For boomers who love UK TV abroad, Paxo’s ‘University Challenge’ grillings are just as good as Bambi’s.
It can be tough being an expat TV fan. There’s no problem keeping up with flagship dramas, comedies-of-the-day, and box set fodder. But what about those long-running schedule fillers? They form a kind of televisual undergrowth: you never know how much you miss them until they’re not there. ‘University Challenge’ is a case in point.
A British television staple for a couple of generations, ‘University Challenge’ remains as compelling as a bag of pistachios. At the start of each series, dozens of universities field teams of their brightest and best to be eliminated via a relentless succession of heats en route to a face-off finale. The range of subject matter — from nuclear physics to art history — and the steady alternation of rapid-fire ‘starter’ questions (“No conferring!”) with relaxed, teamwork-friendly ‘bonuses’ affords scope for different styles of participation. But there’s more to the show’s appeal than slick question-setting.
The ‘Challenge’ format is both older and more cosmopolitan than you might expect. Its lineage originated in WWII USO entertainments and then developed over lengthy stints on US public radio and, as ‘College Bowl’, on American TV. When Granada TV acquired the property in 1962, its workings had been thoroughly debugged. This freed the production team to concentrate on fine-tuning the program for UK audiences.
Granada recognized how access to higher education was changing the relationship between academia and the mainstream. Their single best decision was hiring Bamber Gascoigne as quizmaster and frontman. Eccentric, erudite, posh, unfailingly polite, and only a few years older than the teams. Gascoigne presented an idealized version of the dons and professors that the audience and their offspring might expect to encounter at college.
Over the next 25 years, Gascoigne would age but not wither, an icon of the post-war settlement. The groupings who faced him presented a microcosm of shifting public attitudes. They were covering all the bases from young fogey to greater, and from cheery compliance to outright sabotage. When Gascoigne finally stepped down, ITV took the show off the air. It was a wise move. ‘The Young Ones’ were lampooning the program’s middle-class bias at the same time as the Thatcher government was phasing out the student grants which had delivered social mobility. Like the education system, ‘University Challenge’ looked unlikely to recover.
“Come on, we need an answer.”
The reboot, when it arrived seven years later, raised eyebrows. ‘University Challenge’ had moved from ITV to BBC2, aligning it with the highbrow product like ‘Horizon’, ‘The Arts Show’ and ‘Newsnight’. And, as if to ram the point home, the new presenter was Jeremy ‘Paxo’ Paxman, a famous interviewer. His contributions to the last-named series had involved decades of skewering prominent government and media figures. Paxo was much older than the average ‘Challenge’ participant. In his encounters with aspiring media historians and self-financed food technology undergrads, many viewers sensed the spirit of an older liberal elite, astonished to encounter young people who’d never heard of Tony Crosland and thought that Ravel had written ‘La Boheme’.
Paxo is now 20 years into his run on ‘University Challenge’ and shows no signs of slowing down. His status as the ‘new normal’ was confirmed when Gascoigne came out of retirement to send him up for a ‘Red Dwarf’ special around the turn of the millennium. The series has settled into middle age with a winning combination of familiar formula and stimulating questions. ‘University Challenge’ is one more of those unsung Brit gems which fans of UK TV abroad can enjoy via TVMucho.