University Challenge: Lancaster v Glasgow

**** BBC2, 8.30pm

IT seemed like it was over before it had even begun as quiz master Jeremy Paxman kicked off the new series of University Challenge last night with introductions.

Lancaster was billed as “one of the so-called plate glass universities”. Founded in 1964, with graduates including actor Andy Serkis, “its main campus is a familiar landmark to anyone who uses the northern reaches of the M6.” Way to sell a place, Jezza.

Then there was Glasgow, founded by Pope Nicholas in 1451, alumni including Adam Smith, John Logie Baird, and Nicola Sturgeon. Might as well get your coat now, Lancaster, viewers were thinking.

But wait. Did it have to be the case that the elite universities triumphed while the red bricks floundered? Edinburgh had won the last series, certainly, but the list of past victors also includes the Open University (twice). Could plucky little Lancaster not beat the Caledonian express? Er, well...

History is already being made by this new series of the quiz that began on Granada Television in 1962, hosted by Bamber Gascoigne. For the first time, Paxo told viewers, applicants have dates of birth beginning with 20. “So they’ve never known a world without Harry Potter, Google, or the emoji,” said the former Newsnight anchor, his expression suggesting that this was a tragedy.

The first question went to Glasgow, whose ranks included a Neil from The Young Ones lookalike, a physics PhD student, and a mathematician. Correct answer after correct answer followed, their combined knowledge proving too much for Lancaster’s philosophy, maths, French and German, and volcanology students. Who was ever going to ask about volcanoes?

Jezza, now 25 years in the job, eventually did, and the lad got every question right. Speaking of lads, there were only two women out of eight contestants. Unless the mascots (a toy duck for Lancaster, a knitted dinosaur and a horse for Glasgow) were female, the teams will need to up their game on gender balance.

At the halfway point it was Glasgow 130, Lancaster 10. “Plenty of time to get going, Lancaster!” declared Jezza. In reality, he was slumping back in his chair, a sure sign that the minutes were running out.

McAllister from Glasgow (physics) had done a fair bit of the heavy lifting early on, but overall it was the eldest of the bunch, Whitworth, doing a postgraduate diploma in education, who racked up most points. The questions were difficult, requiring a spread of knowledge from contemporary cinema to geometry by way of geography and philosophy.

GONG! Time up, quiz over. Ask not for whom the gong strikes Lancaster, for it strikes for thee. They had arrived with their lucky duck and were going home with a wooden spoon. “Well Lancaster,” said our host, “you never really got a chance to show us what you were made of there”. Oh, I think they did.

How far Glasgow will go in the competition - they have never won - remains to be seen. But for now, it’s goodbye to the University of Lancaster and hello rest of the competition for Glasgow.

Starter for Ten: five questions from last night (and no Googling)

What short first name appears in the Book of Genesis and links a Canadian comic actor, a Mercury Prize-nominated English folk singer, and the creator of the animated TV series Family Guy?

For a regular polygon, what is given by the product of half the perimeter and the apothem or apo?

In 1626 which English philosopher died of a cold contracted while stuffing snow into a chicken as an experiment into refrigeration?

“A marvellous and artificial palace of marble in the midst of a fair wood. He has built a royal house on pillars gilded and varnished.” To which location do these words of Samuel Purchas refer?

In evolutionary biology, what general category of geographic environment appears in an alternative name of the effect known as Foster’s Rule?

Answers: (1) Seth (2) The area (3) Francis Bacon (4) Xanadu (5) Island