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Jeremy Paxman’s Wagamama orders, getting recognised in Clifton Down Sainsbury's and memorizing maps: Behind the scenes with the UOB University Challenge team

By James Dowden, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Fingers on the buzzers, here’s your first starter for ten…

It’s become one of the most iconic lines on television over the past 60 years as the series University Challenge has gained cult status amongst the British public.

Fiendishly tough questions, the pressure of television and having Jeremy Paxman as quizmaster make it compelling viewing in it its habitual Monday 8:30 pm slot.

Bristol’s links to the series were even documented in the 2006 film Starter for 10 starting James McAvoy. In it, McAvoy’s character ultimately is unsuccessful in his quest to join the University Challenge team after helping a fellow candidates during the trials.

Yet for the class of 2022/23, the first trial was one of several stages they had to go through in order to reach the lure of the televised rounds and a coveted place in the pantheon of University Challenge.

This year’s team consists of chemistry student, Tess Richardson, economics and maths student, Jacob McLaughlin, physics and philosophy student, Alejandro Ortega, medicine student, Sam Kehler and Biology student Ted Warner.

Sam admits that he hadn’t watched much of the show before coming to Bristol and recalls how he and his first-year halls mates (in true student fashion) had turned watching the show into a drinking game.

With his first-year halls of residence locked down and no possibility of a Monday night out on the Triangle, Sam and his flatmates settled down for some quizzing and an evening in, huddled around a small TV screen.

‘Before coming to university, I hadn’t really watched any of University Challenge but when we were locked down we had a drinking game made out of it and then I applied for it after that’ Sam explains.

In contrast, the captain of the team Tess signed up after noticing an email come through advertising trials for the team. ‘I think I liked the quiz team's Facebook page but never went to any of the meetings or anything like that. Then I got an email saying about the University Challenge trials. It kind of peaked with my obsession with the show at the time just after lockdown and I was watching old episodes on YouTube.’

After a couple more buzzer rounds the five, made up of four plus one reserve, were selected for this year’s team but there still remained a lot of work to do in order to get onto one of the live shows.

For the current series over 122 teams applied to be on but only 28 are lucky enough to make it onto the live televised rounds up in Salford where the show is filmed.

Tess remembers the nervous wait to find out whether they had been accepted onto the show with the team having had to attend an interview and complete yet another quiz in front of producers.

‘I was so nervous because basically they called me and I knew that they would say whether we had got on the show or not.’

Jacob on the other hand was in fact taking a relaxing nap after a morning seminar.

‘I had something in the morning at uni and then I came home and I decided to sleep. I was like by the time I wake up we would have heard either way.’

In the end, Jacob was waking up to exciting news as the Bristol team was selected to be on the 2023/24 series of University Challenge.

The University of Bristol University Challenge Team 2022/23 - Tess Richardson 

Once the team knew they’d be in the live rounds on television they continued swotting up on their general knowledge for one of the toughest quiz shows out there. They rewatched old shows, practising with buzzers and even printed out and memorized maps. The maps came in hand as some last-minute revision on the train up to Manchester helped with a question in their opening match.

As Jacob recalls, ‘on the train up we were like looking at these maps I had printed off and for our very first episode I remember I was looking at them and then a question on something I was looking at beforehand came up.’

On a few more occasions some last-minute late-night practice came in handy.

‘Yeah, there was a couple of times where we were like talking about something the night before, and then it came up in the show which was satisfying to get as well’ Sam recalls and Jacob adds that in particular ‘we were talking about state capitals [the night before] and it was almost word for word one of the questions that he talked about.’

For Sam, the whole experience really hit home when they first arrived up in Manchester for the broadcast section of the show. ‘It was all very fun traveling up. When we actually stepped into the studio I think I was very visibly nervous.’

For Jacob it was a mix of feelings: ‘on the one hand, you can't forget that you're in there. On the other hand, it's just like you're watching another one. But you've just got to forget that you're actually on TV.’

On one day of filming there was nearly a disastrous moment when the team’s mascot, Isambear, a cuddly toy bear that has been passed down by previous University of Bristol University Challenge teams, was forgotten just before filming was due to start. Luckily a last-minute dash back to a Manchester hotel room meant a crisis was averted as Isambear took up his place on the famous’ set alongside the four.

On another occasion, it was Paxman himself who was late to a shoot after popping out for a mid-afternoon Wagamama.

Paxman has developed a fierce reputation over the years for grilling students on their general knowledge having presented the show since 1994. Although his fierce reputation precedes him on set, during filming the Bristol team found him to have a cooler light-hearted side – his secret pleasure for Wagamama included.

‘I think maybe he was late for one of the shoots as someone said he had been getting a Wagamama with his partner’ Ted recalls.

‘But yeah, he was kind, and the people who work on the show are really nice and a lot of effort into making you feel as relaxed as possible’ Jacob notes.

The team has reached the quarter-final stage after defeating Oriel College, Oxford, Queen's University Belfast and Newnham College, Cambridge.

To round off, as our conversation finishes off, the cult following of the show has led to some of the team being recognised around Bristol. For Jacob one time in Clifton Down Sainsburys particularly stands out.

‘You get people coming up to you and saying good luck. It’s a bit weird how sometimes you are being recognized on campus. It’s happened a couple of times and I had a bit of a conversation in Sainsbury's once.’

The team is currently at the quarter-final stage with the series broadcast on Mondays on BBC Two at 8:30 pm.