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University Challenge

University Challenge
Genre Quiz show
Presented by Bamber Gascoigne (1962–87)
Jeremy Paxman (1994–)
Country of origin United Kingdom
Original language(s) English
No. of series 44
No. of episodes 1,671 (as of 26 October 2015)[1]
Location(s) Granada Studios (1962–2013)
MediaCityUK (2013–)
Running time 30 minutes
Production company(s) Granada Television
Distributor ITV Studios
Original channel ITV (1962–87)
BBC Two (1994–)
Picture format 4:3 (1962–2000)
16:9 (2001–present)
Original release 21 September 1962 (1962-09-21) – present
Related shows College Bowl
University Challenge: The Professionals
The 3rd Degree

University Challenge is a British quiz programme that premièred in 1962. University Challenge aired for 913 episodes on ITV from 21 September 1962 to 31 December 1987, presented by quiz master Bamber Gascoigne. The BBC revived the programme on 21 September 1994 with Jeremy Paxman as quiz master.

The current holders are Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, who won the 44th series in 2015.

The show is produced by Granada Television (re-branded as ITV Studios in 2009). It was filmed at Granada Studios in Manchester from its inception until the studios closed down in 2013; it is now filmed at MediaCityUK in Salford.


  • History 1
    • Format continuity 1.1
    • ITV 1.2
    • BBC 1.3
      • Postgraduates 1.3.1
      • Ineligible contestants 1.3.2
    • In popular culture 1.4
  • Game play 2
  • Notable contestants 3
  • Winners 4
    • Original series 4.1
    • New series 4.2
    • Both series 4.3
    • Lowest scores 4.4
    • Highest scores 4.5
    • Specials 4.6
  • Transmissions 5
    • ITV series 5.1
    • BBC Series 5.2
  • Spin-off shows 6
    • Similar programmes 6.1
    • Other countries 6.2
  • Notes 7
  • External links 8


Format continuity

Despite periodic changes to the sets, studio layout, and presentation, University Challenge has evolved in a manner which has preserved a remarkably high level of continuity from 1962 to the present. Some commentators have cited this as an essential element of its success.[2] Elements of this continuity include:

  • The long service of its quiz masters, with only two presenters over more than half a century of broadcasting history;
  • The instantly recognisable split-screen presentation, which appears to place one team physically above the other (parodied by an actual double-decker set in the mock edition in The Young Ones - see below);
  • Long serving voiceover announcers, with only three in more than half a century - Don Murray-Henderson from 1962 until his death in 1971, then Jim Pope until his death in 2001, then Roger Tilling;
  • The theme tune College Boy composed by Derek New which has been used throughout, originally in a jaunty version, and more recently in a more sombre version recorded by The Balanescu Quartet.


The programme had its beginnings in an American television quiz show called College Bowl. Cecil Bernstein, brother of Sidney Bernstein who founded Granada Television in 1954, had seen the programme in the United States and liked the format. It was decided that Granada would produce a similar programme with competing teams from universities across the United Kingdom.[3] From its inception in 1962, University Challenge was hosted by Bamber Gascoigne. The show was a cult favourite with a small but loyal core audience, and was one of a select few ITV shows which were transmitted without any advertising breaks. Originally the series started off in many areas, being broadcast at peak times or just after the nightly news around 22.30, by the early 1970s the series was relegated to irregular timeslots by the various ITV regional companies, such as Sunday afternoons, weekday mornings, weekday afternoons. In the absence of a regular networked slot, audience figures would often fall, leading the producers to make changes to the long-standing format of the programme. The series was given a rest for the whole of 1985, before returning in April 1986 when it was finally networked by ITV and stripped across weekday slot of 3pm. The Gameplay was revised, initial games were staged over two legs; the first in the classic format and the second played as a relay, where contestants selected questions from specific categories such as sport, literature and science, passing a baton between players whenever a "lap" of two correct answers was scored. The final series was also network but broadcast around 11am during the summer holiday period. Even so, the new networked time did little to save the series from the axe.

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge could each enter as separate teams up to five of their constituent colleges, which are not themselves universities: they have far fewer students - numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands - than most universities. This was the ostensible inspiration for an unusual 1975 protest. A team from the Victoria University of Manchester (which included David Aaronovitch) answered every question "Che Guevara", "Marx", "Trotsky" or "Lenin", possibly in the hope of making the resulting show unbroadcastable.[4] It did, however, get broadcast, although only portions of the episode still exist in the archives of Granada TV. Consequently, Granada banned the University of Manchester for several years.[5]


It was eventually revived in 1994 by the BBC, although still produced by Granada Television, using the original format with minor differences and presented by Jeremy Paxman.

