Eric Monkman was the unlikely hero and Twitter sensation of this year’s University Challenge. “I love him more than my children” was what one fan declared about the the 29 year-old Canadian captain of Wolfson College Cambridge and Monday nights were accepted by all viewers to be even more glorious than a Friday (well, almost) because this was the night we could all behold the wonder of Monkman.
The bellowing, intense way he answered questions was fascinating – as if he was lost on a fog-filled mountain side in deepest December howling for help. There have been some memorable contestants on University Challenge but Monkman was the absolute winner in the UC Hall of Fame. So when he decided to do a Radio 4 programme on polymaths with the grinning, ever optimistic 32-year old Bobby Seagull from Newham who captained the Emmanuel College captain, Radio Times decided to spend some time with the duo.
It was a fun – and obviously educational – afternoon and crucially we finally got Monkman to tell us why on earth he spoke in such a thundering voice.
“When you’re on TV it’s a very stressful experience,” says Monkman in the new issue of Radio Times. “I don’t normally talk in that tone but most of my answers are just me trying to speak up and be heard well. When it’s an answer I know well I can deliver it with passion, it lifts up my spirits and adds some levity.
“We practice speaking up because you have to make sure the person on the other end of the table can hear you. You don’t want your team or Paxman saying ‘hey what was that?’ So you get used to delivering your answers with a fair bit of volume.”
The very busy Seagull, who is also writing a quiz book with Monkman alongside doing a PHD and being a maths teacher, added that their Cambridge college teams had practised once a week. “When we practise we do a whole lot more off TV than on. We have lectures and a life so we also have just one weekly practice, eight until ten in the evenings. People reading from quiz books and we have buzzers and practice.”
The PHD student, who is also a maths teacher at a London comprehensive, said that his University Challenge experience had got the teenagers in his class to actually pay some attention. “It’s been interesting because my students find something on their laptops sometimes and go, “sir you’re on the internet!” and I say ‘yes I know, put it away.’
“It does make teaching a bit easier because they think, ‘oh Mr Seagull’s on TV so it’s worth listening to him in maths.’ So my maths lessons are a bit smoother than they should be sometimes, especially when teaching trigonometry on a Friday at 3 o’clock and they normally don’t really want to listen.”
For Monkman, being a University Challenge sensation was deeply strange – but it had its positives too. “At first it was quite odd, especially because I was in Canada for most of the time it was happening and up until almost the end of the series nobody in Canada paid much attention. It was weird that people were talking about me in Britain but life in Canada was the same for me. It’s strange when people talk about how you say things, how you look. It took me a while to get used to that. I finally realised though that people kind of liked me. Lots of people on Twitter would say, ‘thanks for brightening up our Mondays.'”
Read the full interview in the new Radio Times – out on Tuesday 15th August.