University Challenge

University Challenge

Infobox Television
show_name = University Challenge

caption =
format = Game show
picture_format = 4:3
runtime = 30 minutes
creator =
starring = Bamber Gascoigne
Jeremy Paxman
(BBC Two)
Angus Deayton
(Comic Relief specials)
channel = ITV
(21 September 1962 – 31 December 1987)
(21 September 1994 – present)
first_aired = 21 September 1962
last_aired = present
num_series =
num_episodes =
country = UK
producer = Granada Television
related = "College Bowl"
imdb_id = 0177465

"University Challenge" is a long-running British television quiz show, licensed and produced by Granada Television. It was first shown on ITV from 21 September 1962 to 31 December 1987, then on BBC Two from 21 September 1994 to the present day.

The format is based on the American show "College Bowl", which ran on NBC radio from 1953 to 1957, and on NBC TV from 1959 to 1970. "College Bowl" is credited in the end title.


At its inception in 1962, "University Challenge" was hosted by Bamber Gascoigne. Whenever audience figures began to fall (for example, due to its less-than-auspicious broadcast slots such as Sunday afternoons, weekday afternoons and, in some regions, late at night), changes were made to the long-standing format of the programme: initial games were staged over two legs, the second leg involving contestants selecting questions from specific categories such as sport, literature and science.

This added complexity did little to halt declining viewer figures, and after ITV regions started to drop the programme altogether (the final season was not screened at all by LWT) it was taken off the air in 1987. It was eventually revived in 1994 by the BBC, although still produced by Granada Television, using the original format with minor differences and presented by Jeremy Paxman.

During the show's hiatus, a special edition of the show was made, not in fact by Granada but by BBC Television, as part of a themed evening of programmes dedicated to Granada Television. It was presented by Bamber Gascoigne, and remains his final appearance as presenter to date. The teams included one made up of students from Keble College, Oxford, which had fielded the winning team from the final 1987 season; and a graduates team made up of celebrity alumni who had previously starred on the programme as students, including journalist John Simpson and actor Stephen Fry. This show was preceded by a short documentary about the show's history, which revealed that before each recording Gascoigne used to insist on eating an Eccles cake, which would have been placed on his desk by the production team.

The original announcer was Jim Pope, who stayed with the programme from 1963 until his death in 2001. Since then, the announcer has been Roger Tilling. The memorable theme tune is called "College Boy" and was composed by Derek New. The original version from the Bamber Gascoigne era is no longer used, and has been replaced by a version recorded by The Balanescu Quartet.


The current tournament format used for each series is that of a direct knockout tournament starting with 28 teams. The 14 first-round winners progress directly to the last 16. Two matches, involving the four highest scoring losing teams from the first round whose losing scores often exceed winning scores in other first-round matches, fill the remaining places in the last 16.

Teams consist of four members and represent either a single university or a college of the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Wales or London.

"Starter" questions are answered individually "on the buzzer" without conferring and are worth 10 points. "Your starter for 10" became the programme's most famous catchphrase and inspired David Nicholls' 2003 novel "Starter for Ten" and the 2006 film based on it starring James McAvoy. The team answering a starter correctly gets a set of three "bonus" questions worth a potential 15 points over which they can confer. Sets of bonus questions are thematically linked, although they rarely share a connection with the preceding starter question. Generally there are three separate bonus questions worth 5 points each, but occasionally a bonus will require the enumeration of a given list with 5, 10 or 15 points given for correctly giving a certain number of items from the list ("e.g.", "there are seven fundamental SI units. Give 5 for 5 points, 6 for 10 points or all 7 for 15 points"). An incorrect interruption of a starter results in a 5-point penalty.

It is the team captain's responsibility to give the answer to the bonus questions, unless he specifically defers to another member of his team with the phrase "Nominate Smith". The team member Smith may then give the answer in place of the captain.

In the course of a game there are two "picture rounds" (occurring roughly one quarter and three quarters of the way through) and one "music round" (at the halfway point), where the subsequent bonuses are connected thematically to the starter; if a picture or music starter is not correctly answered, the accompanying bonus questions are held back until a normal starter is correctly answered.

The pace of questioning gradually increases through the show, becoming almost frantic in the last minute or so before the "gong" which signals the end of the game. In the event of a tied score at the sound of the gong, a "sudden death" question is asked, the first team to answer correctly being deemed the winner; this is repeated until one or other of the teams answer correctly, or a team loses by giving an incorrect interruption. The ending of the programme is signified with Jeremy Paxman saying "It's goodbye from ("name of losing team, who wave and say goodbye"), it's goodbye from ("winning team, likewise"), and it's goodbye from me: goodbye!"

While the starter questions are being read out, the teams are shown on screen one above the other by means of a split-screen effect. When a player buzzes in, the shot zooms in to that player, accompanied by a voiceover identifying the player by team and surname, for example "Nottingham, Smith". The voiceovers are performed live in the studio by Roger Tilling and become noticeably more energetic towards the end of the programme.


The fact that the universities of Oxford and Cambridge can each enter up to five of their colleges as separate teams despite these colleges not being universities in the conventional sense was the ostensible inspiration for an unusual 1975 protest. A team from the University of Manchester (which included David Aaronovitch) who were appearing on the show answered every question "Che Guevara", "Marx", "Trotsky" or "Lenin", possibly in the hope of making the resulting show unbroadcastable. It did, however, get broadcast, although only portions of the episode still exist in the archives of Granada TV.