During the show's hiatus, a special edition of the show was made, not by Granada but by BBC Television, as part of a themed evening of programmes dedicated to Granada Television. It was presented by Bamber Gascoigne, and screened on BBC2 on 28 December 1992. The teams included one made up of students from Keble College, Oxford, which had fielded the winning team in the final 1987 season; and a graduates team made up of celebrity alumni who had previously starred on the programme as students, including journalist John Simpson and actor Stephen Fry. This show was preceded by a short documentary about the show's history. Bamber Gascoigne's final appearance as host was in Universe Challenge in 1998 (see below).


The show has, since its revival in 1994, featured a number of very high standard teams of postgraduate and mature students, who perhaps have a greater breadth of general knowledge.[6] The Open University (OU) won the 1999 series with a team whose ages averaged 46. In the quarter-final they beat a slightly younger team from part-time and mature student specialist Birkbeck, University of London, by only one question. But Birkbeck won in 2003, also with a substantially mature team. Host Jeremy Paxman publicly criticised the OU team as not being in the spirit of the competition.[7] The team publicly replied by challenging him to specify in what way this was "contrary to the spirit of the quiz - or of the university". ("How Lance Left Paxman at a Loss for Words" - Mensa Magazine, August, 1999).

Ineligible contestants

In 2009, Sam Kay, part of the team from Corpus Christi College, Oxford was accused of not being a student when the show was filmed.[8] Kay, who had completed a chemistry degree the previous summer, had been planning to go on to study for a Doctor of Philosophy, but he did not have sufficient funding so dropped out. He then became an accountant.[9] The team, whose captain Gail Trimble was dubbed the "human Google",[10] won the competition but were subsequently disqualified and the trophy was awarded to the runners-up, the University of Manchester.[11]

A few days later, it was also revealed that Charles Markland, a member of the 2008 winning team from Christ Church, Oxford had transferred his studies to Balliol College, halfway through the series. He claimed that his team captain had contacted a researcher concerning the situation, and had been told that this was not a problem and that the same team should be maintained for continuity purposes.[12] It was also revealed that Freya McClements, captain of the 2004 winning team from Magdalen College, Oxford, was at the time studying at Trinity College, Dublin. Although it was mentioned in a BBC news story at the time, no action was taken because the BBC claimed that the facts had not been brought to their attention.[13][14]

In popular culture

  • A quiz themed around BBC science fiction situation comedy Red Dwarf, broadcast in 1998, was entitled Universe Challenge. It opened as if it were a regular episode, but with Chris Barrie imitating Jeremy Paxman. Bamber comes from behind with a blaster gun and blows him out of the chair, so he can host. This was Bamber Gascoigne's last appearance as host.[16]
  • Armando Ianucci's Time Trumpet did a parody of University Challenge, set in a future where students are 'too lazy to learn'; this parody was later referenced in an episode of the real series of University Challenge by the team captain of SOAS, John Joseph Perry, who, not knowing the real answer, simply answered "Venezuela?"
  • Starter For Ten is the title of a novel, first published in 2003, by British author David Nicholls, who also adapted the novel for a full-length film of the same name in 2006. The plot involves the first-year student Brian Jackson (played in the film by James MacAvoy) who attempts to join his university team competing in University Challenge.

Game play

From a 1994 episode of University Challenge

Teams consist of four members and most represent a single university. The exceptions to this are colleges of the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and the University of London, which enter independent teams. While a number of other British universities have constituent colleges, only those where some teaching is undertaken at the college-level may enter independent teams. The competing teams each year are selected by the shows producers, based both on scores from a general trivia quiz and the producers' judging of the suitability of the teams for television.[18] Durham University has appeared most frequently in the post-1994 format,[19] though Oxford, Cambridge and London have had colleges representing the universities in every series.[20]

The current tournament format used for each series is that of a direct knockout tournament starting with 28 teams. The 14 first-round winners progress directly to the last 16. Two matches, involving the four highest scoring losing teams from the first round, whose losing scores often exceed winning scores in other first-round matches, fill the remaining places in the last 16. The pairings for matches are often chosen in order to keep stronger teams apart.[21]

