University Challenge: is it Easier Than it Was?

A few weeks ago I blogged about University Challenge and Beetleypete commented that it seemed to be easier now than in the days of Bamber Gascoigne. Ever since then I’ve been meaning to watch an old episode and compare, and today I managed it.

There are lots of episodes available on YouTube but the one I chose was from 1984, UWIST v Queen Elizabeth London. This is obviously far from being an exhaustive study but it does give you a reasonable idea of the differences. What struck me first of all was the friendliness of the presenter: Gascoigne is approachable and smiles a lot, unlike the irascibly avuncular Paxton who rarely smiles, is often critical and sometimes verges on rudeness. Paxman is much stricter than Gascoigne, although he allows more time for the bonus questions, just saying irascibly, ‘Oh, come on!’ when they take too long. Gascoigne also indulges in friendly banter, a skill which seems alien to the soul of Paxman, so that the 1984 experience comes across as altogether more relaxed than now.

But what about the questions themselves: are they any easier now than they were then? On this sampling, I’d have to say no, definitely not. On a good day with Paxo I get around 12-15 questions right: with Gascoigne I managed 18. That’s not unheard of nowadays but if anything I found the 1984 version easier. Interestingly there were 2 questions which also came up in Monday’s Christmas episode (FYI I’m not comparing the Gascoigne version with the Christmas episodes as the latter tend to be easier.)

If anything I think the modern University Challenge is sharper, more focused and yes, harder.

So there.

Kirk out


I don’t watch a lot of quiz programmes on TV but I do still enjoy University Challenge and Mastermind, hence Monday night is quiz night.

I always watched Mastermind when I was younger and rightly or wrongly assumed that the contestants were there to display and test the knowledge that they had gained in some particular field. Of course they would have brushed up on the subject before coming on the programme, but essentially it was about the knowledge that they had gained in the course of their lives.

Not so nowadays. Last week I was stunned to see one of our neighbours on the programme. ‘Look!’ I said excitedly. ‘It’s that woman from down the road!’ Turned out it wasn’t as she lived in Manchester and when I thought about it I realised that her hair was different too. So why did she look so familiar? Eventually I worked it out: she’d been on Mastermind before, and probably other programmes as well. Last year’s winner had not only been a contestant in previous years but had also appeared on other quiz shows. People are in quiz leagues and clubs: they go quizzing up and down the country. It’s almost a profession.

The only quiz that does seem to be a genuine test of knowledge is University Challenge.

Kirk out

The Joy of Malapropisms

Yesterday on Facebook I discovered what may possibly be the best malapropism of all time. Here it is:

May be an image of text that says "× Linen anti massacre cloths AU$9 Listed 28 minutes ago"

I laughed all day at that (if you don’t get it, here’s an explanation.)

I’m having trouble with my fonts today. They started off small so I enlarged them but because WordPress views EVERY BLOCK AS A SEPARATE ENTITY!!!!! (GROWLING EMOJI) you have to reset the formatting for each new paragraph. I’m sure other users will weigh in with helpful hacks and I thank you in advance but be advised that all such comments are as water on sand; they appear in my mind for a moment before sinking without trace. There are certain types of information that I just can’t keep in my head, and this is never more obvious than when I’m watching a quiz. As you know, the only two quizzes I bother with are Mastermind and University Challenge (my paragraphs have gone all wide now) and what’s striking is the contrast between types of information I have at my fingertips and that which requires some digging. On UC there’s more chance for digging but on MM you have to produce an answer immediately, so I’d be very bad at that – it’s a test not only of what you know, but of your ability to bring that knowledge to the forefront of your mind, and that’s a separate skill. Not that I’d be any better at UC; whilst I do well on literature and have a smattering of other areas the questions are too deep and wide-ranging for me, especially since at the moment I have the memory span of Dory in Finding Nemo.

OH has a theory about this: (ah! I’ve managed to recover the font size now; it was on ‘default’ and I’ve changed it to ‘normal’ – though why ‘default’ isn’t the same thing as ‘normal’ is anyone’s guess.) Years ago I used to have a much better memory; then the menopause hit and knocked it for six like a strike-out at ten-pin bowling. All of a sudden my maps turned to fog; streets I’d known for decades became terra incognita and I could barely remember what I’d done yesterday. It’s a lot better now, but there are still vast swathes of the past which remain in gloom – and the other day OH came up with the suggestion that it’s because I’m writing full time. I think this is true – there’s always a trade-off when you start something new. Anyone with a small child will know they learn stories off by heart when they’re small but as soon as they learn to read, that ability goes. This is true in evolution too: with everything gained, something is lost.

Now look how far I’ve travelled from the original intention of this post. I was going to write about malapropisms but that’s gone now and I’m all out of ideas. So please send me your favourite malapropisms and maybe I’ll make them into a post.

