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29 October 2014
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15.08.02

FACTUAL & ARTS TV


40 Years of University Challenge - BBC TWO, Monday 26 August, 8.00 pm


Caroline Quentin narrates this special 40th birthday documentary celebrating the life and times of University Challenge, the series which has never failed to be academically challenging and has never been distracted by big money prizes.


The series started in 1962 as the intellectual antidote to the frivolous quiz shows of the day.


The biggest gamble for the producers was the choice of presenter - Bamber Gascoigne.


He was only 27 when he got the job but was quick witted, bright and had everything the producers were looking for, except the wardrobe.

Bamber said: "Granada's response to my clothes was very offensive. I'd come up for my audition in my best cords… and they immediately sent me to Savile Row."


The resulting suit was later stolen from Granada's wardrobe department.

But right clothes or not, Bamber was regarded by the students as a demi-god.

Former alumni John Simpson said: "Seeing Bamber there was like seeing the God Apollo seated on a throne."

For former contestant Stephen Fry, the choice of Bamber appealed for more bizarre reasons: "How do you get to be called Bamber?!

"What strange accident happened at the font? Was the vicar so drunk that he said "I name this child Bamber?" Then oops, sorry, too late?"

The show went from strength to strength and got 11 million viewers per week.


For many of the viewers, it was their first contact with that alien beast, the student, and did much to make university more accessible to people who hadn't been to Eton.

University Challenge also provided a running commentary on student life throughout the decades from the buttoned up early sixties; the radicals in the late 60s and 70s and the careerists of the 80s and 90s.

Former contestants have their own memories of appearing on the programme:

Julian Fellowes appeared on University Challenge in 1969: "No tape of my show has survived thank God. But I look like an unsuccessful contender in an Elvis lookalike competition - with a yeti wig on my head."

Sebastian Faulks has equally fond but maybe more unreliable memories: "I smoked all the way through it and was half cut - my parents were appalled."

In 1987, after 978 episodes, University Challenge was dropped by ITV but BBC TWO brought it out of retirement after just seven years.

Bamber was asked back as presenter but by this time was involved in a major project of his own. Enter Jeremy Paxman.

"It was so clever of them to pick Paxman - Paxman is Bamber Gascoigne with attitude." says John Simpson.

Stephen Fry's comment reveals that maybe he was glad to have appeared in the Bamber days: "He [Paxman], can occasionally be rather contemptuous."

And the last word, as always, to Jeremy Paxman who gives his thoughts on the students: "I like students and I'm amazed by what they know - and also, sometimes, about what they don't know."


Notes for Editors

Bamber Gascoigne was question master from 1962-87. He presented 992 programmes. Jeremy Paxman became question master in 1994.

The following are all former alumni of the series and are interviewed in the documentary:

Stephen Fry (writer/actor) Queen's, Cambridge 1980, studied English and was beaten in the final "by a team from Oxford, of all places".


Miriam Margolyes (actress) Newnham College, Cambridge 1963, studied English Lit; won the first match against Keele and lost the second to University College, Oxford.


John Simpson (broadcaster) Magdalene College, Cambridge 1964, studied English and lost in the semi-finals to "a small Welsh theological college".

Julian Fellowes (actor/screenwriter) Magdalene College, Cambridge 1969, studied English Literature and lost in the first round.

Malcolm Rifkind (ex Foreign Secretary) Edinburgh University 1967, studied Law and won "at least one match".


Sebastian Faulks (writer) Emmanuel, Cambridge 1972; studied English; lost in the first round.


David Aaronovitch (journalist), Manchester University 1975 studied History and lost in the first round "unsurprisingly".

Additional interviewees include:

Magnus Magnusson who says: "I still get taxi drivers who say 'Aha starter for 10' and I have to say 'wrong bloody programme'."


Rik Mayell who never appeared on University Challenge proper but was involved in The Young Ones spoof version which also starred Griff Rhys Jones as Bambi.


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