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Starters for Ten

Paul Sweeten

University ChallengeSteve Tribe
The University Challenge Quiz Book
BBC books, 2010
576 Pages
ISBN 978-1846078569


Which demographic, nowadays, watches University Challenge? For that matter, which demographic ever did? Unlike witnessing Lionel Messi play football or strongmen bench-press tractor tyres, it can be mildly aggravating to watch students prove that they know things, and, in some cases, seemingly know everything. Despite this, Britain’s most taxing quiz is somehow comforting; no less charming or nostalgic than Antiques Roadshow or The Archers. The publication of a hefty quiz book, in commemoration of five decades of UC, ensures that we no longer have to wait for the show’s next airing to remind us of how under-read we are. We may simply turn to a page. This one, for example:

Your starter for 10:
A drama by Euripides of the fifth century BC, reworked by Goethe and adapted as an opera by Gluck in the eighteenth century, concerns which of the daughters of Agamemnon, a priestess in the temple of Artemis at Tauris?

Three bonus question on shoes in literature:
(a) Telling of a girl who is made to dance perpetually as a punishment for having worn her dancing shoes to church, eventually asking an executioner to cut her feet off, ‘The Red Shoes’ is a story for children by which author and poet?
(b) Set in Montmartre and concerning Vianne Rocher and her family, The Lollipop Shoes, published in 2007, is the sequel to which novel by Joanne Harris?
(c) Blue Shoes and Happiness is the seventh in a series of books by which Zimbabwean-born Scottish author?

Such questions may delight, repel, humble or abash; they are, unquestionably, all tough. It is not overly enjoyable to have the sense of one’s intelligence deflated subject by subject for five-hundred pages—no more so than it is to have Jeremy Paxman achieve the same feat in thirty minutes—so what accounts for the undeniable charm of this British institution? Putting our competitive natures aside, the fact that University Challenge ever did well as a television programme is somewhat surprising (launching in 1962, its representatives from courts and quads across Britain did not look the swinging type). Fifty years later, its existence—let alone its continued success—is positively bewildering.

Like many programmes of its vintage, it owes its survival in part to a much-deserved heritage status. Were it not older than most television executives, its seemingly unmarketable concept—rivaled only by Countdown, a show dependent on the entertainment value of anagrams—would surely be considered for that most undignified treatment: the revamp. But that simply wouldn’t do. In its original format, such subjects as “jewelry in Shakespeare”, “Benjamin Britten’s librettists”, “Latin third-declension neuter nouns”, “animals named after places in Kent” and, most fiendish of all, “mathematics”, are able to enjoy unadorned airtime. The questions may be difficult, but there is something in the music of their loaded grammar, punctuated with nouns of such lofty associations—Pericles, Agincourt, Rutherford—that makes one almost proud to announce “I don’t know” while appreciating that knowledge is one of those asymptotical callings: a never-ending pursuit.

Ignorance can be bliss, which is perhaps the point of University Challenge for those of us who can’t locate the island of Ta’ū on a world map or find that the Fibonacci Sequence gets a little hazy after the first dozen integers. And of course the less we think we know, the more satisfying it is to get an answer right from time to time: (starter for 10) Iphigenia, (a) Hans Christian Andersen, (b) Chocolat, (c) Alexander McCall Smith.

Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.