Toodle pip

Kirk out

Brain, Brain, Go Away. Come Again Another Day

What is it about the brain? Mine just won’t do as it’s told; it insists on waking me up with vague and waffly ideas somewhere a long way south of Proper Morning and then when I want it to work it’s half-asleep again. It’s very vexing, but you simply cannot make a creative brain work when you want it to. You can encourage it, coax it with tidbits like a wild hedgehog, call it with soft murmurs, sing little songs to it – but nope: my brain, bouncy and happy at five in the morning, simply folds its arms and says nah. Not playing. It’s like a recalcitrant toddler who won’t go to bed at night and then wakes you in the wee small hours wanting to play.

But we need this brain because it knows stuff. It is wise and intuitive and sometimes it wakes you early for a reason. I just wish I knew what it was … *sigh*.

So – what does Tuesday have in store? Well, it’s pretty much like Monday really only without University Challenge. Incidentally, though I love the intellectual rigour of this quiz, I continue to be amazed by the lack of diversity of the contestants. Last night was typical: two all-white teams and only one woman among eight participants. You do sometimes get Asian or East Asian contestants but black team members are as rare as hens’ teeth. Why is this? There are two obvious answers, both of which I reject as too simplistic: the first, that women and black people are not up to the job, is prejudiced, and the second, that universities are reluctant to take on female and/or black students, is not true – or at least much less true than it once was. I suspect it’s down to a number of complex cultural factors, such as women being less likely to put ourselves forward than men and black people being less likely to go to the kind of schools that teach you what you need to know to get on University Challenge. The question therefore arises as to whether it’s an elitist programme. Is the kind of knowledge required more likely to be found in elite institutions? It’s certainly dominated by Oxbridge, though that’s more down to the fact that each Oxbridge college counts as a separate university – but what’s interesting is that in the Christmas series when they have now-successful alumni, the gender and race balance is more equal. So perhaps it’s just about where people are at a certain age. Anyway, much as I enjoy UC I do sometimes watch it with gritted teeth.

And gritted brain. Actually last night I got six or seven answers right, which is not too bad considering.

Kirk out

On Watching Less

Habits are hard to break, and particularly in the evening when one feels tired it’s very tempting to just flip on the old box, flick through a few channels and just let entertainment carry you through till bedtime. But I’ve been breaking it up a little and I’ve noticed that far from being restful, watching TV actually makes you tired. I’m not entirely sure why; it could be the effect of the screen, it could be that you’re looking at constantly moving pictures, or it could be the passive nature of the engagement. True, it’s not always entirely passive; when watching a good film or drama you can be completely engaged, but mostly I’m only half there, breaking off to check my phone or to talk to OH or make a drink or go to the loo. Most TV is background and the programme makers know this so they increasingly add bright colours and loud sounds to attract our attention. This goes double for adverts, though I hardly ever watch commercial TV.

There is of course a lot that I miss when glued to the box. I miss reading, thinking, playing the piano-keyboard, going outside to look at the moon, talking to others and listening to music. I tell myself I’ll do these things another time but that time only comes when I make it, so last night I decided I would watch a couple of pre-selected programmes and then, rather than filling the time with more TV I would read. I’ve really been getting into Elena Ferrante and last night as I finished the book (review to come I noticed a huge difference in my mind. When I read I was energised rather than tired, engaged rather than passively ingesting; I felt alive and alert and I went to bed feeling pleasantly tired rather than drained.

Paul McKenna suggests turning off the TV at least half an hour before bed and using that time to read. With me this tends to be a custom more honoured in the breach but I intend to practise it from now on.

I don’t want to give up the box altogether, there’s some good stuff on and it’s useful to kick back and watch something when you haven’t got the energy to do much else. But it takes over, so from now on rather than using TV to fill the evening, I shall choose programmes I really want to watch and do something else the rest of the time.

Last night I watched University Challenge (I scored 70 points), Doc Martin and a little bit of Murder 24/7, a police procedural documentary. Total 1.5 hours, much better than my usual three hours. And tomorrow night when OH is out I plan to spend the evening playing the keyboard.

I’ll let you know how I get on.

Kirk out

Verb and Re-Verb

In the last year or two I’ve been collecting examples of new verbs.  These are usually existing words which have been either squashed or repurposed and made into verbs.  Previously they were either phrases (eg to manage a project becomes to project-manage) or nouns (eg to window, meaning to schedule a delivery within a particular period of time).  So here’s a little list, by no means exhaustive but comprising the ones I’ve managed to capture and commit to pen and paper:

to re-platform (heard at the railway station)

to window (seen on Facebook)

to project-manage (heard in conversation and rendered somewhat redundant by the phrase ‘I project-managed a project’…)

to part-time work

to offshore (as in tax)

to vacation (to be fair, this has been around for a while in the US but has only recently made it over here)

to semi-final (heard on University Challenge)

to sunblock (read just today on Facebook)

I’m sure there are thousands more.  Have you come across any?  I’d love to hear them.  Please send them to me and I’ll post them


