University Challenge



Bamber Gascoigne (1962-87, 92 & 98 specials)

Jeremy Paxman (1994-2023)

Amol Rajan (2023-)

Angus Deayton (2003 & 05 Comic Relief specials)

David Baddiel (2019 Comic Relief special)

Kirsty Wark (2020 & 21 Children in Need specials)


Don Murray Henderson (1962-72, his death)
Jim Pope (1972-97, 98-2002, his death)
Roger Tilling (1997-8, 2002-)


Regular series:

Granada for ITV, 21 September 1962 to 4 September 1987 plus specials to 31 December 1987 (978 or 992 episodes)

Granada for BBC2, 21 September 1994 to 23 February 2009 (449 episodes in 15 series + 13 specials)

ITV Studios for BBC Two, 6 July 2009 to 5 April 2021 (444 episodes in 12 series + 3 specials)

Lifted Entertainment for BBC Two, 12 July 2021 to present

University Challenge Reunited: Granada for BBC Two, 25 March to 19 August 2002 (18 episodes in 1 series)

University Challenge: The Professionals: Granada for BBC Two, 7 April 2003 to 22 April 2008 (61 episodes in 5 series)

Christmas University Challenge:

ITV Studios for BBC Two, 19 December 2011 to 1 January 2021 (98 episodes in 10 series)

Lifted Entertainment for BBC Two, 20 December 2021 to present

Other specials:

Granadaland Pro-Celebrity special: BBC2, 28 December 1992

"Universe Challenge" (Red Dwarf special): Grant Naylor Productions for BBC Two, 14 February 1998


Very few quiz programmes could be said to make up part of the fabric of the nation, but University Challenge is certainly a contender.

Two teams of four students, each team drawn from one university, compete in a question-and-answer quiz so old-school that Adam and Eve themselves may have taught there.

The old school scarf

All eight contestants individually attempt to buzz or ring in to answer the "Starter For Ten", valued at, er, ten points for their team; however, an incorrect interruption merits a five-point deduction.

Host of the original programme, Bamber Gascoigne.

The team producing a correct answer then may attempt to answer up to three more questions upon a different common theme, as a team, for varying amount of points apiece (although always three questions for five in the modern era). The bonus answers have to be delivered by the team captain, unless he/she nominates another team-member to do so.

Recipe for success

Repeat for twenty minutes or so. Pepper with occasional visual or musical rounds and bang a big gong at the end. The pace of the game starts slow (a minute or more for a starter and a set of bonuses), but picks up towards the end (under 45 seconds for a full stanza) as the host performs an impersonation of a horse-racing commentator. An excellent pair of teams will score 500 points between them in a game (sadly, a rare occurrence these days), so a score of 200+ is good and 250+ very good. Jeremy Paxman once claimed in his usual inimitable style that a score of 300+ means that the team needs to get out more.

The 1987 set, note cuddly mascot! Aside from the 1986 series, the "one team above the other" effect has always been created via split-screen.

Pass the Baton

The final two series of the Bamber era, 1986 and 1987, employed a rather different format. Both series ran for eight weeks, with shows airing Monday to Friday, and in the first six weeks, teams played two-day matches, Monday/Tuesday or Wednesday/Thursday. The first day was a standard game, with the scores carried over to the second day, which featured a curious confection called Pass the Baton. The Baton - a vertical cylindrical stick with six lights that slid along the desk - began the programme with the leftmost contestant of each team. The contestant from the trailing team picked from a list of about 60 categories, and Bamber asked questions from that category on the buzzers, for five points each, open only to the two contestants with the Baton. First to give two correct answers gained a 15-point "lap" for their team, and the Baton passed on to the next contestant. Slightly oddly, any credit earned by the opponent in this head-to-head carried forward, meaning that the next head-to-head might only last one question.

Two students light their quizzlesticks.

Whoever was trailing when the Baton was passed got to choose the next category. There were only five questions in each category, so when a category was exhausted Bamber would always choose "mixed bag". When a team had six correct answers, and thus lit up their whole Baton, they received not only 15 points but also a standard set of three bonuses for five points each. Both Batons reset to nothing, and we began all over again. Highest aggregate score after 25 minutes of this progressed to the weekly final on Friday, for a place in the quarter-finals.

The six weekly winners were joined in the last eight by the losing team with the highest average score, plus the winners of a play-off between the losing teams with the second- and third-highest average scores. This play-off, and the four quarter-finals, aired in the seventh week, followed by the two semi-finals and the then-traditional best-of-three final in the eighth week. In these last two weeks, every game was a standard game with no Baton malarkey.

In 1986, the teams really were seated one above the other.

When the respective champions of these two series, Jesus and Keble Colleges, Oxford, returned for the "Reunited" series in 2002 (below), they stated that the Pass the Baton game had been very confusing and therefore difficult to play - indeed, only Bamber really seemed to understand it! It seemed to be an attempt to update the programme in order to increase viewing figures, and perhaps to reduce the free-for-all buzzer questions into a more confrontational best-of-three between two specific players. Ultimately, it had the opposite effect - scoring was glacial, or at least appeared that way as only brief glimpses of the scoreboard were given.

The programme was axed in 1987. It is also worth mentioning that in the 1986 series, the teams actually were seated one on top of the other, Blankety Blank-style. This also failed to catch on, the split-screen effect returning in 1987.

The big picture

These days, each contest forms part of a series-long tournament, with the fourteen winners of the first-round matches going through to the last sixteen, accompanied by the winners of two repechage matches between the four highest-scoring losers. It used to be all single elimination from then on, but an extended quarter-final phase has confused Paxman since 2010 (it's simple: win two matches and you're through, lose two and you're out). Winning teams get a lovely piece of glassware (latterly, a huge lump of etched metal) and also sometimes get friendlies against their tournament-winning counterparts from America or New Zealand, or even their own university dons. And... er, that's it.

A modern University Challenge team (representing Birmingham on the very first Paxman show in 1994, if you really want to know). The captain always sits in the third seat from the left.

With the demise of Mastermind in the late 90s, there remained no finer source of hard questions on TV for your "Bloody hell, I actually got one right!" satisfaction. Even now that Mastermind has returned (based in Manchester and with a famously abrasive news anchor hosting - now wherever could they have got that idea from?), UC still stands head and shoulders above its local rival in this respect. And just how can those sweet, innocent-looking students know so much about all those obscure subjects?

The question remains whether the science questions are "much too hard" or "much too easy" - whether it's possible to write a set of questions which have the same relative difficulty in all the different topics. Both sides have been argued in the past. Since 2006, the overlong starters have been trimmed and are much more within the gettable "hard pub quiz" sphere. This is a merciful reaction to the fact that the producers liked to boast that each series the questions got "10% harder", while ignoring the evidence that the average points scored per match was also heading south and Paxo was having to dip into his secret pile of "Easy Starters" rather too often.

The second inquizitor, Jeremy Paxman

The composition of the ideal University Challenge team (in terms of what subjects the team members should study and whether the show shouldn't be restricted to undergraduates in the first place anyway) is the subject of many a heated pub debate. Well, it is if you drink in the same pub as us.

Into the 21st century

Even stalwarts like University Challenge feel the need to modernise, and in 2000 a new set and new version of the theme tune were introduced, while the format was kept the same. The new set was very nice - reddy-brown in colour, with a background that was a combination of artwork, lighting and mirrors, best described as a sort of giant academic lava lamp. The new, string-based version of the theme tune, however, lacked the refreshing bounce of the previous version, and seemed to emphasise the upper-class nature of the quiz rather too much. (It must have proved popular, though, because it's still in use over twenty years later.)

To celebrate the show's 40th anniversary in 2002, thirty notable teams including twenty-five series champions were invited back for an enjoyable "Reunited" series. As well as competing to become the "champion of champions", the teams reminisced about their days on the show, and sat through the mandatory embarrassing shots of how they looked back then. Pleasingly, the vast majority of the contestants had gone on to high things: a large proportion were teachers or lecturers; there were also several doctors and at least one clergyman; there was the former chairman of the then-Inland Revenue; and last but not least, there was David Lidington, the Conservative MP for Aylesbury, who captained the Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge team from 1979. Not so pleasingly, only the four highest-scoring teams progressed to the semi-finals, although as if to compensate, the semi-finalists had all previously competed on the show in different decades: the aforementioned Sidney Sussex team, the Keele University team from 1969, the Open University team from 1985, and the then-most recent champions, Somerville College, Oxford. Sidney Sussex convincingly defeated Somerville and then Keele, and thus were fully deserving of the "champion of champions" title.

