How often do you fail at something important, and get a second chance?
As previously recounted in Useless Information, when I was a postgrad at Queen’s, back in 1983, I was picked for the University Challenge team. I’ve always been a fan of the show and I was fortunate to (still) be at college when our turn came around. I went for an informal test: a fellow student read out 25 or 30 questions and I answered on the spot, as best I could. After which he said, “Well, as things stand you’d be in the team”.
And so it come to pass. We were knowledgeable but not very organised (but how many student teams are?). Much of any team’s success is down to training and self-belief; quizzing could be described as a sport without the physical exercise. Unfortunately, we came up against a good team (neighbours Magdalen) in the first round and that was that. I answered five starteres correctly and acquited myself well, but to no avail. It was nice to have been part of the show, but I knew we could have won, if only…
Although you can’t win ‘em all, it would’ve been good to win something for once. I’ve never been much cop at anything athletic, so you can rule that out. It is a long time since I won the Overchurch Junior School essay prize with “What I Should Like To Be When I Grow Up” – the prize, as I recall, being a bag of Cadbury’s chocolate eclairs.
When I went on to secondary school I wasn’t somebody who was top in everything, winning prizes for this, that and the other. Mine was a very academic, selective school and I’ve always been an all-rounder (or Jack of All Trades, if you prefer), so there was usually someone a mark or two ahead of me, even in Spanish – whuch I went on to teach at Oxford.
I’d been at the British Library for over 17 years when our Press Office agreed to take part in a special 2004 edition of University Challenge, called “The Professionals”. I just had to go for it. I took an exam and made the team, joining three other northerners, all a bit old, a bit over-weight and generally lacking in physical charm. You could imagine the marketing director thinking, “Oh dear. We have some rather photogenic young curators, so how did we get lumbered with this lot?” In fact, I am sure that’s exactly what she said – though not directly to us. But of all those who wanted to take part, we were the four who performed best in the tests. It transpired that three of us had been on UC as students, all of us waiting for a second chance.
UC has never claimed to be a beauty contest
This time we did practise seriously and got to know each other’s strengths. When you are ready to buzz in on a starter question you have to consider, “Is anyone else on my team more likely to know the answer than me?” Get it wrong and they will glare at you. Don’t buzz in and you might lose the game. You will be that hapless mantelpiece ornament who might as well not have been there. We’ve all seen them. It’s having the guts to take risks under pressure and, what is more, on a popular TV show, that makes it a challenge. A team has to become a team and there is a great deal of satisfaction when it gels. As my old school-friend Charles Grimes says, when an orchestra’s musicians come together to play it doesn’t mean that they need to like each other. But they do have to love what they do and give it their best.
We didn’t socialise much
As the date of our first recording session got closer, I got more nervous. I was privately considering if I should attempt to get out of it, rather than how I was going to help to win it. Of course anyone can lose a game, but it’s the fear of losing really, really badly, of being an embarrassment. And you are representing a world-class institution – one that had “The World’s Knowledge” as its pretentious catchphrase. That is real pressure. But the things that cause you most worry are the things that will give you most satisfaction (provided you succeed, of course). I do get nervous but over the years I have discovered that I am actually a very competitive person, even if I don’t like to give that impression.
We took the train up to Manchester and won our opening game against a team of crossword compilers! (Can there be four individuals less likely to make up a team?) It was obvious that they were never going to be quick on the buzzer. Of my colleagues, Kathryn Johnson was the shining star. She was razor sharp and seemed to know everything. Quizzing is her passion and she has been on Mastermind three times. The rest of us made a respectable contribution, often at key moments. We weren’t allowed to tell anyone we’d won until the game was shown on the BBC, some months later.
People I hadn’t seen for many years saw the programme and got in touch. We received congratulations and warm wishes from our colleagues, but “senior management” still seemed wary. Perhaps it was as well that they left us to get on with it.
By the time we got to the final against Oxford University Press, I had got over my stage fright. I answered the first two starters and we never once lost the lead. When there was just a minute to go I realised we were so far ahead that we could not lose. A moment to savour. We are the champions, my friends.
Once again we had to keep it quiet, and the programme was not broadcast until September 2004, three months after it was recorded and 20 years after my appearance for Queen’s. Our colleagues packed out the British Library Auditorium to watch it “live”. Almost nobody knew the result in advance. Wild cheering throughout. The CEO couldn’t stop talking about it and we featured in the annual report.
So fickle is management…
For a month or two, you think you are a celebrity, and occasionally you get recognised. We were asked to set the Guardian quiz. Kathryn and I contributed nearly all the questions, and I name-checked my friend Paweł Pawlikowski for a laugh. Then I was asked to appear on a new show called Only Connect but I couldn’t get a team together. Anyway, I had achieved my ambition.
Quit while you are ahead, mate
What did I learn? There’s a huge amount of luck involved. First, I could easily not have made the team. Second, we were the only team with Kathy Johnson! Third, the team we beat, OUP, was also very good and it could have gone the other way. Before the quiz proper starts they always ask a couple of test questions to make sure all the technical gubbins is working. OUP beat us to the buzzer and got both of them right. Then we began in earnest and they got the first starter right, followed by all three bonus questions.
But then… Paxman gets a message in his earpiece. The producer has stopped the show. Apparently “Team Dictionary” has given an incorrect answer, and it was decided re-start the game from the top. Once again they buzzed in first – but this time got it wrong. I followed up with the correct answer (that Oscar Wilde’s executor was Robbie Ross) and “the rest is history”. I’m sure the false start unnerved the opposition, but viewers could not have known what had happened – until now! But you have to take the rough with the smooth and all that rot, and the OUP people were gracious in defeat.