“She’s a phenomenon. She seems to know what the question is before you’ve even finished saying it.” So said Jeremy Paxman in 2009 of Gail Trimble, the captain of the winning University Challenge team from Corpus Christi.
Now a Fellow and Tutor at Trinity College, Gail shot to fame, briefly, for her stunning performance on UK TV’s longest running quiz show. She remains a strong fan of the quiz, but after mixed press coverage of her triumph in 2009 she says she might have second thoughts if she were applying again.
Gail’s performance was certainly exceptional. In a match against St John’s, Cambridge, she personally scored 185 out of 260 points. In the quarter-finals she won fifteen buzzer rounds, leading Corpus to a 350-15 victory. Their opponents, Exeter University, left with the second lowest score in the show’s history.
“It’s a sport really and I absolutely enjoy the competitive aspect,” says Gail with a big smile when I meet her this week almost five years after the final. “The fun of University Challenge is working out where the question is going.”
The Corpus team stormed the final in exciting style winning 275-190, and scoring 125 points in the last four minutes. Nonetheless, the mood soon soured as Gail experienced significant negative press for her performance. “What I found interesting was it started with just one newspaper, the Observer,” she states. “That was the Sunday before the broadcast and then it happened incredibly quickly.”
The Observer article picked up on negative comments online about Corpus and Gail in the early rounds. “She comes across as patronising and with a healthy sense of her own intellectual superiority. These characteristics are common in establishments such as hers” one read. Others focussed on her appearance and “tastiness.” It was trolling, before trolling was fashionable.
What followed was a week of self-perpetuating bad press and abuse online about “the human Google.” She made the front page of the Daily Mail with the story “Why do so many people hate this girl simply for being clever?” Incidentally that “girl” was twenty six, had just got engaged and found “being treated like a child” pretty patronising.
Infamously, her brother was contacted by Nuts magazine hoping to be put in touch with Gail for a tasteful photo-shoot. His reply, as the Guardian reported: “Seriously mate, would you give your sister’s contact details to Nuts?”
“A man would have been treated like a child too,” Gail continues. The media “asked me lots of questions like ‘How do I feel about being a clever woman?’ It was a circular thing really.”
It was “interesting for us who live in an Oxford world, where knowing a lot is perfectly fine and there’s no need to get hang-ups or apologise for it. I’ve learnt something from that reaction.”
In a final twist, the Corpus team were disqualified some months later for a minor infringement of the eligibility rules — a team member had started a job before the series had completed filming.
Despite the trying experience, Gail tells me, “Of course I would recommend it. Those second thoughts are only with hindsight. Most people don’t end up being pestered by the media in a really peculiar way!”
Finally, I ask about the training regime, the hours of memorising flags and dates I assumed were necessary before a show. “There was no time,” she laughs. “We didn’t go around learning things, we just happened to have good memories. That’s what was entertaining.”