Jeremy Paxman is University Challenge, and University Challenge is Jeremy Paxman. When he announced this week that he was stepping down after 28 years as the presenter of the BBC2 student quiz, it felt like the end of an era.
My father, who has been watching the show since it began in the 1960s, still pictures it with its original presenter – “not as good as Bamber Gascoigne”, he would remark to the assembled company in our living room at least several times a series – and I suspect that I shall feel the same about Paxman.
I met him when I became a contestant on the show in 2003-04; my team, from Magdalen College, Oxford, would eventually go on to win the series that year.
One of the BBC’s longest-running programmes, University Challenge has been on air – though with a brief gap from 1987 to 1994 – for 60 years. When it was revived – with Paxman in the chair, then best known for grilling politicians on Newsnight – I was 13 years old and had just joined the quiz team at school.
Every Monday night we would watch University Challenge and then discuss it next day – the teams, the questions, and the way Paxman had treated the contestants.
I can still remember clearly the magnificent team from Trinity College, Cambridge who won that first series of what has long been called the “Paxman era”, not least Kwasi Kwarteng, now a Conservative MP and the UK’s business secretary, who we dubbed “Trinity Kwarteng” because of his speed and frequency on the buzzer.
It meant by the time I finally met him, in the studio for our first-round match, I had been watching Paxman present University Challenge for so long that I felt as if I knew him.
We had even prepared a strategy for dealing with any curl of the lip, sneer or similar indicator of exasperation or derision that might come our way in the course of attempting to answer; basically, ignore whatever reaction came our way and instead focus on the questions.
All very well but, as quiz contestants will often point out, it’s a different matter when you’re sitting in that studio and you realise that all the strategies in the world can’t quell the feeling that you just really, really don’t want to embarrass yourself.
I think Paxman found it inspiring – and exciting – to be among that next generation, and I wasn’t surprised to read his statement in the press release accompanying the news of his departure that he felt he had been ‘lucky enough to work with an amazing team and to meet some of the swottier brains in the country’
The nearest I came to it was when attempting to answer a question about the favourite rental movie for US presidents, with the clue about “a strong central character who stands alone against all the odds”. I buzzed in with The Godfather which prompted laughter from the audience and a guffaw from Paxman; the answer turned out to be High Noon (though I still think mine was better).
It’s a strange thing, to meet somebody you have watched on television for so long. Of course, we were all completely overawed just to be in his presence – despite the effort we put into looking as if we weren’t that impressed at all – but what I remember of him from our journey through the series was a man of warmth and humour, who was intensely knowledgeable and who had a genuine interest in the world.
This, by the way, is the one question people ask when they find out I won University Challenge: they want to know what Jeremy Paxman was really like, and they are generally disappointed when they hear how nice he was to us.
Sure, his gaze was pure Paxman – part grand inquisitor, part wry amusement, that half-smile ever-ready for the student who has said something particularly idiotic under pressure – but I have to say, hand on heart, I can’t say I ever felt the pressure of the Paxman stare.
Our first conversation of any length was after we had won our second-round match. He knew I was from Northern Ireland, and we discussed the places he had been to and the stories he had covered when he reported on the Troubles for the BBC in the 1970s.
From this point on we felt he liked us as a team, and I remember clearly how delighted he was for us when we won. The author Bill Bryson presented us with the trophy and, as is traditional, had a brief conversation with Paxman about how scarily intelligent the next generation seemed to be and how he could only answer a handful of the questions.
In changing times, in challenging times, University Challenge is a reassuring presence, a reminder that whatever happens some things endure – not least the sense of achievement when we do shout a correct answer at the television
I think Paxman found it inspiring – and exciting – to be among that next generation, and I wasn’t surprised to read his statement in the press release accompanying the news of his departure that he felt he had been “lucky enough to work with an amazing team and to meet some of the swottier brains in the country”.
“It gives me hope for the future,” he said.
For me that is at the heart of University Challenge’s eternal appeal. These days I too watch from the sofa on a Monday night, throwing out the occasional answer and hoping I might get one right. In changing times, in challenging times, University Challenge is a reassuring presence, a reminder that whatever happens some things endure – not least the sense of achievement when we do shout a correct answer at the television.
As Paxman might say, the future is in safe hands.
I hope he is too. Now 72 years old, last year he revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and, if I am sad to think of the toll this will take on him, I can’t imagine what it must be like for all those who worked with him on the show for so long – never mind for Paxman himself.
My friend Paddy Duffy – now my team-mate on Radio 4′s Round Britain Quiz – worked on University Challenge; we have spoken of the cruelty of such a disease for someone so mentally agile. “Bereft,” he says, when I ask him how he feels at Paxman leaving the show.
Truth be told, I can’t imagine it. I don’t know how I’ll feel this time next year when I switch on the television and see the new presenter, Amol Rajan, sitting behind that famous desk. I am sure he will make it his own, just as his predecessors did, but for me Jeremy Paxman will always be University Challenge.
Freya McClements is The Irish Times’ Northern Editor and was the captain of the team from Magdalen College, Oxford, which won University Challenge in 2004