The Sidney Sussex 1979 team with Paxman and Stephen Fry (who presented the trophies). On the left are Nicholas Graham and captain David Lidington; on the right are John Adams and John Gilmore.

2003 saw the start of University Challenge: The Professionals, which runs as a summer filler and means that the show now carries on pretty much all year round in one form or another. At least, it did from 2003 to 2006 inclusive, then the Professionals series was not broadcast again until 2008 and has not returned since then - yet. There was even a yuletide mini-tournament in 2004, and another over the new year in 2005-6. In 2004, the set was changed again, to a blue and purple number - probably a sideways step compared to the reddy-brown set, but it ended up lasting over twice as long.

The 2009-10 series introduced a different format for the quarter-final stage, with ten matches instead of four to determine who goes through to the semi-finals. It begins with the eight surviving teams playing in four matches; the four winners then play in two "qualification" matches for the first two places in the semi-finals, while the four losers play in two "elimination" matches with the losers of these exiting the tournament. Finally, the losers of the two "qualification" matches play the winners of the two "elimination" matches for the last two semi-final places. This isn't actually as complicated as it probably sounds - the teams keep playing until they either win twice (in which case they go through to the semis) or lose twice (in which case they are eliminated) - and it does make sense on screen. In that 2009-10 series, however, it seemed (on the face of it, at least) very unnecessary, given that all the teams who had won the first four matches were the ones who made it through to the semis, which did beg the question: why didn't they just go through straight away, thus saving time and avoiding unnecessary extra editions of the show? To which the answer was, we suppose, that when you get to the quarter-finals the standard is so high that it seems unfair to have a good team knocked out on a single contest. Indeed, an interesting aspect of this quarter-final structure was that two of these matches were so evenly matched that they went to tiebreakers, meaning that this series had three tiebreakers in all (no other Paxman-hosted series had more than two). It also demonstrates that although the first four winning teams ultimately went through, it could so easily have been different. The latter point, we might add, was proved in the 2010-11 quarter-finals, in which two of the teams (Magdalen College, Oxford, and York University) progressed not only to the semi-finals having lost their first quarter-final matches, but also to the Grand Final, beating two hitherto unbeaten teams, namely Sheffield University and Peterhouse, Cambridge, who had won their first two quarter-final games.

After half a century at Granada's Quay Street studios, the show moved to Dock10 in Salford in 2013. With this change of location came yet another change of set, to one featuring a kinetic sculpture on the floor between Paxman and the teams.

Enter Amol

After nearly thirty years and over 1,100 episodes (including Reunited, Professionals and Christmas episodes as well as a number of specials), Paxman announced his departure from the show in August 2022. He had been diagnosed with Parkinson's in early 2021, which had progressively dogged his performance. The final episode he recorded was the final of the 2022 Christmas series, which aired on 30 December 2022, while his final episode to be broadcast was the final of the 2022-23 student series, on 29 May 2023, from which he signed off thus: "University Challenge returns later in the year, and I look forward to watching it with you. So, it's goodnight from me. Goodnight."

Seven weeks later, on 17 July 2023, he - and we - watched Amol Rajan ask the questions for the first time. Announced as the new host within days of Paxman announcing his departure, Rajan was a controversial choice who proved just as cantankerous as his predecessor, but who was perhaps a little better at offering praise than Paxman ever was. He dispensed with cards (reading off a screen on his desk), tended to read questions faster than either of his predecessors, and calls the repechage... the repechage. Which may be what we call it, but was pretty jarring to hear on the actual show itself. Don't copy us, we're idiots! Still, overall, Rajan's proving a very competent host - his abrasive moments with the teams are fewer and less harsh than Paxman's, and it's nice that he's usually generous with his praise and encouragement for all concerned - so well done to him for all that.

Key moments

Jeremy Paxman getting ever-so-uppity with students who really ought to know the answers. Well, he thinks so anyway. He is also very inclined to pass judgement when they answer questions that he thinks they shouldn't even admit to knowing. One particular example of this was with a team from Keele University in 2001, who proved surprisingly adept at identifying The Wombles in a picture bonus round: Paxman's incredulous response was, "Have you no shame?!" The best answer to a question like that would have to be, "Not if it gets us the points, Jeremy!" As a further postscript to this edition, Paxman appeared to have overlooked the name of a creator of a different children's series after he asked the starter, which required the contestants to identify both the Womble pictured and the name of the original creator of the series. One of Keele's opponents, from Nottingham University, buzzed and answered, "Great Uncle Bulgaria - Postgate" (as in the late Oliver Postgate, creator of "Bagpuss" and "The Clangers", among others). Paxman offered the question to Keele and one of their contestants buzzed and answered, "Great Uncle Bulgaria - Bond". "James Bond?" inquired Paxman, seemingly unaware that Bond (albeit Michael rather than James) was the name of the creator of the "Paddington Bear" series. The correct answer was, in fact Elizabeth Beresford, but it seemed that this was another moment when Paxman had revealed a gap in his knowledge - or maybe he was just throwing in a bit of dry humour - or more likely both.

Just occasionally, there have been students who have been studying rather unusual things. The best example of this surely has to be a student from Downing College, Cambridge in the 2000/2001 series who was apparently researching a PhD about "Fornicating peasants in 16th Century England". (Paxman's verdict? "The things that people get grants to study nowadays!") Perhaps even more bizarre was the subject being studied by a contestant in a more recent series: sphincter preservation.

Watching contestants of advanced years (ringers? surely not!) especially ones who have returned to university solely to try to appear on University Challenge. At least two contestants have gone this far to get on the programme.

The 1979 series champions, Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge (who later went on to win the 2002 'Reunited' series) appeared on one of their original programmes in descending order of smart attire. Working from left to right, one contestant was wearing a dinner jacket, the next wore a jacket and tie, their captain (the future MP, David Lidington) sported an open-necked shirt and the final contestant wore a kaftan and beads. However, when they appeared on the aforementioned 'Reunited' series, they were rather more uniformly attired.

The 1980 Grand Final was a true battle of the roses, since it was between the Universities of Bradford and Lancaster. Ever-sensible, fair and non-partisan, Bamber wore a yellow rose in his buttonhole.

A few years after that (probably in the 1984 series), a bizarre moment occurred when the captain of a team from York University was apparently unable to get his buzzer working (presumably due to an electrical glitch?) Having encountered the problem, he had the good sense to tap very audibly on his desk several times and Jim Pope rightly accepted this as a 'buzz', called his name and the student was able to answer the question correctly. He then pressed the buzzer again and it did emit the appropriate noise - "Ah, you've got the buzzer working now", declared Bamber, with his usual winning combination of charm and gentle humour.

The 1995 series runners-up, New College, Oxford, were a very multi-cultural team, as Paxman was keen to point out, since all four contestants came from different continents. They were: Alec Dinwoodie from the USA; Darren Smyth from the UK; their captain, John Danesh from New Zealand and Aran Balasubramanian from India. Similarly, the four highest-scoring contestants from the 1996-97 series who returned to face their American counterparts just before Christmas 1997 represented all four corners of the UK. They were: Martin Heighway from Wales (The Open University, series runners-up); Stephen Pearson from Scotland (Manchester University, semi-finallists); their captain, Cormac Bakewell from Northern Ireland (Queen's University, Belfast, quarter-finallists) and, last but by no means least, Colin Andress from England (Magdalen College, Oxford, series champions).

Spotting contestants who you think will turn out to be the next Stephen Fry, Clive James or David Mellor (all UC alumni). Other famous people to have appeared as contestants include Irish president Mary Robinson, author Sebastian Faulks, journalist John Simpson, historians Dr David Starkey and Simon Schaffer, actress Miriam Margolyes, polemicist Christopher Hitchens, politicians Malcolm Rifkind, David Lidington, Kwasi Kwarteng and Aaron Bell, screenwriter/actor Julian Fellowes, and future Australian chaser Brandon Blackwell, who broke show convention by asking to be addressed as Brandon. Fry, Simpson, Faulks and Starkey have all appeared on the programme during the Paxman-era to present the trophy to winning teams: Fry in the Reunited series, Simpson and Faulks in the regular series and Starkey in the Professionals series. Another former contestant of note (albeit rather less well-known) is the late Mick Imlah, who was a poet and an editor of both 'Poetry Review' and The Times Literary Supplement. He was the captain of a team from Magdalen College, Oxford, who had impressively won three games in a row (in keeping with the format of the programme at the time) in the early-80s. A number of famous people have mentioned that they tried but failed to get on to their universities' teams, most notably Jeremy Paxman himself, who upon taking the helm in 1994 admitted that he'd applied but lost out to "a lot of people in anoraks". Others include Ann Widdecombe, whose 2011 Radio Times interview with Paxman brought the latter's failure back to public attention, and Starter for Ten author David Nicholls.

