When television historians write about Jeremy Paxman, most attention will be given to his spell on Newsnight from 1989 to 2014 and the number of times he asked Michael Howard the same question. But it is University Challenge that marks his longest association with a show: from 1994 until now. And, poignantly, unless the undergraduates from Durham and Bristol, the 2023 finalists, stayed up late for Newsnight in their early teens, this is the only part of their interrogator’s TV CV with which they will be familiar.
There are different ways for a presenter to leave a significant gig. Phillip Schofield’s abrupt two-stage implosion at ITV meant that he hosted his final editions of This Morning, Dancing On Ice and the British Soap Awards without knowing they were the last. Contrastingly, Paxman’s final Newsnight was a whole programme of clips, tributes, in-jokes and stunts, including riding a tandem with the then-mayor of London, Boris Johnson. (Paxman, who hinted on that double-ego trip at being a “one nation Tory”, was subsequently asked by the Conservatives to run to succeed Johnson as mayor, but declined.)
A populist politician on a bicycle wouldn’t easily fit the studio and format of University Challenge, and, if they had, Paxman probably couldn’t now pass the health and safety risk assessment. After a bad fall while walking his dog (for 10 bonus points, a spaniel-Dalmation rescue dog called Derek), the presenter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The doctor was helped in his diagnosis by having noted, on University Challenge, the slower and lowered facial reactions of what neurology refers to as a Parkinsonian mask.
Consideration was surely given to going out on a celebrity spin-off, but it felt fitting that Paxman’s 967th appearance as question master was business as usual, or at least as has recently been so.
In his first two decades, Paxman deliberately differentiated himself from his predecessor, Bamber Gascoigne, who fronted the quiz from 1962 to 1987. While Gascoigne was known for a beaming benevolence towards the students, urging them towards the correct answers, Paxman brought the full range of incredulous expressions – the snorting horse, the bishop who sat on a cactus – that he had practised on politicians late night on BBC Two. He also departed from Gascoigne’s gently donnish comments. Online, you can find long montages of Paxo’s harshest put-downs to students: “Completely useless answer! … No! Very wrong! … Only 600 years out!”
The departing Paxman, though, has moved ever closer to Gascoigne’s professorial gentleness – a change that may have happened due to the mellowing of age, but has been hastened here by the particular nature of his condition, which restricts withering looks and sharp remarks. Such was the change that this Paxman looks as warm and cuddly as the mascots the colleges traditionally prop up on their desks. During his last show, rather than incredulity at student stupidity, he cooed: “It’s amazing what they know!”
In the past, broadcasters brutally removed on-air talent whose delivery was medically affected. Times are now rightly kinder and many presenters are audibly or visually marked by Parkinson’s, strokes or thoracic surgery. However, as a Paxman fan, I slightly wonder if he did one season too many. He has sounded as if he is struggling and, as his answers were sometimes not entirely clear, the contestants may have been disadvantaged by similar blips in the questions.
But when the time came, he left TV with grace and viewers’ great gratitude. There will have been pressure within the BBC for a valedictory climactic presentation by the director general of a thank-you cut-glass vase. Instead, after a climax that showcased the power of the scoring system – Durham seemed invincibly ahead but was almost caught by Bristol – Paxman simply told us that, when the series returns later in the year: “I look forward to watching it with you. So goodnight from me … goodnight!”
Perhaps oddly, he didn’t name-check his successor, Amol Rajan. Ominously for some viewers, Rajan is known – after joining another BBC behemoth, Radio 4’s Today – for sometimes indistinct speech, due to his signature informality. Future students will surely hope that the new man studies Gascoigne and Paxman when they were in their prime. – Guardian