Tune in, switch off - The porcupine and his prey

6th March 2009 at 00:00

Here's your starter for 10. Name the longest-running serious quiz programme on television. Yes, that's 10 points for University Challenge, which began life in 1962 with the sharing, caring Bamber Gascoigne. Kindly and don-like, Bamber used to spend his week reading around the questions, so he was able to deliver his answers without a glance at the cards.

Since 1994, Jeremy "Porcupine" Paxman has held court with trademark spiky shafts of disdainful disbelief. Last week's series final gleaned an extra two million viewers after finalist Gail Trimble of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, received a hammering on the internet when she was described as "the cleverest student ever to appear" on the programme.

The final involved Manchester University taking on Corpus Christi; redbrick versus old brick. It was Paxman the speed reader not Gascoigne the memory man in the quizmaster's seat, with Manchester 45 points ahead until the last four minutes, when Corpus went "like a train".

Paxman's sting punctures any sense of self worth a faltering team might have. He's used to political heavyweights on Newsnight, so students are easy pickings for the porcupine.

Do teachers such as Paxman still exist or have inspections drilled out the sadistic stream of questioning so beloved by pedants in my day? At the risk of a thousand letters of complaint, praise be to Ofsted if it has seen them off.

University Challenge is a kind of mental 300 metres. Just as I'd still be on the starting blocks after the gun was fired, trying to work out which way to run, I sat through the final simply trying to find words I recognised. The only thing more obscure than the answer was the question.

Trimble has a brain speed that beats my creaky laptop any day. By the time I'd typed "What is the answer to the most obscure question in the world?" into Google, she was on to the next round. Even when it was a question I recognised, I could feel the slow fuse of electrical impulses seeking out the relevant file buried deep in the dusty hard drive of my memory. I'd need a good 30 minutes to winkle it out, conferring or not, so Manchester, the near winners, beat me to it every time.

At least Corpus Christi's winning total was only 275 points. Last time a team managed to score more than 300, they were mocked: "You need to get out more."

Watching Have I Got News For You the same evening, it was clear Fern Britton, its guest presenter, had been watching the University Challenge final because her catchphrase was: "Fingers on buzzers, boys."

I still associate HIGNFY with Cheshire cat Angus Deayton. The fun these days is in guessing who the presenter will be and watching Paul Merton and Ian Hislop trip them up with their provocative jibes. It's founded on the chemistry between these two, teasing their victims with false satirists' smiles.

The class clowns lob punchlines back and forth. Hislop, all brain and beatific morality, ingests his victims then spits them out. Merton, cheeky schoolboy, swats gently, creating absorbing fantasies before the final deadly bite.

Each week, as I catch up on the show on comedy channel Dave, presenter after presenter gets the treatment. Perhaps Paxman could face these two baiting tormentors for a change? Take this as your starter for 10, Jeremy.

Ray Tarleton is principal of South Dartmoor Community College in Ashburton, Devon.

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