Spot the star of the future...
File:University challenge fry.jpgOpportunity knocks for the young Stephen Fry

In the 2003 Professionals series, Lembit Opik, who was competing on behalf of the House of Commons team, claimed at one point that he had buzzed before the opposing team, even though their buzz and answer had been accepted. Paxman duly explained that, when the fastest contestant had buzzed, the other buzzers would cut out electronically, therefore Opik had not been quick enough on the buzzer on that occasion. "I'll have you before a select committee!" declared an indignant and clearly unconvinced Opik. "Well, possibly - but I don't think we can argue with electronics!" retorted an unrepentant Paxman. The House of Commons team went on to achieve one of the lowest-ever scores for the Paxman-era: 25 points!

Another clash with the celebs occurred during a 2012 Christmas edition featuring famous alumni. Paxman asked a question relating to Germany, the answer being 'Bavaria', and the former ITN journalist Lawrence McGinty, representing Liverpool University, interrupted the question and answered 'Munich', followed by 'Bavaria'. Paxman penalised the team five points for a wrong interruption, as he could only accept McGinty's first answer (rather to the latter's disgruntlement), then stated that he couldn't offer the question as the correct answer had been given, but the Cardiff team's captain, a BBC journalist this time, Bill Turnbull, demanded to be allowed to answer the question. Paxman reiterated that he couldn't offer it, and Turnbull exclaimed vehemently, "But it was on the tip of my tongue - I just couldn't get it out...!" "Well, I can't be held responsible for the malfunction of your tongue!" retorted Paxman, with his usual level of sympathy, i.e. none whatsoever.

The Clergy team singing 'The Red Flag' on one edition of the first 'Professionals' series - and soon after that, on the next regular series, a music student sang 'I Feel Pretty!'

The lowest score ever achieved on any edition is 0 points, scored by Reading University against Keble College, Oxford in the final of the 2017/2018 Christmas series.


At the beginning of the programme: "University Challenge! Asking the questions - Bamber Gascoigne!" or "Jeremy Paxman!" depending on the era.

Bamber Gascoigne era:

"Here's your starter for ten, no conferring!"
(In the event of an incorrect interruption): "...Full question to (whichever) team, no conferring...!"
"Must hurry you..."
"Well remembered!"

Jeremy Paxman era:

"Oh, do come on!" "Let's have an answer!" or "Let's have it, please!"
"Another starter question now..."
"Er - yeeessss!"
"We're going to take a picture (or music) round now..."
"Answer as soon as you buzz..." and, "Work this out before you buzz..."
"You may not confer, one of you may buzz!"
"One of you, buzz...but you're not going to..."
"You all look blank - I'll tell you...."
"Was that a guess?"
"Still time to catch up." (which he genuinely means as encouragement, but regular viewers know that if he says this to your team, your game is as good as over.)
"...If that was a guess, it was a very good one..." or, "...A very good guess, if it was a guess..."
"And at the gong..."
"And it's goodbye from me - goodbye!"
"I'm sorry - if you buzz, you must answer!"
"No - you lose five points..." or, occasionally, "I'm going to have to fine you five points..."
"Answer as soon as your name is called..."
Sometimes, Paxman will run through the scoring system at the start of the game, but just as often he'll simply say "You all know the rules, so let's get on with it." From time to time, he also mentions that "the rules are as constant as the northern star", an allusion to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar.


Paxman has also made a number of memorable (and usually cutting) comments to the teams over the years - these are not catchphrases as such and are probably best described as 'Paxmanisms'.

"I haven't a clue what you're talking about - and I'm not sure that you do, either!"

(In response to a contestant's statement that his answer was a long shot): "It was also a wrong shot!"

"Come on - you should be conferring, not staring blankly at one another!" (The team concerned on this occasion, who went on to lose the game, were struggling considerably with their bonus questions, hence Paxman's reproof, but for some inexplicable reason, he seemed to forget this in his final spiel to the team: "You missed out on a high proportion of starters, but did well when you got them..." which was clearly nonsense. This would seem to show that Paxman doesn't get it right quite as often as he himself might like to think - or maybe that he can turn on the tact when he really wants to - or very likely a bit of both).

"I'll tell you what, you'd make a great Revivalist preacher..." (Paxman said this to Eric Monkman, the Canadian captain of the Wolfson College, Cambridge team, who were the runners-up in the 2016-17 series. Monkman had become well-known for perpetually shouting out his - and the team's - answers in his excitement - by all accounts, he developed quite a following on Twitter as a result. See also under 'Trivia', below).

"You'd like to un-say that, wouldn't you? - but you can't!"

(To a team that was conferring at length and coming out with some interesting points): "The producer's telling me to hurry you along - but I think we're all enjoying this too much..."

"I'm sorry - that's not an answer."

"I think you need to find somewhere quiet to curl up and die!"

"Now you're just being silly!"

"Calm down - you sound like Michael Winner!" (Not a very flattering statement).

"It was Led Zeppelin - rather like your performance!"

"From one extraordinary piece of knowledge to another!"

(To a team captain who was having to give all the bonus answers, which were being fed to her by a particularly bright colleague): "What are you - his glove-puppet?"

(To the House of Commons team, who had scored only 25 points in the 2003 Professionals series): "...I think you need to stick to answering questions that have lots of answers!"

(To the RAF team, who had also appeared in the 2003 Professionals series): "Sometimes, it's worth going through all this just to hear a Lieutenant-Colonel (or whatever their captain's rank was) say, 'Willy Wonka'."

(Describing a team's previous performance): "They displayed a worrying ignorance on types of fracture, so we wouldn't want any of them standing over us when we're ill...!" (That remark was rather ill-judged, given that one of the contestants was a medical student. Thankfully, she took it in the right spirit and duly introduced herself with the tongue-in-cheek comment, "....And as you'll be delighted to know after what Jeremy's been saying, I'm reading medicine!").

(Describing another team's previous performance): "...But they did show a surprising ignorance on identifying small furry mammals, which regular viewers will know to be a staple feature of University Challenge."

(Regarding yet another team's previous performance): "They gave their answers with all the cheerfulness of a bailiff delivering a summons. Let's hope they've cheered up this time around!"

(On another team's previous performance): "They won, despite proving to know absolutely nothing about laundry symbols - which surely goes to prove that students take washing home for their mums to do."

(When introducing a team from Cardiff University): "Last year, they entered a team who thought they were appearing on Supermarket Sweep. They weren't - as they soon discovered to their cost! Let's hope this year's team are better-informed!"

"...Robinson - you did take an interminably long time to answer and you also threw in some feeble jokes - but nonetheless, we look forward to seeing you again in the next round."

(To the New Hall, Cambridge, team, one of whom had argued with him over a picture starter, in the 1999-2000 series - see 'Famous Questions' below): "New Hall - congratulations - we look forward to seeing you again in the next round, when perhaps we can have some more arguments over the wording of starter questions..." and, when they did return: "...They won their first round, despite adopting the high-risk strategy of quibbling with the questionmaster over the wording of a starter question - but he has broad shoulders, so here they are again."

(In response to a team that had confused two racecourse towns, namely Doncaster and Chepstow): "Doncaster??!! You know nothing about British geography!" (He also made similar comments, such as, "Your geography's seriously up the spout!" to two other teams, one of which thought that some Yorkshire villages were in the vicinity of Cheddar, while the other team thought that Jamaica was an African country).

"Swaziland - part of the EU?! Are you mad?!"

(Describing a picture of George W Bush and his dog): "The dog's the one on the right...!" (A bit controversial there, Paxman!)

(To a team who were struggling with a set of picture bonuses that involved identifying missing ingredients in recipes): "I was going to invite myself round for tea, but I don't think I will now."

"I don't know why the audience are groaning - I gave you plenty of time to think about it!"

(To a team that had failed to identify a piece of dance-music): "Well, if you'd looked over to your opponents, you'd have been given a clue - they were jiving away to the music!" (As Paxman stated at the end of the show, it was a shame that the cameras had not been on the 'dancing' team at the relevant moment.)

