I recently had the opportunity to sit down with a rare breed of university students: those who not only sit down in front of the telly on a Monday night and find themselves answering more than a couple of Jeremy Paxman’s scathingly delivered questions, but who are now seeing themselves on those very screens, just one match away from the semi-finals of the prestigious BBC quiz show, University Challenge. After becoming the highest scorers in a quiz held in every Durham college, Castle’s Charles Bland, Will Tams, and Arthur Raffle, along with Hild Bede’s Joe Cooper, have gone on to compete against other top university teams in front of the cameras. In anticipation of their deciding quarter-final match, I caught up with the team to get the inside gossip on meeting Paxman, rising to TV stardom, and what it really takes to be on University Challenge.
What behind-the-scenes secrets can you reveal about filming the show?
Joe: Jeremy Paxman wears jeans!
Will: And he chugs Fanta. He keeps it under his desk and takes it out when the camera stops rolling.
He has like eight suits, because he films so many episodes in one day, but it needs to look like it’s been filmed on separate days. Actually, everyone has to change outfits.
And did your team ever have to film multiple episodes in a day?
Charles: We did – the high scoring losers match, and later in the day a second-round match.
Will: Sometimes they go back at the end and re-record questions.
Joe: It’s only if someone’s mispronounced something, or if someone swore. Paxman also swears, and he makes quite a few mistakes as well.
Did you get to get to meet Paxman in person, and what’s he like?
Charles: We did! Paxman’s quite nice to students, and he smiles at the teams. He doesn’t really like the production team.
Will: There was a moment where Jeremy had someone in his earpiece and he was just was saying: ‘What do you want me to do? No, I’m not doing it!’
What was it like meeting the other teams? Did you have any particular rivals?
Joe: Everyone was super nice. You have to take a lift up together, and everyone would be chatting and saying, ‘well done on that question’, and so on. I didn’t ever feel like anyone was really horrible backstage.
Charles: There was no real enmity, no.
Do you have any personal regrets – any questions that will always haunt you?
Will: Where to begin?
Charles: Countless. The very first episode, I knew it was ‘beech’, the answer was ‘beech’, and I didn’t buzz in.
On that note, do you feel like your reaction times have improved, or you’ve gotten more confident?
Joe: You definitely get better. There are questions where you don’t necessarily know how you knew what you knew, and later you work out what your brain was thinking, which is kind of surreal. You’re weirdly on autopilot and there’s very little thought when you’re answering a question.
What advice would you give to anyone thinking of following in your footsteps?
Joe: Just go and answer some questions about general knowledge – you get better at it the more you do. There’s not really anything else you can do.
Charles: Cooper learnt the whole periodic table.
Joe: I suppose there are things that it would be silly for you to go on the show and not know, say, every King and Queen of England. That’s just something that will come up.
Will: It didn’t come up, though.
Joe: If you know a few Romantic poets…
Charles: Chinese dynasties, Roman emperors…
Joe: Counties of England…there are lots of things that come up repeatedly and you sort of have to know them.
Will: But there’s no point two people trying to learn the same stuff. Generally we divided it up.
Joe: You can watch it on TV as many times as you want and get every single question, but when you’re sitting there all of a sudden you think: ‘Oh no, I’m going to make a massive fool of myself in front of all my friends and family, everyone who knows me in the world’. You don’t necessarily want to go in not knowing anything, and so going and learning a load of useless things is a nice way of making you not as stressed.
Has anyone said anything funny to you since being on the show, or have you been recognised?
Arthur I’ve had some great messages.
Will: We should make a Twitter account dedicated to the messages you’ve received. It’s magnificent.
Joe: I’ve had a couple of people, who as I’ve walked past them in the street, went: ‘Durham Cooper!’. It cracked me up.
Arthur’s got almost all the good stuff. Someone said Arthur had excellent shoulders. There was one where he was called a ginger ‘Wilfred Owen’ which is very, very niche reference. ‘Ron Weasley’.
The thing you have to remember is that there’ll be 5% of people who really like you, who’ll post on Twitter, and 5% of people who really hate you will post on Twitter, and the other 90% of the people who watch it can’t even remember who you are.