Jeremy Paxman’s University Challenge: Naturally students get washing symbols wrong

Dubbed “the little black dress of quiz shows”, Paxman shares his favourite moments as quiz master


For twenty years I have measured out my life in tens and fives. And every year I’ve thanked my stars that the producer who asked me if I was interested in becoming questions master of University Challenge was sensible enough not to take my initial “no” for an answer.


It’s enabled me to spend years asking questions, a staggering 64,000 in total. And, luckily for us, more and more people at home seem to enjoy trying to answer them. We had a researcher a few years ago who decided that University Challenge was so successful because it was “the little black dress of quiz shows”. I am told this is a good thing to be.

Put more ploddingly, I think the reason is that we haven’t compromised. It’s quite hard and it will stay quite hard. In an age when you can win shedloads of money or fleeting glory by knowing the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s first name (even though that one did seem to stump President Obama), our producers have made the questions more difficult than they have ever been. They get harder the closer you get to the final, but even the first-round questions are testing enough.

But don’t despair if you only get the occasional one (or none at all). There are eight people facing every starter question, which ought to mean access to more knowledge than any one individual has.

The questions I most enjoy are the ones that ask you to work out an answer in your head and respond in milliseconds.

On the other hand, my favourite picture round was one that showed various laundry instruction symbols to be found on those slips sewn inside clothes. The students got every single one wrong. Naturally.

The main reason I love University Challenge is that it gives the lie to the media stereotype about young people – that they all know nothing, and couldn’t care less. It’s complete rubbish. Every year we see more and more teams of young people who know amazing things, and you’re just left wondering in pleasurable disbelief, “How on earth did they get that?”

The other reason is that it’s true family viewing. Television bosses should stop insulting the public’s intelligence by assuming we’re all idiots. University Challenge pays the audience the courtesy of assuming that we’re quite clever enough to take part.

From what people tell me, it’s often played in families – old against young, male against female, those who went to university against those who don’t or didn’t. It operates on the healthy assumption that learning and being able to work things out are good things.

The one question every viewer asks about the programme is, “How many do you know the answer to?” That one I’m not going to answer.


See the new series from tonight at 8pm, BBC2