(To a contestant who had answered 'Puppy Love' when asked to identify a dog-based Elvis Presley song, namely 'Hound Dog'): "Well, at least you didn't say 'How Much Is That Doggie In the Window?'"

(To a contestant who had interrupted a starter question rather too early and thus answered 'Woolly-toothed mammoth' when the answer was, in fact, 'warthog'): "I'm just trying to imagine a woolly-toothed mammoth in an aardvark-burrow."

(To an Italian student, who had correctly identified 'spag' from the word 'spaghetti' as meaning 'string'): "If you hadn't got that, there'd be no point in your being here."

(To a team who were constantly answering "We don't know" to most of their bonus questions): "Oh, don't keep saying that - I'm going to start feeling really sorry for you!"

(To the same young team when they were beaten by a team of mature students in the same show): "...But at least you've still got your own teeth". (Yet another controversial comment).

"You just squeaked home."

"You like to live dangerously, don't you?"

(To both the teams that had scored only 40 points in the 2001-02 series): "Well, it's traditional at this point to say something encouraging, but I'm afraid there's nothing really I can say - it was a dismal score - you seemed to be asleep the whole way through!" (Paxman also frequently claims that teams have been asleep when they have a poor first or second half).

(To the New Hall Cambridge team that had scored only 35 points in the 1997-8 series): "I want to be as kind as possible to you, New Hall, is a terrible score. I think it might be the lowest score since the return of the series - in fact, I'm sure of it!"

(To the Royal Naval College team that had scored only 35 points against the WI team in the 2003 Professionals series): "Well, Royal Naval College - I'm afraid you're going to get a lot of stick from your friends back at the College! Beaten by the WI, eh?" (That was another decidedly ill-judged remark, since the WI team had proved to be a highly intelligent and competent foursome. Indeed, at least one viewer wrote to Radio Times to complain).


Based on the US format College Bowl by Don Reid. The format has its ultimate origin in the Second World War when Reid (who actually hailed from Canada) first devised it as a recreational activity for the US military. Granada originally copied the format without permission, reckoning the American format owners wouldn't notice a British imitation, and they actually got away with it for a few years before the Americans caught on.

Theme music

The theme music is called "College Boy" by Derek New, and the current version, introduced in 2000, is performed by the Balanescu Quartet. "Ting-a-ling", a jazzy number performed by Duke Ellington, was used for the first series.

The first two Christmas University Challenge series used the regular theme music for the opening titles, but Prokofiev's Troika from Lieutenant Kije for the end credits. They just use the standard theme now, though the 2015-16 series added the toot of a toy train at the end (the train ran around the studio floor in place of the kinetic sculpture seen in the regular series).


In 1970, a Mrs Westgate from Southampton complained to listings magazine TV Times about the Cambridge team on UC: "I missed the introduction and could not be sure whether I was looking at boys and girls - or girls and boys. How nicely masculine the other team looked though."

At its peak, the programme pulled in 12 million viewers. Not bad considering it was pretty much the antithesis of the usual slick-pattered, come-and-have-a-go, big money game show usually associated with commercial TV in those days (and in these days, indeed). The series was axed in 1987 when those ratings fell to 1 million.

By the 1980s, the mascot situation was getting out of hand, too

In the original incarnation, the series final was a "best of three" tournament between the semi-final winners. In the later years, these would be scheduled in a single week, so if there were only two episodes listed in the TV Times, you could tell that the winner of the first game would also win the second and be named champions. When it was revived on the BBC, the final became an ordinary single match.

The 1972 winners were awarded "a magnificent prize of 19 etchings by British artist Elizabeth Frink".

A 1975 first round match featuring a University of Manchester team (including David Aaronovitch) tried to derail the proceedings by giving nonsense answers (in the popular imagination, they were all the names of revolutionaries - "Trotsky", "Lenin", "Karl Marx" or "Che Guevara" - though it seems this is something of a misconception). This was in protest of the programme's perceived Oxbridge bias which allows their colleges to enter singly. This was one of the very rare occasions when the normally-unflappable Bamber became somewhat ruffled. By all accounts, there was a good deal of head-scratching at Granada as to whether the programme should be broadcast, but they eventually decided that it should, on the grounds that the students, rather than the programme itself, would look ridiculous and therefore the show's reputation would remain unimpaired - as indeed it did. Manchester was banned from the contest afterwards, and remained so for four years before successfully pleading their case for reinstatement. The incident and its aftermath probably go some way toward explaining why Manchester alumni Ben Elton, Rik Mayall and Lise Mayer took such relish in demolishing the show (figuratively and literally) in the classic 1984 Young Ones episode, "Bambi". Aaronovitch would turn up as captain of the Manchester team in the 2018/9 Christmas series. They won their episode but didn't become one of the highest scoring teams.

Further to the above, it should be acknowledged that Manchester University have more than come into their own on the programme in recent years. Maybe it's home advantage in action (the Granada studios being barely a stone's throw from the campus), but from 2005 to 2010, all the teams they have entered have made it at least as far as the semi-finals (2005, 2008 and 2010), five have made it into the Grand Final and four have won the series (the 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2013 teams: admittedly, the 2009 team did so by default - see below - but the achievement was no less impressive for that). In addition, the 1997 and 2010 teams made it into the semi-finals and the 2001 team into the quarters: both these teams were beaten by the relevant ultimate series winners - and contestants from the 1997 and 2001 teams and from the victorious 2006 team later appeared - and impressively won - on Eggheads. Also, a team from UMIST (which has since merged with Manchester University) were semi-finallists in 2000. It's certainly true to say that Manchester have come a long way since that decidedly controversial appearance on the programme more than 40 years ago.

Some episodes featured Reasonable Adjustments for disabled contestants. The captain of the Churchill College, Cambridge team for the 2001-02 regular series made use of braille cards, as did future Mastermind and Only Connect contestant Rachel Neiman when she competed as a quarter of 2009-10 semi-finalists Manchester University and former MP David Blunkett when he appeared on Aaronovitch's second episode. When a neurodivergent contestant in need of subtitles and a blind contestant in need of audio description appeared on Rajan's first Christmas series, they were not provided, so the BBC scrapped the episode.

The BBC incarnation grew out of a 1992 one-off that was produced as part of BBC2's "Granadaland" theme night.

Older but still the housewives' favourite, Bamber in 1992

The glass-effect background behind each team in the first modern incarnation read "University Challenge" in different lettering and symbols, including Greek, Cyrillic and Braille.

Jeremy Paxman only accepted the role of host after a chance meeting with his predecessor. In a 2010 interview in Radio Times he explained: "The producer rang me up, asked would I present it. I said, jolly nice of you, but it's Bamber Gascoigne's show. Then two weeks later, in the reading room at the British Museum, I saw Bamber and said, 'Hey, we've never met, but they're bringing it back. Get in there!' He laughed, said they'd rung him months ago, but it felt too much like hard work. So I said yes."

You might like to take this list with a pinch of salt, but newspaper reports in 1994 suggested that other people considered for the role of questionmaster included Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson, David Baddiel, Peter Snow, Jonathan Dimbleby and Emma Freud.

Special editions have included a Red Dwarf-themed edition made by Grant-Naylor Productions, cleverly re-titled Universe Challenge, with Bamber back in the chair; and two "Comic Relief" specials hosted by Angus Deayton.

A very notable and enjoyable University Challenge spin-off has been Monkman and Seagull's Genius Guide To Britain. This came from two contestants in the 2016-17 series of UC, in which Eric Monkman was the captain of the Wolfson College, Cambridge team (and rather inclined to shout all his answers - see also 'Paxmanisms', above), while Bobby Seagull captained the Emmanuel College, Cambridge team. The institutions met in one of the semi-finals; Wolfson won the match and went through to the Grand Final, in which they were themselves beaten by Balliol College, Oxford. Monkman and Seagull were friendly rivals on- and off-screen, and their spin-off series showed the dynamic duo travelling around Britain, discovering and celebrating Britain's many technological achievements. Oh, and Seagull became a winner on Celebrity Mastermind in 2020.

The potential points total for a set of bonuses has not always been fixed at fifteen. In the early days, University Challenge followed College Bowl's lead and had a varying score for bonuses, which was announced by the chairman before reading out the starter question. A 2012 Radio 4 documentary on the history of the show included a clip of a bonus question (possibly from the first series) with a massive forty points on offer.

