The gong to mark the end of the opening episode of University Challenge was first thumped some 44 years ago.
While the first incarnation of the show, presented by the benign figure of Bamber Gascoigne, was an impressive demonstration of general knowledge by young adults, the shows since 1994 have been injected with anfascinating mixture of impatience and barely concealed contempt, thanks to the presence in the chair of Jeremy Paxman.
University Challenge is supposed to be a battle of minds between two teams of four students, but far more intriguing is the battle between all eight students and Paxman himself.
Jeremy has the look of a man who’d really rather not be there at all; his wonderfully sneering interrogations punctuated with muttered sideswipes at any subject matter he might find offensive – daytime TV, celebrity trivia, students themselves. But it’s his brutal handling of the humble British undergraduate that’s the most fun to watch.
See an amused eyebrow raised as an unfortunate contestant buzzes too early, the announcer booming “Exeter – Thompson” as the camera zooms in to reveal the student’s darting eyes, sweating forehead and trembling upper lip.
Witness the faint smirk on Paxman’s face as he says to one unfortunate team: “Right, these questions are on books that were published in 1543.” Then, as the four of them desperately confer in furtive whispers to come up with a coherent answer, the hammer blow is delivered: “Oh, come on. Come on!” if he were holding the door open for them while they were all struggling to tie their shoelaces.
Of course, it sometimes happens that the students under fire are more unpleasant than Paxman himself, in which case you find yourself cheering Jeremy on, joining in with gusto as he yells at a smug student nurse: “No conferring – you may not confer! One of you may buzz!” And if a haughty Open University student surprises Paxman by delivering a well-thought-out answer, you can rely on him to limit his congratulations to a witheringly delivered “well done” .
If you think you deserve a gleeful hug from a TV quizmaster for knowing the capital of Egypt, don’t consider going on University Challenge. You’re damned if you know the answer, and damned if you don’t. It’s brilliant.
This compelling atmosphere of hostility has meant, thankfully, that the show has barely been altered since it was first broadcast – right down to the rasping, bone-chilling buzzers that prefix each desperate attempt to remember the name of the Roman Emperor who entrusted Varus to colonise Germania in 6AD? Or perhaps the name given to the molecule binds to the active site in an enzyme-catalysed reaction.
Of course, at home, we’re happy if we get two questions right in the whole half hour, but that’s not important. It’s all about hanging on for that last, lingering camera shot of the unlucky team waving a miserable farewell, followed by Paxman grinning from ear to ear: “And it’s goodbye from me – goodbye!”