"Starter" questions are answered individually "on the buzzer" without conferring and are worth 10 points. "Your starter for 10" became the programme's most famous catchphrase and inspired David Nicholls' 2003 novel Starter for Ten and the 2006 film based on it starring James McAvoy. The team answering a starter correctly gets a set of three "bonus" questions worth a potential 15 points over which they can confer. Sets of bonus questions are thematically linked, although, apart from Picture and Music bonus questions, they rarely share a connection with the preceding starter question. Generally there are three separate bonus questions worth 5 points each, but occasionally a bonus will require the enumeration of a given list with 5, 10 or 15 points given for correctly giving a certain number of items from the list (e.g., "there are seven fundamental SI units. Give 5 for 5 points, 6 for 10 points or all 7 for 15 points"). An incorrect interruption of a starter results in a 5-point penalty.

It is the team captain's responsibility to give the answer to the bonus questions unless another member of the team is specified with the phrase "Nominate [name]". The team member so named may then give the answer instead.

In the course of a game there are two picture rounds (occurring roughly one quarter and three quarters of the way through) and one music round (at the halfway point), where the subsequent bonuses are connected thematically to the starter; if a picture or music starter is not correctly answered, the accompanying bonus questions are held back until a normal starter is correctly answered. The 2010 Manchester University team included a visually impaired student, Rachael Neiman, and the picture rounds in episodes involving the team were word puzzles for which she was provided with Braille transcriptions.[22] Pieces of music played for the music round may be classical or popular - for example, on 25 July 2011, the pieces played were winners of the Eurovision Song Contest. Occasionally, audio clips other than music (e.g. speech, animal sounds or other field recordings) are used.

The pace of questioning gradually increases through the show, becoming almost frantic in the last minute or so before the "gong" which signals the end of the game. At this point, the game immediately ends, even if Paxman is halfway through asking a question. In the event of a tied score at the sound of the gong, a "sudden death" question is asked, the first team to answer correctly being deemed the winner; this is repeated until one or other of the teams answer correctly, or a team loses by giving an incorrect interruption. The ending of the programme is usually signified with Jeremy Paxman saying "It's goodbye from (name of losing team, who wave and say goodbye), it's goodbye from (winning team, likewise), and it's goodbye from me: goodbye!" However, in the final episode of the seasons, Jeremy Paxman ends the show with "It's goodbye from (name of the season's winner, who wave and say goodbye), and it's goodbye from me: goodbye!"

While the starter questions are being read out, the teams are shown on screen one above the other by means of a split-screen effect. When a player buzzes in, the shot zooms in to that player, accompanied by a voiceover identifying the player by team and surname, for example "Nottingham, Smith". The voiceovers are performed live in the studio by Roger Tilling and become noticeably more energetic towards the end of the programme. The 1985 season experimented with an actual two-tier set, which was discontinued the following season.

Notable contestants

Notable Contestants in the regular student competition. Special Celebrity Christmas editions, where all competitors are distinguished, are excluded.


The University of Manchester and Magdalen College, Oxford both have the highest number of wins, with four. Only Trinity College, Cambridge holds three titles, and a further seven colleges have two titles: Durham, Sussex, Open University, Imperial College (London), Sidney Sussex (Cambridge), Keble (Oxford), and University College (Oxford).

The University of Manchester and Magdalen College, Oxford are also the only winners to successfully defend the title the following year.

Lowest scores

Not much is known about the lowest scores from the Bamber Gascoigne series, except that the lowest score ever was amassed in 1971-2, when a Sussex team, fresh from two series wins, managed only 10 points.[25] This is also the lowest score ever achieved on the programme.

Under quizmaster Jeremy Paxman, a low score of 15 was achieved by the University of Exeter in a quarter-final against Corpus Christi, Oxford, whose team captain Gail Trimble amassed 15 correct starter questions. However, the Corpus Christi team were later disqualified from the competition after it was found that team member Sam Kay had been ineligible for the last three matches.[26] Therefore, the lowest score officially achieved against eligible opponents under quizmaster Jeremy Paxman was by Lincoln College, Oxford, who totalled 30 in a semi-final against the eventual series champions the University of Manchester, in an episode televised on 9 February 2009.

Before these matches, the lowest score was 35, reached by New Hall, Cambridge, 1997.[27] This score would have been lower if all fines for incorrect interruptions had been applied.[28]

The lowest score during the Professionals series was achieved by the House of Commons team, who scored 25 in 2003. In the 2014 Christmas University Challenge series, a team of alumni from Newcastle University also finished with 25.

