we were in, we had to stage a last-minute comeback.

“For that, you need to be able to quickly reach a consensus as a team and work out an answer. I think that would be really hard to do if I didn’t know these people. I know if I hear a literature question, I will look at Bea and she will give me an answer.

“Without just being close friends like that, we wouldn’t have been able to do as well as we did.”

Bea Bennett also told Palatinate that her highlight was “the people.” She said, “I think just the whole experience makes me so grateful for the friends I have made and will always have.”

“I think just the whole experience makes me so grateful for the friends I have made and will always have”

beat bennett

Chloé Margaux touched further on the friendship that had developed between this group, stating that “We also had a lot of cute traditions, like before every match we would hug Tom before we left and before we got to the stage door, we would do a group huddle.

“Bea and I would take ginger shots and we all made sure we had breakfast together and Harry would have the biggest breakfast possible, and Bea would have the smallest breakfast because of nerves.

“I just feel like we all had our little traditions that grounded us and were based on how much we loved and supported each other which was very cute. Not to hate on any of the teams but I feel like a lot of the team were teammates whereas we were friends.”

Harry Scully then told Palatinate that one of his highlights was “when Bea had the Chemistry question and she looked over and said ‘Ah! I got a Chemistry question!’ It was literature as well, but it was Literature and Chemistry together.”

Alex Radcliffe added: “I feel like anytime anyone got an answer as a team as well we were like ‘yay!’”

Palatinate then asked the team whether they knew each other before University Challenge to which they told us that they did not. Alex Radcliffe said: “I don’t think any pair of us knew each other.”

Chloé Margaux added: “December 2021 was when we met […] and we started the zoom call at like 7pm. We were in Durham, and I told my flatmates I was going to meet the University Challenge guys and we got off the call at like 5am. We clicked immediately.”

“I just felt like we all had our little traditions that grounded us and were based on how much we loved and supported each other”

Chloé Margaux

When asked what advice contestants would give to next year’s University Challenge contestants, Chloé Margaux said: “Be really nice to everyone that works there because we got on very well with everyone that works there and it makes it easier for everyone – if you’re nice for them, they’re nice to you.

“We built quite good relationships with a lot of the people we interacted with, and I think that is very important as not only does it make your experience better, but you come across very well as a team when you’re nice and polite people.”

Tom Haines-Matos said: “I do think it was very easy to make friends with producers and everyone involved with the show, and you have to kind of pause and be like wow this is going out to lots of people – it’s really big but it doesn’t feel that way at all.”

Harry Scully said the advice he’d give is to “make sure you get to know your teammates very well.” He continued, “Just in case, like Alex said, you ever get into that situation where you’re losing and you need to get answers out, you know who to look to and you don’t waste time conferring.

“Get to know your teammates and just have fun with it because it is for fun after all. There is no cash prize or anything, we didn’t even get a fancy trophy to take home individually so it’s just for fun at the end of the day.”

Alex Radcliffe said that his piece of advice would be: “Have fun with it. So much of it, at least on some level, comes down to luck – there were four or five times in the tournament where we were close to going home.

When asked what advice they would give future University Challenge contestants, Harry Scully said “Get to know your teammates and just have fun with it because it is for fun after all”

harry scully

“I’m sure we would have felt sad afterwards, but we still would have felt really positive about the whole experience because it is just fun spending time with lovely people; embarrassing yourself on national television.”

He continued: “Go into it with an attitude of this is going to be fun […] and then whatever happens, you’re going to be alright.”

Chloé Margaux also shared that “Alex is very smart and one of his smart ways is that if he knows something about the subject, he can make an educated guess.”

Alex Radcliffe agreed, “It is true that you have to practice a fair amount. Ultimately, guessing is quite risky so to get comfortable with the right balance of taking your pumps or not, you have to have done quite a lot of it.

“If you are going to be risky and take guesses, it is also important to know your team well. I’m not going to take a guess on literature because I know that is not my area, it is my team’s area, so if I guess incorrectly it’ll take an opportunity away.

“If it is classical music and I take a good guess, I feel like I have at least a good a shot as anyone else on the team on guessing that and I feel like I can take a risk if I want to. I like educated guesses because they feel really good when you get them right but obviously really stupid when you don’t.”

He continued, “I am happy to have educated guesses as my piece of advice.”

Harry Scully agreed, “You don’t gain anything by saying pass and you don’t lose anything by taking a guess.”

Chloé Margaux added: “Even if it is the only German physicist you can name, name the German physicist because there’s a chance.”

“A group of students said to Simon [Principal of Hild Bede] we are not waiting to win it again. This was quite nice because we have inspired Durham students to go out and get it back”

harry scully

Palatinate asked contestants a final question of what happens to the trophy that the team lifts at the end of the final to which Harry Scully said: “Someone told me they give the University a copy, but I don’t know if that is true.”

Chloé Margaux further told Palatinate that “because of COVID, only Alex got to hold it.”

Wanting to share an anecdote that Harry Scully had learnt about recently, he told Palatinate that “Simon, the college principal of Hild Bede, told a story where last Monday, when they had the watch party, he brought out a lovely cake and he was laying down the cake for some students and had said they would have to wait 23 years for the next one because it was 23 years since Durham won last time.

“A group of students said to Simon we are not waiting 23 years to win it again. This was quite nice because we have inspired Durham students to go out and get it back.”

Image: Harry Scully

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