Running since 1962, University Challenge is a British tradition, like Yorkshire Puddings, cricket and Doctor Who. So when St Andrews progressed to the televised round, it was only natural to get an interview with the Saints’ captain, Jamie Perriam, below. Then a fourth year English Literature student, Perriam led the St Andrews team against Trinity College, Cambridge. Despite losing (with the end result of 150-100) the match was a good one, with Perriam, Fairfax, Kew and Adams putting up a good fight.
The try-out process in St Andrews
Perriam and Kew held open auditions for the rest of the team, “as recommended in the extensive brochure” given by ITV (who produce the show for the BBC). “The tryouts consisted of a rather difficult written test composed of fifty-odd questions from past series, and we had around 120 people turn up – but the demography was a bit disappointing . The vast majority of applicants were male and we only had a handful of postgrads show up.” To decide who made the cut -whilst looking for those with the best results – degree subjects were taken into account in order to have “as wide a range of specialist knowledge as possible”. After filtering to the final dozen, one-onone interviews were held with questions posed in the style of the show itself. And so twelve became three, (the fifth a required reserve,) as the squad was finalised: Will Kew – Chemistry, fifth year; Lewis Fairfax – French and Russian, fourth year; Daniel Chambers – Maths, third year; James Adams – Physics, first year; and Jamie Perriam – English, fourth year, or as Perriam describes them, “the St Andrews dream team.”
The try-out process for the televised rounds
It was in Edinburgh, after the Christmas break, where the final interviews for the regional heats were held and the first glimpse of the potential competition was seen. “Edinburgh’s own team were an odd bunch: in contrast to our own undergraduate makeup, they consisted, as far as I could tell, entirely of slightly scrofulous postgraduates. The Glasgow crew, a happier bunch, were to be interviewed jointly with us.” Finally, a reel of pre-recorded questions was given, of which the cumulative scores would ultimately decide the teams’ suitability for the show. Surprisingly, whilst the scores were the deciding factor when it came to choosing participants, they were to be considered alongside the team’s performance in interview – University Challenge is “an entertainment programme above anything else” (there is no cash prize for the series winner).
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of BBC2, a two-part special about the journey the teams underwent to reach the televised shows was filmed, to be broadcast alongside the usual series of University Challenge. Whilst waiting for the phone call to confirm their fate, “the judgement of an unspecified Solomon”, the St Andrews’ squad was instructed by the documentary’s production team to record the moment of truth on film. As Perriam describes the situation “nerves were higher than an American at Thanksgiving; our conversation, like Obama’s hand in Iraq, was forced.”
“Our habit was to meet once a week – twice, as the filming date, a weekend in mid-March, drew nearer, with the aid of two thick volumes compiling past questions from University Challenge’s forty-odd series, to recreate the conditions we would face in the studio.” Their preparation may seem lax, especially in comparison to the University of Manchester who have “an extremely keen and presumably bachelor librarian who puts each year’s squad through its paces”, but the St Andrews team found a technique which works perfectly for them. “Taking turns to ask the rest of the team questions, and then chastising them for any failure to produce the correct response, possessed the attraction of simplicity. When even asking questions seemed too much like hard work, we’d stick on YouTube clips of past shows and play along.”
Having left St Andrews on a Saturday, the team arrived in Salford, Manchester, in advance of the Sunday afternoon filming. After breakfast with “our old friends from Glasgow”, the team undertook some last-minute revision before making their way across the docks to Media City. Having managed to avoid The Voice and find their way to the right green room, the St Andrews team were informed their opponents would be the reigning champions, Trinity College Cambridge. “There was another pair of squads present, who were to film their episode before us – those of the Open University and Leicester, both of whom were fielding teams consisting principally of postgraduates (admittedly slightly more salubrious than the Edinburgh lot). Having another match take place before ours helped to calm the nerves, and we played along – getting quite a few of the questions with ease, encouragingly.”
There are several common misconceptions about the University Challenge experience, with the primary one being that the teams sit at tables next to each other. In reality, the teams sit above each other – in this instance St Andrews was on top, and Trinity was positioned out of sight, down below. With a quick practice of “swinging on chairs, pressing buzzers, and nodding sagely, there was a brief warm-up, and after a couple of questions we were up by forty-odd points…so much for the inviolate Trinity!”
There is no doubt that Paxman is a pivotal part of University Challenge. In his last season as quizmaster before being replaced by Evan Davis of Dragons’ Den fame, he is definitely not slowing down. Upon entering the arena with “a Bluetooth headset clamped around his ear, he took a brief break from haranguing some unseen agent about next year’s diary to pose for photographs, whilst various aides fussed over decking him out in a fresh jacket and tie”. Although only televised once a week, the episodes are filmed over a few days, thus the “illusion of time passing needs must be maintained by Mr Paxman’s being clad in variegated cloth”. Furthermore, Paxman is clearly not afraid to put the competitors in their places, correcting their “fluffed phrases”.
Despite losing to Trinity College 150-100, Perriam does think that the better team won. “The questions were tricky, even by University Challenge’s exacting standards, and we were both hard-done-by on bonuses; the questions were simply not kind to us. Interestingly, even immediately after the event the production team announced their intention to leave a few unessayed rogations on the cuttingroom floor.” A few weeks after the filming, ITV called Perriam telling him the scores had been adjusted from what they’d been given as on the day, “as a wrongly-answered question had turned out to be right”.
“Trinity, however, showed a good deal of flair in the end, and all power to them – I was simply happy to have led a motley crew of St Andrews students to darkest England, to the national stage, and to have emerged with a claim to some measure of satisfaction.”