They've also tweaked how to handle penalties for incorrect interruptions. As late as 1984, penalties were added to the opposition's score, rather than being deducted from your own; we guess that the computer scoreboards couldn't go backwards easily. A penalty would be assessed for interrupting the music starter partway through the tune, something Mr. Paxman has never penalised.

Bamber wraps up a 1980s edition with an impressive scoreline

Contrary to the impression you might get from watching Jeremy Paxman's reaction to unexpected responses, it's actually the producer who adjudicates on borderline answers. When Paxman appears to be umming and ahhing over whether to award points or not, he's really just waiting for a signal in his earpiece.

In 1998, a match between LSE and Oxford Brookes University was cut short when a member of the Oxford team complained of feeling unwell. She was taken off to see the Granada nurse, who declared her unable to continue with the show. Since there were only three minutes of the game left, and LSE was winning by an unassailable margin of 245 points to 40, it was decided to simply go straight to the gong, and some technical trickery was used to superimpose the missing student in the now-vacant seat for the goodbyes at the end of the programme. Paxman's attitude to both the teams at the end was, if anything, unnecessarily harsh - not only did he berate Oxford Brookes for getting such a low score, he even curtly informed the LSE, "You'll have to do better than that in your next match - let's hope that you do!" Why? - there was certainly nothing wrong with a score of 245, especially as the team had won so comfortably.

Although there have been plenty of closely-fought matches during Paxman's time on the programme, there have been surprisingly few tie-breakers - none in most series, a record of three in the 2009-2010 series. In the event of a tie, Paxman asks a new starter question: the first contestant to buzz gets to answer and, if he/she's right, the team gains ten points and wins: if a contestant interrupts incorrectly, the team concerned loses five points and the other team wins. The latter has occurred on at least five occasions (one of them during one of the 'Professionals' series) - and also, apparently, many years previously, when the late Clive James interrupted wrongly and lost his team the match - much to his embarrassment.

Arguably the most tense tie-breaker, and certainly the most drawn-out, for the Paxman-era at least, happened in the first stage of the quarter-finals in the 2018-19 series, whereby Bristol University and Darwin College, Cambridge tied on 105 points at the gong. Both teams failed to answer the first 4 decider-questions correctly, at which point Paxman exclaimed, only half-joking, "Come on - we'll be here all night!" As if in response to this, a student from Bristol answered the next question, concerning the Graham Greene novel 'The End of the Affair', correctly.

Also of note was a tie-breaker that occurred in a 2001 first-round match between Downing College, Cambridge and Newcastle University. Both teams had impressively scored well over 200 points and it appeared that, at the gong, Downing had lost by 5 points, but then Paxman announced that it actually wasn't quite the end of the game, because Newcastle had apparently been awarded 5 points in error during one of the picture rounds, meaning that those 5 points had to be deducted from their score, forcing a tie-break situation. As it happened, Newcastle got the tie-break question right and won the game, while Downing went through via the repechage route (and both teams made it as far as the quarter-finals), but it does raise the question: why wasn't the error discovered and acted upon earlier, given that it must have been very galling for Newcastle to be given the impression that they had won, then to effectively have their victory taken away from them? Maybe it's best to just put it down to a simple, if unfortunate, error that wasn't acted on early enough, for whatever reason - and, although similar amendments have been made to the scores on a few other occasions, at least these were done before the end of the programmes concerned, so lessons were clearly learned.

Bamber Gascoigne used to check the questions himself and would personally re-write any which didn't come up to scratch. He said in later years that this was mainly in order that he could be 100% sure when deciding whether the answers that the contestants gave were correct or not.

Some questions annotated in Bamber's hand. "Douglas" is, presumably, UC producer Douglas Terry.

Corpus Christi College, Oxford, were retrospectively disqualified from the 2008-9 series after winning the final when it emerged that, by the time the quarter-finals were recorded, one of the team members had already graduated and was working as an accountant. The championship title was therefore transferred to their opponents in the final, the University of Manchester. Curiously, no mention was made of this when the series returned and Manchester weren't even introduced as defending champions in the first round. While one can understand everybody wanting to put the whole sorry business behind them, it does suggest this kōan: if the altered result of a quiz show isn't even acknowledged on screen, then can it really be claimed to be the result at all? When the next final eventually rolled around, a close-up of the trophy did reveal the words "MANCHESTER UNIVERSITY" engraved on it, bringing a rather belated and embarrassedly low-key closure to the whole sad affair.

Further to the above, the rules were changed during the 2020-21 series to allow contestants who had already graduated to remain on the programme. This was due to the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Other necessary changes included the introduction of screens between the contestants and earpieces being supplied in order that they could still confer. In addition, a number of teams had to play at least one reserve when they returned for the second round, as there had clearly been a number of contestants who had had to pull out due to being ill with the disease and/or having to self-isolate.

A number of memorable moments have occurred when the winning teams have been presented with their trophies. The 1971 champions, Churchill College, Cambridge, revealed on the 'Reunited' series that, very bizarrely, both they and their opponents, Peterhouse, Cambridge, had been photographed being presented with the trophy before the Grand Final was played. This was apparently because the photographer had another engagement and therefore couldn't stay to the end of the show and Granada, for whatever reason, hadn't seen fit to pay him extra to stay. As a result, the Churchill team were sure that Peterhouse had a photo somewhere in their archives, showing them accepting a UC trophy that they had never actually won. The 1997 winners, Magdalen College, Oxford, revealed on the 'Reunited' series that the special guest on Grand Final night, Germaine Greer, had been so convinced that Magdalen's opponents, a team of mature students from the Open University, were going to win that she had spent much of the programme rehearsing her congratulatory speech for the latter team and was therefore caught on the hop when Magdalen won - not that she didn't rise to the occasion in her usual inimitable style. The following year, Professor Richard Dawkins announced that he was hoping to see A-Levels scrapped in favour of 'University Challenge'-style tests, on the basis that students should be able to access a wide range of information at speed as a sound preparation for their future careers.

In 1999, Paxman asked the victorious Open University team what they would do with the trophy, given that OU students never met. One of the students said that it would probably end up in the basement of the OU's headquarters in Milton Keynes. "I don't think you'd better tell us about that", responded Paxman firmly, "just accept it - retire gracefully...!" In 2003, Benjamin Zephaniah stated that he once told his mother that one day he'd get on 'University Challenge'. "Well, you have", said Paxman. "Ah yes", chuckled Zephaniah, "but I've cheated..." (Hardly - he'd definitely earned the right by virtue of his unique talents). In the same year, when the late Mo Mowlam came to present the trophy to the first winners of the 'Professionals' series, the then-Inland Revenue, she was full of praise for their impressive knowledge, but then added, "...But come on, let's have a smile from you all - you've hardly smiled all through the game..." and the team duly obliged. (Mind you, they would have been ill-advised to do otherwise, given that Mowlam was, by all accounts, a very feisty and determined character). In addition, Stephen Fry was apparently offered a printout of the answers to the questions used in the 'Reunited' series Grand Final before he presented the trophy, but he declined, preferring to play along with the game - and, by all accounts, he answered virtually all the questions correctly, ahead of the teams - Keele and Sidney Sussex - in the studio, although, one would suspect, not by much, given that both teams, Sidney Sussex in particular, were very intelligent and quick on the buzzers.

Further to the above, it's also notable that the trophy has been presented in locations other than the UC studio on three occasions. The first of these was in 2012, when, to mark the programme's 50th anniversary, the ceremony took place at Clarence House, where Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, presented the trophy to that year's champions, Manchester University. The other two occurred in 2017, whereby Stephen Hawking presented the trophy to the victorious team from Balliol College, Oxford, at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and in 2020, when Sir Andrew Wiles presented the trophy to series champions Imperial College, London, at the Andrew Wiles Centre, University of Oxford. In all three cases, the series runners-up (Pembroke College, Cambridge, Wolfson College, Cambridge and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge respectively) were also included in the ceremonies, rightly so.

University Challenge features in David Nicholls' bestselling comic novel Starter For Ten, which has been made into a feature film. When the film came to terrestrial telly, BBC Two took the opportunity to air the "network premiere" as part of a very welcome University Challenge theme night. And of course, it was only a matter of time before the producers decided to include a question regarding the film on the programme as a bit of cheeky self-reference: the question cropped up in the 2005 Grand Final (the answer actually being 'Starter For Ten') and was answered correctly by Nick Sharpe, a member of the victorious Corpus Christi Oxford team.

