Starter for Ten: Do you have what it takes to make our University Challenge team?


By Ollie Smith, Features Editor

It is a show that has been on our screens since 1962. University Challenge is a staple of the quizzing world and remains a source of enjoyment and great competition among the student populace.

As a quiz enthusiast and someone who has tried and failed to make the team myself, I was keen to explore how we choose our own team and what makes a good quizzer. Thankfully, past Bristol contestants and organisers were more than happy to explain. George Ferzoco is a former Mastermind contestant and now a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Religion and Theology at Bristol University and helps oversee the Bristol selection process. Anne Le Maistre was last year’s Bristol team captain who is currently on our screens. They explain that the first stage of the process involves a really tough written test which around 300 students usually take - this was the stage where I tried and failed. This usually takes place in October and is run by previous team members.

The next round takes place in early November and involves the top five to ten per cent from the first round which this year was the top 20. This involves answering questions with buzzers. The final round involves the last 10 candidates who are interviewed and give further written and buzzer tests. From these final ten, George and past team members discuss who would form the most effective team and from this the final five are chosen. Anne explains that it is important to have a range of expertise when choosing the final team: ‘Anyone who makes the final 20, let alone the final 10, would probably make a good team member but it doesn’t make sense to field a team with four scientists and no coverage of the liberal arts, or vice versa’.

Of these five, one is a reserve who is always on-hand in case of a situation where one of the main four cannot participate and of the four one is chosen as captain. They will practice every week for a few hours with buzzers whilst George tries to imitate Jeremy Paxman. Anne says there are several factors that can get you to the final round of selections. The first is luck as there is only so much they can be quizzed on and so some topics which some may shine in may not be covered. The ‘critical factor’ she says ‘is knowing quite a bit about more than one subject, whether through A-levels, previous degrees, or just personal interest’. A background in quizzing is also helpful but Anne points out this is not a necessity as she herself does not quiz regularly. The final important factor is being able to work out an answer or make an intelligent guess if you do not know it.

This is not the end, however, as once the team is chosen they then have to apply to be one of the 28 teams to appear on the programme. George explains that oddly they are interviewed by ITV, who make the show, despite the fact it is broadcast on BBC2. The producers interview around 130 prospective teams to choose the final 28. For Anne ‘the common element among all the people I have met, hung out with, and competed against was a pure enjoyment of quizzing. There’s nothing like the buzz of getting an answer right while other people are still processing the question, or producing an answer you did not know you had in you’.

George believes that University Challenge ‘is a showcase for our community - not just the University, but the city as well’. Amazingly, Bristol is the only team to have appeared on the programme in each of the past five years and in that time has won the most matches. Bristol’s association with the show also extends into popular culture with the film ‘Starter for 10’ being set here.

As for the team members themselves George says this: ‘I think our team’s members, over the years, feel they have not only entered a fortunate and prestigious group, but they will have come to appreciate being in the company of other interesting and bright students, making friends for life. They know they will for all time never be short of a story or ten about their appearances on the show, and need to resign themselves to endless questions about what Paxman is really like - most find him to be a decent person - what it’s like to buzz in to get a question - the combination of adrenalin, fear, and relief – or, embarrassingly, how they could possibly have got a particular question wrong’.

Despite previous successes in indivudal rounds of University Challenge, Bristol University has never won the competition. Next year, the University hope to reverse this trend and they are on the look out for potential University Challenge contestants. Anyone can apply to be on Bristol’s University Challenge team so for those of you keen to try next year and showcase your knowledge, be sure to keep an eye out and bring your best quizzing game.

Featured Image: ITV Studios

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Ollie Smith

Features Editor 2018-19 I Online Features Editor 2017-18 I Host and Founder of The Epigram Show on Wednesdays at 10am on BURST Radio