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University Challenge (1962-87, 1994-)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of University Challenge (1962-87, 1994-)
Granada for ITV, 21/9/1962-31/12/1987;
Granada for BBC, 21/9/1994-
over 1,300 x 30 min editions, black & white/colour
ProducersBarrie Heads
 Patricia Owtram
 Douglas Terry
 Peter Mullings
 Kieran Roberts
 Peter Gwyn

Presenters: Bamber Gascoigne (1962-87); Jeremy Paxman (1994-)

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Long-running, channel-hopping quiz show pitting two teams of students against each other to win glory for their university.

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One of the most intelligent of television's numerous quiz shows, University Challenge has became a part of the national culture (alongside BBC's Mastermind, 1972-2001), even to the extent of celebrating its own nostalgia.

The bespectacled, unflappable Bamber Gascoigne was the first question master, glowing with erudition and fondly remembered for his opening "Here's your starter for ten, no conferring". The format was simple: two teams of four scholars each, representing different academic institutions, are pitted against each other and the buzzer. It asked the hardest questions on any TV quiz show, ranging across mathematics, science, engineering, literature and philosophy, and often had viewers transfixed by the sheer range of the students' knowledge. The team amassing the most points won; not a cash prize or a holiday in the sun but a modest trophy and the satisfaction of being a winner on TV's toughest quiz show.

The programme's format was taken from a 1950s American radio quiz called College Bowl, later developed into the television series G.E. College Bowl (CBS, 1959-63; NBC, 1963-70). But it was Granada TV's unique visual presentation - with the two teams seemingly ranged above each other in tiers - and Gascoigne's breathless delivery that gave the programme its own distinct flavour.

By the mid-1980s, however, the ratings were down and the programme was broadcast on weekday mornings. According to Granada, elitism was the key problem. A survey in 1986 found that a large number of viewers saw it as snobbish; so did some universities. After 25 years, the series was axed by Granada.

Happily, it returned to network television in 1994 with the feisty Jeremy Paxman as the programme's new face. Paxman's hawkish and often enjoyably brusque presence breathed new life into the programme and helped attract some very respectable ratings for an evening quiz show of this type.

Widening its appeal, the revived programme also shed its former notoriety as a seemingly Oxbridge dominated line-up (the absence of polytechnics during the 1960s and 1970s was glaring). In 2002, marking 40 years of the series run, former winners and notable teams were invited to appear on the nostalgic University Challenge Reunited (BBC) and since 2003 there have been successful spin-off series of University Challenge: The Professionals (BBC) featuring teams from some of the most influential bodies in the country (including journalism, the House of Commons, the clergy, the Inland Revenue).

Tise Vahimagi

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Video Clips
1. Meet the teams (1:16)
2. And at the gong... (3:35)
Complete edition (26:07)
Mastermind (1972-97, 2003-)
Paxman, Jeremy (1950-)
Game and Quiz Shows