Reflections on “University Challenge”

SPOILER ALERT: This article reveals the winner of the 2015-16 series of “University Challenge” (the final was broadcast on Monday 18 April 2016). If you don’t want to know who won, stop reading now. The show will be on the BBC iPlayer until around 18 May, so you can watch it here.

As a Cambridge graduate I am delighted to report that three different Cambridge colleges have won the last three series of “University Challenge”: Trinity (my old college) in 2014, Gonville & Caius in 2015, and Peterhouse in 2016. In all three finals a Cambridge college beat an Oxford college, which gave the shows more tension, and made the victories feel a little sweeter. This year it wasn’t even close, 215-30 to Peterhouse.

I felt sorry for St John’s Oxford, the other finalists, especially for their contestant Charlie Clegg, a Theology student from Glasgow. His contributions had done most to get them to the final. (That’s how I remember it anyway; maybe the other team members contributed equally, but I remember Clegg answering question after question in earlier rounds.) In this year’s final it was Oscar Powell at Peterhouse who seemed to know more than anyone else and was, crucially, quickest to the buzzer on many starter questions. Last year it was Ted Loveday of Caius (who, it turns out, went to my old school as well as my old university).

I look at Twitter feeds occasionally. Some of my journalist friends are regular Tweeters and every now and then I go through a week or two of updates to see what they’re doing. It still feels a little intrusive, even though they’re friends, and all the things that they are tweeting about are things that they would say to me in person. I have just spent 15 minutes going through Twitter-feeds of people I have never met, “University Challenge” contestants from recent series. It’s entertaining, and the information is public, so is presumably intended for anyone to read, but it still doesn’t feel quite right. And if I get carried away, following Twitter links could be like those times I head to to look up one thing and emerge 45 minutes later having followed the most unexpected trails. Back in my more familiar online environment there’s a very good review of the final by Ted Loveday here.

I am a keen watcher of “University Challenge”. During each series we become familiar with the successful teams – they play at least four times to get to the semi-final. I also lend my support to any Cambridge college, at any stage of the competition. It feels the same as supporting any of the sports teams I favour (Leeds United FC, Kilkenny in the hurling or the Mets baseball team). I was gutted this year when St Catherine’s didn’t make it to the semi-final, and in 2012 when Pembroke lost narrowly in the final.

This is the first time that the same university has won three series in a row. As all sports fans know you have to enjoy the good times when they happen, if they happen. The only series win for a Cambridge college between Trinity’s victories in 1995 and 2014 was Emmanuel in 2010 (captained by the legendary Alex Guttenplan). In the same period Oxford colleges won 7 series and Manchester won 4. To confirm these figures I have used Shaun Blanchflower’s excellent “University Challenge” pages, always a useful resource, and the author was himself a member of Trinity’s winning team from 1995. Somewhere in the house, on a VHS cassette, I have a recording of that final, but instead of trying to track it down I have just watched yesterday’s final again. There was none of the tension I felt watching it live last night (those first 15 minutes felt tense to me anyway). It has made me very happy.


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