Highest scores

University College, Oxford scored 520 points in the final ITV season in 1987.[29]


Year Special Event Winners Runners Up
1984 1984 Christmas special
1986 International best of three series Great Britain (Jesus College, Oxford, 1985) New Zealand (University of Auckland, 1985)
1987 International best of three series Great Britain (Keble College, Oxford, 1986) New Zealand (University of Otago, 1986)
1992 Celebrity match Celebrity Past Contestants (Alastair Little, John Simpson, Stephen Fry, Charles Moore) Keble College, Oxford (A team of current students from the college, as they were the "defending champions", having won the last series of the show, back in 1987.)
1997 College Bowl Challenge University of Michigan Imperial College London, 1996
1997 Mastermind Challenge Magdalen College, Oxford, 1997 The last 4 Mastermind finallists from the Magnus Magnusson era: Claire Ockwell, Andrea Weston, Colin Cadby (Captain) and Anne Ashurst (series champion)
1998 College Bowl Challenge USA UK
1998 Champions' Challenge Magdalen College, Oxford, 1997 Imperial College London, 1996
1998 Universe Challenge Red Dwarf Fans: (Darryl Ball, Kaley Nichols, Steve Rogers [Chairman of the Official Red Dwarf Fan Club], Pip Swallow, Sharon Burnett [Co-author of The Red Dwarf Quiz Book]) Red Dwarf Cast: (Robert Llewellyn, Danny John-Jules, Chris Barrie, Chloë Annett, Craig Charles)
1999 Journalists Special Tabloids Broadsheets
1999 Challenge Magdalen College, Oxford, 1998 Leicester, 1963
2002 University Challenge: Reunited Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, 1979 Keele, 1968
2003 University Challenge: The Professionals The Inland Revenue Royal Meteorological Society
2003 Comic Relief match The Townies: (Jeremy Beadle, Danny Baker, Johnny Vaughan, Gina Yashere) The Gownies: (David Baddiel, Frank Skinner, Stephen Fry, Clive Anderson)
2004 International "Grand Final": UK vs India Sardar Patel College of Engineering (SPCE), Mumbai: (Nirad Inamdar, Bharat Jayakumar, Nishad Manerikar, Shrijit Plappally) Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge: (Laura Ashe, Darren Khodaverdi, Lameen Souag, Edward Wallace)
2004 University Challenge: The Professionals British Library Oxford University Press
2004 Christmas Special 1 Television (Monty Don, Martha Kearney, Andrew Neil, Clare Balding) Radio (Henry Blofeld, Jenni Murray, Ned Sherrin, Roger Bolton)
Christmas Special 2 Critics (Waldemar Januszczak, Russell Davies, Brian Sewell, Andrew Graham-Dixon) Theatre
Christmas Specials: Final Critics Television
2005 Comic Relief 2005 Match The South (Sarah Alexander, Hugh Grant, Stephen Fry, Omid Djalili) The North (Colin Murray, John Thomson, Armando Iannucci, Neil Morrissey)
2005 University Challenge: The Professionals Privy Council Office Romantic Novelists' Association
2006 University Challenge: The Professionals Bodleian Library Royal Statistical Society
2008 University Challenge: The Professionals Ministry of Justice National Physical Laboratory
2011 Christmas University Challenge Trinity College, Cambridge (Robin Bhattachryya, Daisy Goodwin, John Lloyd, Edward Stourton) University of Warwick (Vadim Jean, Daisy Christodoulou, Christian Wolmar, Carla Mendonça)
2012 Christmas University Challenge New College, Oxford (Rachel Johnson, Patrick Gale, Kate Mosse, Yan Wong) University of East Anglia (John Boyne, Razia Iqbal, David Grossman, Charlie Higson)
2013 Christmas University Challenge Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge (Quentin Stafford-Fraser, Helen Castor, Mark Damazer, Lars Tharp) Emmanuel College, Cambridge (Hugo Rifkind, Mary Ann Ochota, Simon Singh, Rory McGrath)
2014 Champion of Champions University of Manchester (Henry Pertinez, Gareth Aubrey, Tristan Burke, Adam Barr) Magdalen College, Oxford (Matthew Chan, Freya McClements, Jim Adams, Sarah Healey)
2014 Christmas University Challenge Trinity Hall, Cambridge (Tom James, Emma Pooley, Adam Mars-Jones, Dan Starkey) University of Hull (Rosie Millard, Malcolm Sinclair, Jenni Murray, Stan Cullimore)

