When I was in my second year at university, I applied to join the University Challenge team. Me and my flatmate entered for a laugh after seeing a flyer on the notice board outside a lecture theatre. We had no serious aspirations of making the show — us on telly with Jeremy Paxman? Unthinkable. But if you never try you’ll never know, right?
We strolled down to the Student Union to participate in the opening round. Our goal was one correct answer, no more. One answer would be enough to satisfy our egos and help us feel the experience wasn’t a complete waste of an hour.
I recall the room was full. I don’t know the motivations of the other students, whether they like us thought this was a fun way to spend an autumnal evening, or whether they were imagining their name on one of those famous nameplates with a novelty mascot by their side.
We turned over the paper. Classic trivia questions. I don’t recall how many. I rattled through the first page fairly quickly, guessing those that I didn’t know (historical dates and philosophy escape me), and swiftly moved on to page 2.
‘Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…’. Now we’re into my territory, a musicals question! My prayers had been answered. The Sound of Music: I’d had it on VHS as a child and watched it probably weekly in my grandparents’ front room. Here was my one correct answer banked.
At little while later the timer went off, we handed in our papers and were dismissed. We laughed on the way home at our shared delight that Julie Andrews had gifted us our correct answer. We made dinner, went back to our work, and promptly forgot the paper had ever happened.
Colour me surprised when about ten days later I received an email congratulating me on reaching the second round. What? How? This was not what I intended, but with encouragement from my friends the prank continued. I picked a time slot for my second round audition.
Back at the SU with a new paper: same number of questions, half the time. It was just me in the room on this occasion, no other students, no distractions. I don’t recall much other than it went by very quickly. I think I gave an answer to every question, but most were guesses.
Then I was called into another room for a face-to-face quiz. I would be read the questions aloud and answer verbally as quickly as I could. Eek, this is all a bit real. No buzzers though, that detail was spared for the chosen few.
I said ‘pass’ to most of the questions. At the very least I was confident in what I did not know, and I wasn’t going to attempt to make up an answer! At the end it was revealed there were only eleven of us left. Eleven from the entire university. Five would be picked for the team — four for the TV, and one in reserve.
It was perhaps another week before I received an email informing me I’d missed out, but to please try again next year. Phew.
So no, I did not appear on University Challenge, and I have no intention of returning to academia so I don’t think it will happen. Doubtless it would have been a great story to say I’d been on the show, and I’m sure I’d have an anecdote or two of Paxman kicking my arse for saying something stupid or laughing at an inappropriate moment, but I doubt I’d have enjoyed the preparations and the pressure of being on camera.
However it was a useful lesson in trying, even when you don’t think you’re good enough. I certainly surprised myself.
I also learned that quizzing is a team sport. It is exceedingly rare to find one person who knows all the answers, and a balanced team with varied skills will almost always beat a ‘brilliant’ individual.