Kirk out

A Perfect Branestawm

I have rarely, if ever, seen such a perfect, spot-on and generally whiz-bang, tally-ho and ram-jam lickety-split adaptation of a book as the Beeb’s recent Professor Branestawm. I loved Norman Hunters books as a child: illustrated by the illustrious, not to say splendiflicate Heath Robinson, they were children’s comedy classics, and this adaptation everyone and everything is perfect, from Harry Hill’s Prof with his seven pairs of glasses on his forehead to his housekeeper Mrs Flittersnoop spouting malapropisms and his best friend Colonel Dedshott of the Catapult Cavaliers (Simon Day) being thoroughly military all over the place.  There were squeedles of Pagwell-based fun including an exploding but ultimately fire-extinguishing automatic tea-maker, the wild waste-paper which brings photographs to life and oodles of other stories.
It was an excellent start to Christmas Day, though later on I thought the Dr Who episode was not the best.  The dream idea was a bit drawn-out, and it was somewhat light on action.

We did have a great day, however, with Peter coming over for a thigh of turkey while we had the traditional nut-roast with sausages; all accompanied by pots, parsnips, sprouts, gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce and washed down by Rioja.  Then there was Prosecco to go with the pudding and mince pies.

Yesterday I did little but slump in front of the telly and eat cheese: I watched Victoria Wood’s prog; very funny and featuring just about every British actor still living:

then in no particular order, ‘Chicken Run’, a couple of ‘University Challenges’ in which I scored well over a hundred points, Rory Bremner’s review of the year – brilliant – and before deciding that my eyes were square and I’d better read a book instead, we all watched ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’. This turned out to be a cracker.  There’s an unusual role for Ewan McGregor as a civil servant asked to assist in a rich sultan’s project to dam a river, irrigate the desert and bring salmon from Scotland to populate it.  It sounds like a rich man’s folly, but all his – and our – assumptions are overturned in this understated and engaging film, the best feature of which is that the two protagonists are attracted to each other but maintain a respectful distance and do not instantly fall into bed together.

Apparently Ewan McGregor had to learn fly-fishing for the film.  There are some amazing shots of salmon leaping, and also a scene where he makes a fishing-fly, which reminded me of J R Hartley.  Now, who can tell me who J R Hartley was?  Anyone?  Ms Vanilla Rose, I bet you can.  Or Tottnm.  Come on now, no googling…

Kirk out

Still Funny After All These Years

Well, it’s Thursday and that means life on the i-player.  So what have I watched this week?  A lot of factual stuff, as it happens: firstly, I’ve been comparing and contrasting Mastermind and University Challenge, and then I’ve been finishing the two-part retrospective on Morecambe and Wise.

So, first the quiz-shows.  Well, the first thing I notice is that women are woefully under-represented in both but tend to do a lot better on Mastermind than they do on University Challenge.  This cannot be because fewer women go to University, so why is it?  Is it that by the time they get to Mastermind they are older and have more confidence?  I watched a Bangor team made up of 3/4 women get utterly slaughtered by a gang of four supremely confident men; you could see the women sagging every time they failed to buzz or got an answer wrong.  I can’t help wondering whether UC still favours the old-style Oxbridge culture, both in its style and in the type of questions, though that might not be fair.  It’s just that Oxbridge students seem to figure disproportionately in it.  Or is it the abrasive and often sneering style of Paxman?  His brusqueness is bad enough; what’s harder to stomach is the sneering way he corrects wrong answers, when we are only too well-aware that he only knows the correct answer because it’s written down in front of him.  I much prefer Humphrys.  Though a pit-bull when interviewing politicians on ‘Today’, he strikes exactly the right balance of rigour and sympathy when chairing Mastermind.  And the contestants are ordinary people: last night they numbered three men and one women, one of whom gave his occupation as ‘Enforcement Manager’.  This, when translated by Google, turned out to mean Traffic Warden.


And the woman won…

I worry, too, about the under-representation of women in comedy.  Shows like QI, which I love, rarely have women on, but even the occasional appearance by Sandi Toksvig or Jo Brand (I met her once, you know) is an improvement on how things used to be, back in the day when Morecambe and Wise trod the floors of the Beeb.  The BBC’s two-part retrospective of the duo was really interesting; a sympathetic portrayal of them as human beings and performers; the ups and downs of their career, the writers who worked for them and the intense rehearsing that went in to making every sketch look totally spontaneous.  I could probably write reams about this: the guests they had on the show (people like Andre Previn, Penelope Keith, Glenda Jackson and Angela Rippon), how they were able to share a bed without suggesting they were gay; exactly why they were so funny (I still can’t put my finger on that) – but what occurred to me as I watched, more than anything, was that they were never sexist.  Now that I think about it, I don’t remember them being racist either – or homophobic.  Lots of comics were – it was an easy way to get a laugh – but they never went for easy laughs.  And perhaps that is why, because they were so inclusive – that they were, and are, so much loved.

So catch this before it disappears:

Likewise the latest round of Mastermind:

and if you must, here’s University Challenge:

Kirk out