Pleasingly, several former contestants (including at least two champions) have become question-setters for the programme, as we can see during the end credits. They include Charles Oakley, captain of the aforementioned Corpus Christi 2005 team, Olav Bjortomt (Nottingham University 2000, quarter-finallists), Sean Prendiville (Trinity Hall Cambridge 2008, quarter-finallists), Matthew Dolan (St John's College Cambridge 2009, semi-finallists), Max Fitz-James (Edinburgh University, 2019 series champions), and previously, Dr Phil Jones (Magdalen College, Oxford, 1998, series champions) and Martin Heighway (Open University 1997, series runners-up).

Yes, we are aware that the blurb on the back of the University Challenge board game starts the same way as our write-up, but we're not the ones doing the copying...

Famous questions

Bamber's favourite question: "If A stands for Artichoke, B for Because, C for Curriculum, and D for Do, what might E be for?". After a few seconds of blank looks, one contestant tentatively guessed "Elephant?"... and got it right, because any answer beginning with E would have continued the sequence.

Another starter that might be considered to fall into the "trick question" category appeared in the 2010 quarter-finals: "Light travels 186,282 miles per second in a vacuum. How many miles does sound travel per second in the same conditions?" The captain of the Manchester team looked somewhat doubtful as he answered "It doesn't travel at all in a vacuum", which of course is the correct answer.

According to one of the books celebrating the programme's success, there was an occasion during the early years when Bamber managed to successfully cover up a swear-word - and just as well that he did, given that editing was far more difficult in those days. One contestant was so frustrated that he was unable to remember the name of a German composer that he muttered a certain four-letter word and the quick-thinking Bamber responded, "No, it's not Schmidt". He did this so blithely that the viewers actually believed that that was what they'd heard - and it was certainly a strong testament to Bamber's skill and professionalism that he'd managed to pull it off.

Probably one of the most bizarre answers on the programme occurred in a late-2010 edition, when Paxman asked for the name of a type of flower that grew in Tanzania and was named after both its area of origin and the colour of its petals. One student buzzed and answered "Tanzanian Devil" - definitely a strange choice, given that, for one thing, the correct term is 'Tasmanian Devil', and for another, it's a type of mammal, not a flower. Perhaps equally surprising is the fact that Paxman didn't berate the student concerned on this occasion - not that we'd want him to, anyway.

Not too dissimilar to this was a question asked in an early-1996 edition: "Pen-y-Fan is the highest point in which Welsh National Park?" and a Welsh student interrupted with the answer 'Snowdonia', which was certainly not right, given that Snowdon is the highest point not only in that particular National Park, but also in the whole of Wales. The question was offered to the opposing team, one of whom gave the correct answer, namely 'The Brecon Beacons'. As with so many other incorrect answers, it's probably best to just put it down to a heat-of-the-moment response that happened to be the wrong one - and we've all done it at one time or another, whether on TV or not. Either way, the student concerned on this occasion was also lucky enough not to incur any scathing comments from Paxman.

Another, erm, unusual answer came when the teams were asked to identify a London building, and one contestant buzzed in with the answer "The Erotic Gherkin". It wasn't the Gherkin, erotic or otherwise, and Paxman clearly decided to spare the contestant further embarrassment, just saying "No..." and passing it over to the other team. There are however some of us who consequently still think of it as the Erotic Gherkin to this day...

One 1998 edition included a question on the lines of, "During which activity did some students stir up controversy for competing on behalf of Cambridge when they were in fact Oxford students?" (or vice versa). One contestant buzzed in and answered, not unreasonably, "The Boat Race". This was wrong, so was offered to their opponents, one of whom buzzed and said, "University Challenge", much to Paxman's disgust ("Thank you very much!" was his response). The answer was in fact 'Ballroom dancing', but 'University Challenge' was certainly worth a try, however unlikely it may have been - and we all know what Paxman's like anyway, don't we?

During a first-round match in 2001, a team from De Montfort University had a set of bonuses on the comedy series "Dad's Army". The second question was regarding the famous catchphrase that Captain Mainwaring was constantly directing at Private Pike and the team's captain delivered it in a suitably formidable tone: "You stupid boy!" "Perfect"! declared Paxman, then, in a mock-hurt tone, "It was almost personally meant..."

Later in the same series, Paxman asked a student, Peter Kitson from Downing College, Cambridge, who was very good at identifying fighter aircraft, how he knew so much on the subject: Kitson responded that he used to make model aircraft. "Ah, so it's all come in useful for you then", replied Paxman in a surprisingly polite tone.

Paxman was even kinder on a previous occasion. During the 1998 Grand Final, the eventual winners, Magdalen College, Oxford, were unable to answer a question on differential equations that had stumped even the (very knowledgeable) scientist on their team, Phil Jones, and their captain, Sarah Fitzpatrick, had to tell Paxman, "I'm afraid we don't understand". "Don't worry", answered Paxman. "Neither do I. Neither does anyone in the entire studio".

An amusing moment occurred in a late-2005 edition of the show, when Paxman asked the question, "Broadcast on BBC1 at about 10.30pm on 6 October 2004, what was the particular significance of the words, 'Staying bright and dry in the more northern parts of the country?'" One contestant buzzed in and offered, "Part of the first 'Newsnight' weather forecast?" (He was very obviously referring to the fact that Paxman had recently appeared decidedly and uncharacteristically ill-at-ease when he had to deliver the forecast on said programme). Paxman did actually laugh good-humouredly at this answer, before offering the question to the opposing team, one of whom suggested, "The total opposite happened?" Paxman's response to that was, "That, I grant you, is very likely, but they were in fact the closing words of the final weather forecast by Michael Fish".

During a 2007 quarter-final between the University of Manchester and Wadham College, Oxford, the former team were asked "Which distribution emits a probability density function f (x) equals 1 over square root of 2 pi times e to the power of minus x squared divided by 2?" The Manchester captain Kieran Lavin very deliberately asked "Could you repeat the question please?" and amidst the laughter Paxman adamantly said "No!"

A rather gimmicky picture round occurred in the 1985 Grand Final match between the Open University and St Andrews: for the starter, the teams were given some letters that had been jumbled up and had to rearrange them in order to reveal something connected with the programme. A member of the ultimately victorious Open University team buzzed and got it right: it was 'Granada Television'. They then went on to unscramble three more sets of letters correctly, to reveal the equally relevant words 'Bamber Gascoigne', 'University Challenge' and 'The Open University'. Presumably, the last one would not have been used if the Open's opponents, St Andrews University, had been answering the questions: one would imagine that an anagram of the latter name would have been used instead.

In a match between Kings School of Medicine and Dentistry, London and Keble College, Oxford in 1996, one of the questions was "Thuma, Towcher, Long-man, Lech-man and Little-man are Old and Middle English names for which parts of the human body?" One of the Kings contestants answered "Penis" (the correct answer was "Fingers"), to which Mr Paxman responded, "You're a medical student - how many penises did they teach you we have nowadays?!"

Something similar happened in a 2000 match, when Paxman asked the teams, "The names 'Cheesemongers', 'CherryPickers', 'Bob's Own', 'The Emperor's Chambermaids' and 'The Immortals' are or have been used for which groups of men?" One unfortunate contestant from UMIST buzzed in and said, "Homosexuals". Paxman's (somewhat shocked) response was, "No! They're regiments in the British Army - and they're going to be very upset with you, UMIST!"

File:National trust logo.jpgCeci n'est pas une feuille de chêne

In 1999, Paxman showed a British tourist sign: "For ten points, simply tell me what it is". New Hall's contestant Lydia Wilson buzzes in: "It's an oak leaf" There is laughter from the audience. Paxman is disgusted. "Anyone can see it's an oak leaf! I was asking what it was!" Wilson is not fazed. "You asked me what it was - You should have said: 'What is it for?' not 'What is it?'" "It's a sign, signifying the National Trust. Actually on a point of pedantry you may be right, but there you are, bad luck!" Wilson was voted Woman's Hour's "Woman of the Week" for standing up to Paxman. In an interview on one of the programmes charting the show's success, she said that she reckoned she was better at arguing than answering questions - actually, she was highly adept at both.

Also, in an early 2007 match, Paxman asked, "Which planet is principally made of iron, but shares its name with a different metal?" One contestant, Warren Read, from Reading University buzzed and said, "Pluto" (which was, incidentally, still classified as a planet at the time, although it's since been downgraded to a dwarf planet). Paxman laughed at this, but Read argued, "Plutonium. It does share its name with a different metal - you can't argue with that!" Paxman was once again forced to back down (albeit slightly), this time by saying, "Well, I suppose it does, if you want to treat it that liberally, but I'm not going to accept it - the answer's 'Mercury!'"

