The 1980s and early 1990s were a dark time for Ireland. The economy was in free fall. Northern Ireland was a never-ending dumpster fire. Bono was always on TV. (He was a global pop icon but, more extraordinary yet, that rare Irish person in steady employment.) Still, it wasn’t all doom, gloom and rock stars in cowboy hats. When it came to quizshows, this was a golden era – an Arcadian epoch we shall never again see.
What treasures the schedules contained. Murphy’s Micro Quiz-M blended Mastermind, Tron and Father Ted: it was The Matrix if The Matrix had ended with Keanu Reeves winning a deep-fat fryer and £200 worth of beauty products. And then there was Where in the World?, a quiz based on the radical idea that there were places beyond Ireland and that these places might have exciting facts attached to them. How far away those days now feel – though RTÉ tried to turn back time with Ireland’s Smartest, where Claire Byrne inherited the Mike Murphy role of quizmaster-in-chief.
In the UK, by contrast, quizzes always stayed in fashion. Much like dinosaurs evolving into birds, the milieu provided the fingers-on-buzzers DNA for the British comedy panel show, a genre of which UK telly will never tire. But the original primordial strain of quizzing TV is still with us, too. There is considerable excitement, in particular, about a new season of University Challenge (BBC Two, Monday, 8.30pm), where Amol Rajan, one of the presenters of BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, replaces the now retired Jeremy Paxman.
University Challenge has had three hosts in its 61 years – a bit like The Late Late Show without the payments controversy. The original, Bamber Gascoigne, had an air of donnishness eccentricity: he was the eternal dotty professor born wearing a bow tie.
Paxman was more Rottweiler. He appeared to relish taking students down a notch or 10, though underneath it all were glimpses of a deeper cuddliness. Now comes Rajan, the Ryan Tubridy to Paxman’s more businesslike Pat Kenny. “Welcome to a new series and era,” he says at the start. “A few things have changed. But all the important things have remained the same.”
The questions, in other words, still tend toward the fiendishly difficult. The competing institutions, meanwhile, are all called either Gryffindor College Oxford or Slough Polytechnic. And the students are so clever you feel dim just gazing into their vast spectacles.
There’s an interactive element, too – can you answer even a handful of questions? In tonight’s face-off between Trinity College Cambridge and the University of Manchester, I guess two correctly, one about “shoegaze” indie rock and another about the Elden Ring video games. Otherwise it’s a bust, notwithstanding a smattering of “Irish” questions: one about the 18th-century bishop of Cloyne George Berkeley and another about Douglas Hyde. The rest is a blur of interwar philosophers and complicated chemical reactions.
It goes down to the wire. With the sides neck and neck, Rajan asks a tie-breaking teaser and Manchester, first to the buzzer, romp across the finish line. They’re delighted – and Rajan looks thrilled too. As well he might. This first episode of his tenure has gone off without incident, and he proves precisely what the series needs: a steady pair of hands who gets out of the way so the smarty-pants students can light up the screen with their supercharged intellects.