It has more rounds than ‘Masterchef’, but the presenter would die rather than misuse the word ‘unctuous’. The participants would have a hard time pulling on even the most WKD-fuelled episode of ‘Ibiza Uncovered’, but could tell you the process by which the Balearic Islands appeared in the Mediterranean. Sometimes it’s more unintelligible than an episode of ‘Deadwood’, but six million people watched this programme last year. It’s the University Challenge Final.
This year the final is between St John’s College Oxford, and Alexander Guttenplan of Emmanuel College Cambridge. Let’s see how the challengers line up.
St John’s College Oxford are notable for having appeared only on episodes I’ve missed, so I cannot tell you anything about them. Except one of their team has the nickname ‘The OC’ - because his initials are OC, one presumes, rather than because he’s wealthy, goodlooking, possibly a bit brooding, could be an alcoholic, and bound for disaster despite his privileged background and living in southern California. The OC is not the kind of subject one might come across on University Challenge. Occasionally one of the question setters gets a bit daring in the early rounds and throws in three bonus questions on soaps or pop music, only to be rewarded by seeing the look of a man who has just had a tortoise spoor in their hand cross the visage of the Paxperson.
It is not necessary, however, to have seen a team in action to know what each member’s strengths and weaknesses are going to be. It is possible to sum up any team in seconds after you first see them in their places along the bench. The convention of University Challenge is that the captain sits third from the left as looked upon by the viewer but, in fact, there is more to it than that. Very few UC teams deviate from the more detailed team order, which is:
Far left: Slightly nutty, often older student, frequently resembles Bill Bailey, not under captain’s control and consequently often buzzes too early and gets team docked 5 points. Generally studying theology or the philosophy of something you never realised could have a philosophy, such as vacuum cleaners.
Left: Space filler. Will contribute approximately 20 points in each game.
Right: Captain. The captain is the lynchpin and king swot of the team.
Far right: Mainstream nerd. This person apparently has some interests in common with a normal person, such as football, but knows things that a normal person doesn’t, such as the number of all the goals ever scored in the group part of the World Cup divided by Pi, or the Latin mottos of every Premiership and First Division team.
Emmanuel College fit into this template nicely, except that their Bill Bailey and space filler have swapped seats. Despite this, Jenny ‘Part Troll’ Harris has a nice line in buzzing too early and then gurning like a loon instead of giving the right answer, and Seat Warmer Hastings….well… his name is called so infrequently by the announcer that I had to look it up.
Emmanual College, however, have the killer app of the UC world – the Know-it-all -no-really-I-mean-ALL captain. Nominally a team game, in fact the team with the strongest captain is always a good place to put your money if you want to make things a little interesting. In 2009 Gail Trimble of the (later disqualified) Corpus Christi team brought this to the nation’s attention by a) being a girl and b) annoying some people with her facial expressions, but mainly by c) being a girl and knowing stuff. However, Max ‘Howard Wolowitz’ Kaufman of Christ Church, Oxford dragged his team to success by being a one-man Wikipedia in 2008. This year, Emmanuel have Alexander Guttenplan, repository of knowledge titbits on subjects as diverse as geology, Greek, and comic books – in fact, very much what you might imagine he might know about, given he’s in the finals of University Challenge.
Guttenplan – a man who doesn’t waste money on paying for fancy haircuts – resembles a potentially good-looking actor playing an unattractive UC contestant, which makes him the resident super hottie for the teen brigade (any grown up, of course, will have eyes for no-one else when El Pax is around.) He is the Ryan Atwood of The UC, except spending more time lurking in libraries with his laptop than brooding on the beach with a bottle of vodka. The Guttenfans – and they are legion – love him. Except Alexander himself would probably point out that in fact ‘a legion’ was 3000 – 6000 men in the Roman Army, and in fact there are only around 700 Guttenfans on Facebook (but hey, that’s ten times the number of people who turned up to Kandi Rain’s gig at Bexhill-on-Sea Holiday Park, as shown on ‘Snog Marry Avoid’.) If the captain of St John’s Oxford doesn’t want to be torn limb from limb by a crazed gang of harpies (that’s a ‘snatcher’ from Latin ‘harpeia’) high on the vapours of sexually unthreatening intellectual stimulation then he knows what to do.
If you’re ready to throw yourself into this seething soup of academia and hormones, then between mentally switching off every time Paxo asks a question that includes numbers and letters mixed together, trying to figure out if Guttenplan might be better looking if he got lenses and wondering why the phrase ‘shoulda gone to SpecSavers’ has become lodged in your brain, playing along with UC is a good way to improve the shining half hour.
Basically, your job is to get the answer before the contestants or any other players in the room, and obviously before the Paxmonculus gives the answer. Screaming out loud at the telly is, of course, totally acceptable, as is giving several frenzied answers in the desperate hope that one might at least be related to the subject at hand. Unlike UC contestants, your last answer is your final answer, and you score one point for whatever question you answer, starter or bonus. You can, however, answer questions being asked of both teams.
Some key strategies include:
1. Algebra questions: Answering 1 or -1, regardless of the question. You will occasionally be right.
2. Music or art bonus questions: If you haven’t got a clue, pick an artist or composer from the period and say his or her name immediately the picture is shown or music played. This way, if you happen to be right by happy coincidence, you will pick up the points before anyone else does. This works more often than it should, and is a strategy followed by the contestants themselves on occasion.
3. Always have a go at anything with a low number of possibilities, but which you have no clue about. If Paxo wants to know about this or that planet which has this or that moon or gas, just yell out the name of any planet. Who knows? You might have yelled the same word as happens to be the answer to the question.
4. Resist the temptation to yell ‘Jeremy Paxman’s unsupportive M&S undies!’ This will almost never be the answer.
Good luck, and may the best (Gutten)man win.