A third example of an argumentative student occurred in a 2014 match, in which Paxman asked, "Who was the only 20th Century British Prime Minister to win 3 elections?", at which point Ralph Morley, captain of the Trinity College, Cambridge team, who would go on to win the series, buzzed in and answered, "Margaret Thatcher". "However did you get that so quickly?" asked Paxman, to which Morley scornfully retorted, "Who else could it be?" Paxman was momentarily flummoxed, then recovered his composure by saying, "Right - let's see how you do with these bonuses - they're on (whatever) - you smartarses!" The team got the first two bonus questions correct, but not the third one - "They're not all that easy, are they?" asked Paxman good-naturedly, and Morley agreed with similar good humour - thus, peace was restored.

In the later 2007 series, producers managed to confuse the audience by showing two picture questions on castles in the wrong order. Photos of Warwick and Arundel were transposed in the edit, although it is not known whether they were displayed to the teams correctly. As the winning margin was 30 points and only 5 points at most were at stake, the result would not have changed.

One question (or rather, a resulting comment from Paxman) that proved decidedly controversial occurred in a late-1998 edition of the show, when Paxman asked, "Who was on the British throne at the start of this millennium?" One contestant buzzed in and, understandably thinking 'century' rather than 'millennium' in the heat of the moment, answered "Queen Victoria". Paxman offered it to the opposing team, one of whom buzzed and answered correctly, "Ethelred The Unready". Paxman then made the controversial comment, "I know she (Victoria) was an old trout, but not that much of an old trout!" - a number of viewers were definitely not amused.

On a lighter note, it's often nice to hear Paxman recite poetry when asking the questions, especially on one occasion in 2000:

"Cottlestone, cottlestone, cottlestone pie
"A fly can't bird, but a bird can fly.
"Ask me a riddle and I reply
"Cottlestone, cottlestone, cottlestone pie".

"This was a favourite poem of which literary character?" The answer was 'Winnie The Pooh'. Also, this one, from a 2011 edition:

"Boggis and Bunce and Bean,
"One fat, one short, one lean,
"These horrible crooks
"So different in looks
"Were nonetheless equally mean."

"These were characters featured in which book by Roald Dahl?" The answer in this case was 'Fantastic Mr Fox'.


The highest match score of all time was University College, Oxford's 520 points in 1987, versus Reading. The highest score PE (Paxman Era) was Open University's 415 points against Charing Cross in 1997. Lowest winning score is believed to be Emmanual Cambridge's 85-80 win over King's London in a March 2022 quarter-final - but records aren't complete for the series on ITV.

The all-time lowest score was 0 (zero) points, lodged by alumni (including the naturalist Martin Hughes-Games and TV gardener and writer Pippa Greenwood) of Reading University in the final of 2017-18 Christmas University Challenge. The team failed to answer a single question correctly, and incurred no penalties for incorrect interruptions.

In the student series, the record is 10 points notched up by Sussex University teams in 1971 and October 2021. Sussex had won the series in 1968 and 1970 - their 1971 team were clearly hoping for a third victory, but it wasn't to be. The 2021 side were drawn against a fast-buzzing Birmingham team, and never got their toes in the game.

The lowest score for the regular series in the modern era had been 15 points, achieved by Exeter in a quarter-final match against Corpus Christi College, Oxford, broadcast in January 2009. The second-lowest was 30 points, achieved just two weeks later by Lincoln College, Oxford in a semi-final against Manchester, and St John's College, Oxford also scored 30 in the 2016 Grand Final.

Prior to the 2008-9 series, the old Paxman-era record was infamously set by the girls of New Hall, Cambridge (pictured below). Their 35 points (coming back from -15) were scraped together in a show aired in 1997, beating a 40-point low previously kept by Birkbeck College, London. Bradford University and Jesus College, Oxford also scored 35, in 2004 and 2010 respectively, as did the Royal Naval College and the Lawyers in the 2003 Professionals series.

File:Unichallenge newhall lowscorers.jpgIf you can't be a winning team...

Until Exeter's failure, the all-time low for the Paxman era was also achieved in the 2003 Professionals series, when the House of Commons team, which included Austin Mitchell and Lembit Opik, scored only 25.

In 2006, Robinson College, Cambridge scored 40 points. Other teams to score only 40 have included Oxford Brookes University (1998 - but see Trivia above); St Andrews University (2001 and 2004); Keele University (2002), Queen's University, Belfast (2005), Cardiff University and Sheffield Hallam University (both in 2017) and Wolfson College, Cambridge (2019). In addition, eight teams have scored only 45 points: St Hilda's, Oxford (2006 and 2022), Corpus Christi, Oxford (2007), and Queen Mary London (2022) all in their second rounds, Plymouth University (2011) in their first round, St Hugh's, Oxford (2017) in their repechage match, Ulster University (2018) in their second quarter-final and Wolfson College, Oxford, (2020) in their third quarter-final.

Stephen Fry, meanwhile, must surely hold the record for the most appearances (after the hosts) on the programme. He represented his university, Queen's College, Cambridge, in the 1981 series, reaching that year's final, and has since reappeared on several celebrity specials, including the 1992 one against Keble College, Oxford, and at least one of the Angus Deayton-hosted Comic Relief specials, and he presented the trophy to the winners of the Reunited series. He also took part in the 'Young Ones' spoof of the programme (in his autobiography The Fry Chronicles he claims to have suggested the idea to Ben Elton in the first place), and even appeared as the host of the rather similar School Challenge in the 2007 St. Trinian's film. In a quiz show feature in Radio Times, he also named University Challenge as the quiz show he'd most like to host, calling it "a window on the weirdness and wonder of studentry".

Stephen Fry again, captaining the celebrity graduates team in the 1992 special

The oldest contestant on the regular series to date was the then-73-year-old Mrs Ida Staples. She was on the 1997 Open University team, who were that year's defeated finallists.

During the Paxman era, the opening match of the first fourteen series saw the losing team qualify among the highest-scoring runners-up, usually due to a strong comeback by one of the teams. An amazing coincidence? No, just the result of the producers picking an exciting match to be the first broadcast in each new series. The sequence was finally broken in the 2008/9 series, although it did occur again in the 2009-10 series. Two series (1997/8 and 2007/8) saw all the first four losing teams become highest-scoring losers - rather more in the way of coincidence there, surely?

Two reprieved teams, Durham University in the 2000 series and Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 2010, went on to win the title - and both, it should also be noted, had exceptionally intelligent captains who were largely responsible for their respective teams' victories - John Stewart in Durham's case and Alex Guttenplan in Emmanuel's. In 2001, another such team, St John's College Oxford, were defeated again in the final. Manchester University finished runners-up in 2007 having also lost their first round game. For the record, the highest losing score to fail to qualify for the repechage matches during Paxman's time has been 165, scored by Brasenose College, Oxford, in the 2002-3 series. There was actually a 3-way tie on this score, but the other two losing teams qualified, since they had, according to Paxman, 'reached their total more quickly and with fewer mistakes', so Brasenose were unfortunately knocked out. The lowest losing score to bring a team back was York University's 120 in the 2004-5 series.

At least two finalists from the regular series have gone on to win different series. Dorjana Širola, who was part of the victorious Somerville College Oxford team from 2002, went on to win the 2006 Professionals series as part of the Bodleian Library team. Rob Linham, from the St John's College Oxford team who were runners up in the 2001 Grand Final, went on to win the 2008 Professionals series as part of the Ministry of Justice team. Another contestant from the same St John's team, Aaron Bell, went on to become the 2009 champion on The Krypton Factor, and he's since become an MP. In addition, Ed Brims, who was on the St John's Oxford team in the 2003-4 series (the team made it as far as the quarter-finals) was a Krypton Factor finallist in 2010, while Jesse Honey, who was in the Durham University team that made the semi-finals in the 1998-9 series, became the 2010 Mastermind champion. Honey's team-mate and captain, Jack Welsby, became the joint Fifteen-to-One champion (along with David Stedman) in 2003. Dr Ian Bayley competed twice on UC, originally on behalf of Imperial College, London, who reached the second round in the 1996-7 series, and later on behalf of Balliol College, Oxford, who made it as far as the quarter-finals in the 2000-01 series: he went on to become the 2010 Brain of Britain and 2011 Mastermind champion. Freya McClements, captain of the victorious 2004 Magdalen Oxford team, later appeared on Round Britain Quiz and is also now a question-setter on Mastermind.


