University Challenge

BBC2; iPlayer


Having blown through Radio 4’s Today like a hurricane, Amol Rajan has launched a whirlwind takeover of another great BBC institution. By the end, like Elton at Glastonbury, it was still standing. But was he?

The corporation’s former media editor replaces Jeremy Paxman, who stepped down in May, as host of University Challenge. Paxman’s 29-year shift in the job earned him the title of longest-serving quizmaster on British television. The Newsnight anchor had in turn taken over from Bamber Gascoigne, the original host, and some would say still the best.

So how would the new guy fare when he parked himself in television’s second most-famous black chair? Nicknamed “amol nitrate” by some of his more green-eyed peers for his Stakhanovite work rate and Roadrunner rise to the top, Rajan can make Piers Morgan look like George from Rainbow.

The two competing teams, almost forgotten in the fuss over Rajan’s arrival, were Trinity, Cambridge and Manchester. Between them, the universities had more than 50 appearances on the show, which is 49 more than Rajan (Downing College, Cambridge, Christmas special 2020, lost).

Jazzy new opening titles looked like someone was putting an encyclopedia through the shredder (a match for the UC experience some might say), but Derek New’s title music was the same and Roger Tilling was back as announcer.

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Welcoming viewers to “a new era” of University Challenge, Rajan reassured us he was a pair of safe hands. “A few things have changed since the end of the last series, but all the important things remain the same - the format is still simple, the questions still complicated and the teams are terrifyingly knowledgable.”

That early compliment was the first indicator of Rajan’s style. Not as tough as Paxman, king of the killer put down (“Completely useless answer!”), but not as gentle as Bamber. Think Robin Williams in the Dead Poets Society meets De Niro’s character in Casino.

Like the latter, Rajan is fond of a silk tie and matching pocket handkerchief combo. He accessorised this with a tie pin, three rings, and a seriously nice watch. There was so much bling going on he could have added a tiara and no one would have blinked.

The Trinity team comprised Sarah Henderson from London (studying Japanese, sole woman on show), Agnijo Banerjee (Dundee, PhD in maths), Ryan Kang (captain, Seoul, PhD in chemistry), and Jeremi Jaksina (Poland, masters in genetics). Ready at the buzzers for Manchester were Bluma Des Los Reyes-White (Massachusetts, genetics), Ilya Kullman (London, medicine), Hiru Senehedheera, Letchworth Garden City (PhD, materials, and Daniel Grady (Burton-upon-Trent, maths).

First on the scoreboard was Trinity with an answer on immaterialism. A bonus question on the novels of Murakami asked for the four words that completed the title of the book, South of the Border. Kang ventured “Gone with the Wind”, earning him an astonished but amused “What?!” from Rajan.

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Another response Rajan tried out for size was “Come on”, fired at dithering teams, but since this phrase is so associated with Paxman, and nobody does exasperation better, Rajan might want to re-think.

Otherwise, he was encouraging, enthusiastic, and unafraid to show how impressed he was. When Trinity’s Henderson identified a piece of music in a matter of seconds, a Tiggerish Rajan said: “Wow. Wow. Wow. That’s good.” There was also a “bad luck”, a consoling “economics, man”, and a delighted, “about time” when a cricket question came up.

Paxman preferred to go old school with question cards, Rajan read from a whizz-bang monitor which took up a chunk of the desk and made him look smaller. At times it looked like the chair was swallowing him alive, like some pleather anaconda.

He rattled through the questions and the two teams followed his lead. At 25 minutes in, Trinity was on 175 points to Manchester’s 125, but the northern university (alumni include Succession’s Jesse Armstrong) was coming back strong.

It was one of the most exciting tussles in years, the University Challenge equivalent of Alcaraz v Djokovic. The final score was 175 points each, with Manchester winning the tiebreaker.

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“Well that was one hell of a game,” said Rajan, thanking both teams for keeping viewers “hugely entertained”.

It was a fine debut, but will Rajan manage to stay so positive through a long winter of University Challenge? Not every team is a Manchester or a Trinity. Nor can he afford to be so generous with the time allowed for answers. Give some teams an inch and they will take a liberty.

Still, Rajan was off and running, his duck broken, his reputation as one of TV’s sharpest operators intact. Only 966 shows to go before he matches Paxo’s record in the job.

See you next week, quizmaster.