University Challenge – the insider’s story

Maxim Parr-Reid shines light on his experiences on this year's University Challenge

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Photo: BBC

Have you seen the film Starter for 10? I have, and it formed the basis of my interest in competing on University Challenge. Like Brian Jackson, the film’s protagonist, I would sit at home ticking off answer after answer – don’t we all? Bellowing answers at the television is one thing, going on the show is quite another.

But, unfortunately, I lack Brian Jackson’s charm and dress sense. The journey from sofa to studio is quite a leap, and, unlike in Starter for 10 (set in 1985), there always exists danger of becoming a meme.

Getting on to University Challenge was almost as challenging (pun intended) as getting into Oxford in the first place. I exaggerate, of course, but the process is a long one. Believe it or not, lots of people want to go on television and make fools of themselves – as I did just this week.

Not one but two stages of internal selection – let’s call it bootcamp – lay between me and my dream of becoming an Internet meme. Two rounds of quizzing done and we had a college team, but we were still not on the show by any means. There was more to come.

Next, the interview, in which we met the people who would decide whether we were telegenic enough. Add to that more quizzing (no idea why). Somehow we got chosen for this thing – it must’ve been my bright red cords which convinced them that we’d gain traction in the Twittersphere.

That and the fact that, unlike the goliaths of this competition (*cough* Magdalen *cough*), Trinity – despite its three Prime Ministers and world-beating deep fried brie – hadn’t competed on the show since 2006.

We hadn’t reached the final since 1971 either, so you can see why we had cause for optimism as we headed to MediaCityUK, Salford.

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So we arrived at that concrete jungle, MediaCity, home to ITV as well as two BBC departments. All the clichés I’d heard about Manchester being a rainy place were not belied by our trip that day – the weather seeming more than ominous.

The hour or so before our match, we met the opposing team. It was surreal, sort of like interviews where you want to make small talk but are keenly aware of who your rivals are.

Then we met him – Paxo. With the light of the studio beaming down on us, Paxman entered coolly. “Shall we give this a go then?” he asked, almost sanguinely. The following 30 minutes were the greatest adrenaline rush you’re ever going to get.

This was where the class of 2017 had sat (Eric Monkman, even Freddy Potts). We were standing (or, rather, sitting) in the shadows of giants.

Memes were made – I’ve even been compared to Postman Pat. Apparently my facial expression is one you have only when someone isn’t sharing a box of Maltesers with you. My floppy hair being compared to that of University Challenge presenter Bamber Gascoigne. Jokes aside though, it was a fantastic experience, and something I would wholeheartedly encourage you to apply for.

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