The show has, since its revival in 1994, featured a number of very high-standard teams with postgraduate and mature students, who might be thought of as having the advantage of a greater breadth of general knowledge. [citation|author=Nicole Martin|title=University Challenge 'needs upper age limit' print version: Your starter for 10: how old are these students?|url=|newspaper=The Daily Telegraph|date=17 December 2007 [print version: 14 December 2007] |page=14.] The Open University (OU) won the 1999 series with a team whose age averaged 46. Three of the four team members were former "Brain of Britain" and "Mastermind" finalists or otherwise professional quiz show contestants who had joined the OU specifically in order to appear on the show. In the quarter-final they beat a slightly younger team from part-time and mature student specialist Birkbeck, University of London, by only one question. Host Jeremy Paxman openly criticised the OU team as not being in the spirit of the competition. [citation|title=Paxman Slams 'Quiz Professionals'|url=|publisher=BBC News|date=5 June 1999.] The 2003 final was contested between two teams of mature students, with Birkbeck defeating Cranfield University.

Famous contestants

*David Aaronovitch – University of Manchester, 1975
*Sebastian Faulks – Emmanuel College, Cambridge, 1972
*Julian Fellowes – Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1969
*Stephen Fry – Queens' College, Cambridge, 1980
*Clive James – Pembroke College, Cambridge
*David Lidington – Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, 1978
*Miriam Margolyes – Newnham College, Cambridge, 1963
*David Mellor – Christ's College, Cambridge
*Charles Moore – Trinity College, Cambridge
*Malcolm Rifkind – University of Edinburgh, 1967
*John Simpson – Magdalene College, Cambridge, 1964
*David Starkey – Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
*June Tabor – St Hugh's College, Oxford, 1968

pin-off shows

The producers of the programme have taken the more recent inclusion of mature students to its logical conclusion by making two series without any student participants: "University Challenge Reunited" (2002) brought former teams back together, while "University Challenge: The Professionals" (from 2003) matched occupational groups such as civil servants, architects and doctors against each other. In 2003, the former was won by the 1979 team from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the latter by a team from the Inland Revenue. The 2004 "Professionals" series was won by the British Library, and the 2005 series by the Privy Council Office. In 2006, "Professionals" was won by staff of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.

"Sixth Form Challenge", hosted by Chris Kelly, appeared briefly between 1965 and 1967. An untelevised equivalent, "Schools' Challenge" continues to run at junior-high and senior-high school level.

"University Challenge" ran in New Zealand for 14 seasons, from 1976 until 1989, with international series held between the previous years' British and New Zealand champions in both 1986 and 1987.

"University Challenge", hosted by Dr. Magnus Clarke, ran in Australia on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's channel from 1987 until 1989.

"University Challenge India" started in summer 2003, with the season culminating in the finals of March 2004 where Sardar Patel College of Engineering (SPCE), Bombay, beat Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad. The 2004–2005 season finale saw a team of undergraduate engineering students from Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology (NSIT), Delhi, beat a team of management students from the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode. The Indian winners of the 2003–2004 season went on to beat the finalists from the UK show, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. UC India is produced by BBC World India, and Synergy Communications, co-owned by Siddhartha Basu, who also hosts the show.

The show has seen numerous specials, including those for specific professions and celebrity editions, such as "Universe Challenge", where the cast of "Red Dwarf" challenged a team of their "ultimate fans" to celebrate "Red Dwarf"'s 10th anniversary on the air. The cast was Chris Barrie (captain), Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Chloë Annett and Craig Charles. The cast, who at times seemed amazed at the fans' knowledge, lost.


In addition to the various colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the only universities to have won University Challenge more than once have been Durham, Sussex, London and the Open University.

Original series

Some information from this table was obtained from the web pages listed in cite web|title=Special Series|url=|publisher=Sean Blanchflower|accessdate=2008-02-26

In popular culture

*David Nicholls' novel "Starter for Ten" (2003) was based around one student's part in a "University Challenge" team whilst at the University of Bristol (based on Nicholls' own "alma mater"). The title was, of course, taken from the programme's catchphrase. The novel was adapted into the 2006 film "Starter for 10", (released on 10 November in the UK). Mark Gatiss played Bamber Gascoigne.

*In 1984, an episode of "The Young Ones", entitled "Bambi", centred around a spoof of "University Challenge" with a match between the fictitious teams of Scumbag College and Footlights College, Oxbridge. The Scumbag College team, in the episode's University Challenge studio were physically above the other team. The Footlights team included Stephen Fry who participated in the real competition in 1980.

*The song "My Perfect Cousin" by The Undertones contains the couplet "He thinks that I'm a cabbage/'Cos I hate University Challenge." It appears on the album "Hypnotised".

*A quiz themed around BBC science fiction situation comedy "Red Dwarf", broadcast in 1998, was entitled "Universe Challenge". It opened as if it were a regular episode, but with Chris Barrie imitating Jeremy Paxman. Bamber comes from behind with a blaster gun and blows him out of the chair, so he can host. This was Bamber Gascoigne's last appearance as host.

*In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, "University Challenge" was placed 34th.

*"Not the Nine O'Clock News" featured a spoof of "University Challenge", pitting contestants from Parkhurst Prison and Wormwood Scrubs against each other. After convict Stephenson, played by Mel Smith, answered the first question, a policeman popped up from behind the counter to take notes, next to Griff Rhys Jones, imitating Bamber Gascoigne.Fact|date=July 2007

ee also

*University Challenge 2009


External links

* [ Sean Blanchflower's "University Challenge" pages]
* [ "University Challenge" at]
* [ "University Challenge" India] – a tribute
* [ TV Ark: Gameshows S-Z] – features a RealAudio intro from a 1996 show
* [ Interview with the winning 2007 University of Warwick team]

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