Regular series, ITV
Series     Champions
1963 Leicester
1964 New College, Oxford
1966 Oriel College, Oxford
1968 Sussex
1969 Keele
1970 Sussex
1971 Churchill College, Cambridge
1972 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1973 University College, Oxford
1974 Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
1975 Trinity College, Cambridge
1976 Keble College, Oxford
1977 University College, Oxford
1978 Durham
1979 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1980 Bradford
1981 Merton College, Oxford
1982 Queen's University, Belfast
1983 St. Andrews
1984 Dundee
1985 Open University
1986 Jesus College, Oxford
1987 Keble College, Oxford

Regular series, BBC revival
Series Champions Trophy presented by
1994-95 Trinity College, Cambridge Bamber Gascoigne
1995-96 Imperial College, London John Simpson
1996-97 Magdalen College, Oxford Germaine Greer
1997-98 Magdalen College, Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins
1998-99 Open University Jeremy Paxman
1999-2000     Durham Jeremy Paxman
2000-01 Imperial College, London Poet Laureate Professor Andrew Motion
2001-02 Somerville College, Oxford Baroness Mary Warnock
2002-03 Birkbeck College, London Benjamin Zephaniah
2003-04 Magdalen College, Oxford Bill Bryson
2004-05 Corpus Christi College, Oxford Pete Postlethwaite
2005-06 Manchester Peter Ackroyd
2006-07 Warwick Ann Widdecombe MP
2007-08 Christ Church College, Oxford Dame Joan Bakewell
2008-09 Manchester* Wendy Cope
2009-10 Emmanuel College, Cambridge Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy
2010-11 Magdalen College, Oxford Antony Beevor
2011-12 Manchester Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall (at Clarence House, to mark the programme's 50th anniversary)
2012-13 Manchester Sir Martin Rees
2013-14 Trinity College, Cambridge Jeanette Winterson
2014-15 Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge     Will Self
2015-16 Peterhouse, Cambridge Marcus du Sautoy
2016-17 Balliol College, Oxford Stephen Hawking (at Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge)
2017-18 St John's College, Cambridge Judith Weir
2018-19 Edinburgh Sebastian Faulks
2019-20 Imperial College, London Sir Andrew Wiles (at the Andrew Wiles Centre, University of Oxford)
2020-21 Warwick Poet Laureate Simon Armitage
2021-22 Imperial College, London Sir Andre Geim
2022-23 Durham Jung Chang
2023-24 Imperial College, London Amol Rajan**

* Corpus Christi College, Oxford, actually won the final, but were subsequently disqualified for fielding an ineligible non-student player.
** Amol Rajan presented the trophy in the studio; this was followed by a filmed epilogue from the rooftop of Imperial College to mark the institution's record fifth series win, in which they and the runners-up, University College, London, were congratulated by Sir Tom Stoppard.

As can be seen, only five institutions have won the series more than twice. Imperial College, London are top of the table with five wins, ahead of Magdalen College, Oxford and Manchester University on four wins each (albeit one of Manchester's wins was by default); remarkably, all thirteen of these victories have occurred during the BBC era. Trinity College, Cambridge and Durham University have both won three times, each winning once during the ITV era and twice on the BBC. Magdalen's second win, in 1997-98, also made them the first institution to win the series two years running (Manchester becoming the second in 2012-13), although it should be noted that prior to 1996-97, any institution that won a series was not allowed to compete in the next series. It's also notable that while three Scottish institutions and one from Northern Ireland have won the series, no Welsh institution has done so as of yet.

University Challenge Reunited
2002 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge 1979 (trophies presented by Stephen Fry)

University Challenge: The Professionals
Series     Champions Team members Trophies presented by
2003 Inland Revenue Terry Cook, Allana Sheil, David Edney, Richard Thomas Mo Mowlam MP
2004 British Library Colin Wight, Kathryn Johnson, Bart Smith, Ron Hogg Fay Weldon
2005 Privy Council Office     John Watherston, Meriel McCullagh, Alex Galloway, Graham Donald     John Sessions
2006 Bodleian Library John Wilby, Dorjana Širola, Mike Heaney, Bob Wyatt Dr David Starkey
2008 Ministry of Justice Andrew Frazer, Rob Linham, George Godyn, Nigel Black Baroness Valerie Amos

Christmas University Challenge
Series     Champions Team members
2011 Trinity College, Cambridge Robin Bhattacharyya, Daisy Goodwin, John Lloyd, Edward Stourton
2012 New College, Oxford Rachel Johnson, Patrick Gale, Kate Mosse, Yan Wong
2013 Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge     Quentin Stafford-Fraser, Helen Castor, Mark Damazer, Lars Tharp
2014 Trinity Hall, Cambridge Tom James, Emma Pooley, Adam Mars-Jones, Dan Starkey
2015 Magdalen College, Oxford Robin Lane Fox, Heather Berlin, Louis Theroux, Matt Ridley
2016 St Hilda's College, Oxford Fiona Caldicott, Daisy Dunn, Val McDermid, Adele Geras
2017 Keble College, Oxford Paul Johnson, Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Katy Brand, Anne-Marie Imafidon
2018 Peterhouse, Cambridge Dan Mazer, Mark Horton, Michael Howard, Michael Axworthy
2019 Leeds Jonathan Clements, Henry Gee, Richard Coles, Tim Allen
2020 Courtauld Institute of Art, London Tim Marlow, Lavinia Greenlaw, Jacky Klein, Jeremy Deller
2021 Edinburgh Catherine Slessor, Thomasina Miers, Miles Jupp, Phil Swanson
2022 Balliol College, Oxford Elizabeth Kiss, Andrew Copson, Martin Edwards, Martin O'Neill
2023 Middlesex Heather Phillipson, Lola Young, Dan Skinner, David Hepworth, David Heathcote*

* David Heathcote replaced Dan Skinner for the semi-finals and final, with Heather Phillipson taking over as captain.

Challenge Matches
1992 Celebrity Alumni team* beat Keble College, Oxford
1997 Magdalen College Oxford 1997 beat Imperial College London 1996
1997 Magdalen College Oxford 1997 beat the four finallists from the last-ever Magnus Magnusson-hosted series of Mastermind
1999 Magdalen College Oxford 1998 beat Leicester 1963

* Alumni team consisted of previous UC contestants: John Simpson, Charles Moore, Stephen Fry (captain) and Alistair Little.


University Challenge: The First 40 Years (paperback)

University Challenge Quiz Book (1995) (paperback)

The University Challenge Quiz Book (2010) (paperback)

Web links

Wikipedia entry

Opening titles from the BBC Motion Graphics Archive

Sean Blanchflower's page - includes some excellent statistics and features, including an interview with David Elias (former question setter)

Chris Harrison's page

Jacob Funnell's University Challenge experience


File:Universitychallenge bamber titles.jpgIt's goodnight from him.
File:Universitychallenge_nextgame_caption.jpgDetails of the next game appear over a typical Bamber-era student audience/rabble.
File:Universitychallenge oldbamber scores.jpgBamber's teams for today.
File:Universitychallenge newhall.jpgPaxman with the New Hall gang (No, not the same team that scored the lowest, the ones who proved surprisingly argumentative, and also rather good at dancing).
A modern day question card.
File:Universitychallenge radiotimescover2011.jpgPaxman appears on the cover of Radio Times in 2011. Despite the strapline, Widdecombe's actual complaint was that the questions are too difficult.
Announcer, Roger Tilling
Paxman and his beard in the 2013 Christmas series


The third ever episode from 1962

Reader "John C" tells us: "It might be of interest to note that Ian Channell (full name Ian Brackenbury Channell), who features in that video clip from 1962, later emigrated to New Zealand and became there a highly eccentric and well-known figure self-designated as the Wizard of Christchurch. Most days around lunchtime he would be seen in Cathedral Square, in full wizard rig with cloak and tall black pointy hat, operating as a sort of one-man Speakers' Corner, ready to argue on any subject with anyone. He was also noted for his regular attempts to avoid being enumerated in censuses, claiming to intend using his wizardly powers to this end (not always successfully). Sadly, the shattering earthquakes that so disfigured his adopted city in 2010 and 2011, together with advancing age, have now virtually put paid to his activities." For more than twenty years the City of Christchurch paid him what was effectively an annual grant for promoting and contributing to the city's cultural life, its decision to end the arrangement in 2021 being widely reported as marking the end of an era.

See also

Sixth Form Challenge

Schools Challenge


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