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University Challenge

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University Challenge
Format Quiz show
Presented by Bamber Gascoigne (1962–87)
Jeremy Paxman (1994–)
Angus Deayton
(Comic Relief specials)
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of series 39
No. of episodes 1398
(as of 27 July 2009)
Producer(s) ITV Studios
Running time 30 minutes
Original channel ITV (1962–87)
BBC Two (1994–)
Picture format 4:3
Original run ITV:
21 September 1962 – 31 December 1987
21 September 1994 – present
Related shows College Bowl
University Challenge: The Professionals
University Challenge India

University Challenge is a British quiz programme that has aired since 1962. 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. University Challenge aired for 913 episodes on ITV from 1962 to 1987, before being cancelled. It was revived by the BBC in 1994, and has aired since on BBC Two.


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 mornings and 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.

The original announcer was Don Murray-Henderson, who was with the programme until his death in 1972. Jim Pope took over and stayed with the programme until his death in 2001. Since then, the announcer has been voiceover and broadcaster 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. The pairings for matches are often chosen in order to keep stronger teams apart.

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 another member of the team is specified with the phrase "Nominate [name]". The team member so named may then give the answer instead.

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. 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. Paxman also apologised privately for this when challenged.

In 2009, Sam Kay, part of the team from Corpus Christi College, Oxford was accused of not being a student when the show was broadcast. Kay, who had completed a chemistry degree the previous summer, had been planning to go on to study for a Doctor of Philosophy, but he did not have sufficient funding so dropped out. He then became an accountant. The team, whose captain Gail Trimble was dubbed the "human Google", won the competition but were subsequently disqualified and the trophy was awarded to the runners-up, the University of Manchester.

A few days later, it was also revealed that Charles Markland, a member of the 2008 winning team from Christ Church, Oxford had transferred his studies to Balliol College, halfway through the series. He claimed that his team captain had contacted a researcher concerning the situation, and had been told that this was not a problem and that the same team should be maintained for continuity purposes. It was also revealed that Freya McClements, captain of the 2004 winning team from Magdalen College, Oxford, was at the time studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Although it was mentioned in a BBC news story at the time, no action was taken because the BBC claimed that the facts had not been brought to their attention.

Notable 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
  • Tim Boswell – New College, Oxford

Spin-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.

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.

Similar programmes

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.

Other countries

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.


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

Original series

Year University/College
1963 Leicester
1965 New College, Oxford
1966 Oriel College, Oxford
1967 Sussex
1968 Keele
1969 Sussex
1970 Churchill College, Cambridge
1971 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1972 University College, Oxford
1973 Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge
1974 Trinity College, Cambridge
1975 Keble College, Oxford
1976 University College, Oxford
1977 Durham
1978 Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
1979 University of Bradford
1980 Merton College, Oxford
1981 Queen's University of Belfast
1982 St. Andrews
1983 Dundee
1984 The Open University
1986 Jesus College, Oxford
1987 Keble College, Oxford

Information in this table was obtained from University Challenge Series Champions, Sean Blanchflower,, retrieved 2008-02-26.

New series

Year Winners Runners-up
1995 Trinity College, Cambridge New College, Oxford
1996 Imperial College London London School of Economics
1997 Magdalen College, Oxford The Open University
1998 Magdalen College, Oxford Birkbeck, University of London
1999 The Open University Oriel College, Oxford
2000 University of Durham Oriel College, Oxford
2001 Imperial College London St John's College, Oxford
2002 Somerville College, Oxford Imperial College London
2003 Birkbeck, University of London Cranfield University
2004 Magdalen College, Oxford Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
2005 Corpus Christi, Oxford University College London
2006 University of Manchester Trinity Hall, Cambridge
2007 University of Warwick University of Manchester
2008 Christ Church, Oxford University of Sheffield
2009 University of Manchester ± N/A

Some of the information in this table was obtained from University Challenge Series Champions, Sean Blanchflower,, retrieved 2008-02-26.

± Corpus Christi, Oxford were originally the winners of the 2009 event, but on 2 March 2009, the BBC in a joint statement with Granada announced that they had disqualified the team for "breaking the series rules" by fielding an ineligible contestant.

Lowest scores

The lowest score in the history of University Challenge was by the University of Sussex, who scored just 10 points in the 1971-72 series, during the era of quizmaster Bamber Gascoigne.