Some information from this table was obtained from the web pages listed in


Spin-off shows

The producers of the programme have taken the more recent inclusion of mature students to its logical conclusion by making two series without any student participants: University Challenge Reunited (2002) brought former teams back together, while University Challenge: The Professionals (from 2003) matched occupational groups such as civil servants, architects and doctors against each other. In 2003, the former was won by the 1979 team from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, the latter by a team from the Inland Revenue. The 2004 Professionals series was won by the British Library, and the 2005 series by the Privy Council Office. In 2006, Professionals was won by staff of the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford.

The show has seen numerous specials, including those for specific professions and celebrity editions, such as Universe Challenge, presented by former host and Red Dwarf fan, Bamber Gascoine, where the cast of Red Dwarf challenged a team of their "ultimate fans" to celebrate Red Dwarf's 10th anniversary on the air. The cast was Chris Barrie (captain), Danny John-Jules, Robert Llewellyn, Chloë Annett and Craig Charles. The cast, who at times seemed amazed at the fans' knowledge, lost, but by only 15 points, 280-295. In December 2012, the programme presented a series which it called "University Challenge Christmas Special", which consisted of celebrities who were graduates of the teams represented on the programmes coming back to take part in the teams on the programmes of the series. This series was won by a team who represented New College, Oxford.

Similar programmes

Sixth Form Challenge, hosted by Chris Kelly, appeared briefly between 1965 and 1967. The sixth form contestants represented leading public schools and grammar schools. An untelevised version, Schools' Challenge, continues to run at junior and senior secondary school levels.

Other countries

University Challenge ran in New Zealand for 14 seasons, from 1976 until 1989, with international series held between the previous years' British and New Zealand champions in both 1986 and 1987. It was hosted by Peter Sinclair. The series has been revived in 2014 with Tom Conroy as host.

University Challenge, hosted by Dr. Magnus Clarke, ran in Australia on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's channel from 1987 until 1989. In the 1988 series, the University of New South Wales defeated the University of Melbourne in the final by 245 points to 175.[30]

University Challenge India started in summer 2003, with the season culminating in the finals of March 2004 where Sardar Patel College of Engineering (SPCE), Mumbai, beat Indian School of Business (ISB), Hyderabad. The 2004–2005 season finale saw a team of undergraduate engineering students from Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology (NSIT), Delhi, beat a team of management students from the Indian Institute of Management Kozhikode. The Indian winners of the 2003–2004 season went on to beat the finalists from the UK show, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. UC India is produced by BBC World India, and Synergy Communications, co-owned by Siddhartha Basu, who also hosted the show.[31]


  1. ^ This figures included all episodes from both the ITV and BBC series, as well as the 2002 Reunited series and all special episodes. The figures does not include the spin-off University Challenge: The Professionals.
  2. ^ See Don't ever change, University Challenge by Harry Mount, the Daily Telegraph, 7 April 2014.
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ .
  7. ^ .
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^
  14. ^
  15. ^
  16. ^ Universe Challenge (1998) at the Internet Movie Database
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^
  21. ^ .
  22. ^
  23. ^ Blake Morrison I contain multitudes, The Guardian, 29 May 2010
  24. ^ Granada TV's "University Challenge" 1962/3 on YouTube
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^
  28. ^ On the TV programme The 100 Most Embarrassing TV Moments Ever, the New Hall performance was repeated and a member of the team said that they stopped losing points.
  29. ^ University Challenge - Highest Scores
  30. ^ University Challenge Australian Grand Final 1988 NSW v Melbourne Part 1 on YouTube
  31. ^

External links

  • Southampton 'University Challenge' team interview - a rare insight into the personalities of a University Challenge team
  • University Challenge at BBC Programmes
  • pagesUniversity ChallengeSean Blanchflower's
  • , with photograph of the highest-ever scoring team, from University College, Oxford, in the 1987 final against Keble College, OxfordUniversity Challenge at
  • A full, illustrated behind-the-scenes account of the matches of the lowest-ever scoring team in the Paxman-era, by an Exeter contestant
  • IndiaUniversity Challenge – a tribute
  • Interview with the winning 2007 University of Warwick team
  • University Challenge at the Internet Movie Database
  • BBC Tightens University Challenge Rules in Response to Fiasco
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