Under quizmaster Jeremy Paxman, a low score of 15 was achieved by the University of Exeter in a quarter-final against Corpus Christi, Oxford, which also saw team captain Gail Trimble amass 15 correct starter questions. However, the Corpus Christi team were later disqualified from the competition after it was found that team member Sam Kay had been ineligible for the last three matches. Therefore, the lowest score officially achieved against eligible opponents under quizmaster Jeremy Paxman was by Lincoln College, Oxford, who totalled 30 in a semi-final against the eventual series champions the University of Manchester, in an episode televised on 9th February 2009.

Before these matches, the lowest score was 35, reached by New Hall, Cambridge, 1997. This score would have been lower if all fines for incorrect interruptions had been applied.

The lowest score during the Professionals series was achieved by the Members of Parliament team, who scored 25 in 2003. This should be seen in the context of the Professionals series' shorter playing time (about 20 minutes for a match instead of about 25 for the student series).

Highest scores

University College, Oxford scored 520 points in the final ITV season in 1987.


Year Special Event Winners Runners Up
1986 International best of three series Great Britain ( Jesus College, Oxford, 1985) New Zealand ( University of Auckland, 1985)
1987 International best of three series Great Britain ( Keble College, Oxford, 1986) New Zealand ( University of Otago, 1986)
1993 Celebrity match Celebrity Past Contestants ( John Simpson, Charles Moore, Stephen Fry, Alastair Little) Keble College, Oxford, 1987
1997 College Bowl Challenge University of Michigan Imperial College London, 1996
1998 College Bowl Challenge USA UK
1998 Mastermind Challenge Magdalen College, Oxford, 1997 Imperial College London, 1996
1998 Universe Challenge Red Dwarf Fans: (Darryl Ball, Kaley Nichols, Steve Rogers [Chairman of the Official Red Dwarf Fan Club], Pip Swallow, Sharon Burnett [Co-author of The Red Dwarf Quiz Book]) Red Dwarf Cast: ( Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules, Chris Barrie, Chloë Annett, Craig Charles)
1999 Journalists Special Tabloids Broadsheets
1999 Challenge Magdalen College, Oxford, 1998 Leicester, 1963
2002 University Challenge: Reunited Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, 1979 Keele, 1968
2003 University Challenge: The Professionals The Inland Revenue Royal Meteorological Society
2003 Comic Relief match The Townies: ( Jeremy Beadle, Danny Baker, Johnny Vaughan, Bonnie Greer) The Gownies: ( David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson)
2004 International "Grand Final": UK vs India Sardar Patel College of Engineering (SPCE), Mumbai: (Nirad Inamdar, Bharat Jayakumar, Nishad Manerikar, Shrijit Plappally) Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge: (Laura Ashe, Darren Khodaverdi, Lameen Souag, Edward Wallace)
2004 University Challenge: The Professionals British Library Oxford University Press
2004 Christmas Special 1 Television ( Monty Don, Martha Kearney, Andrew Neil, Clare Balding) Radio ( Henry Blofeld, Jenni Murray, Ned Sherrin, Roger Bolton)
Christmas Special 2 Critics ( Waldemar Januszczak, Russell Davies, Brian Sewell, Andrew Graham-Dixon) Theatre
Christmas Specials: Final Critics Television
2005 Comic Relief 2005 Match The South ( Sarah Alexander, Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry, Omid Djalili) The North ( Colin Murray, John Thomson, Armando Iannucci, Neil Morrissey)
2005 University Challenge: The Professionals Privy Council Office Romantic Novelists' Association
2006 University Challenge: The Professionals Bodleian Library Royal Statistical Society
2008 University Challenge: The Professionals Ministry Of Justice National Physical Laboratory

Some information from this table was obtained from the web pages listed in "Special Series". Sean Blanchflower. Retrieved 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, satirising the supergrass trials of the time. 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.
  • Armando Ianucci's Time Trumpet did a parody of University Challenge, set in a future time when students were 'too lazy to learn'; this parody was later referenced in an episode of the real series of University Challenge by the team captain of SOAS, John Joseph Perry, who, not knowing the real answer, simply answered "Venezuela?"
  • University Challenge tightens rules 2009 Guardian Article
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