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TV: University Challenge at 60

Benjie Goodhart / 25 August 2022

An hour-long documentary marks the 60th birthday of University Challenge, and new series Days that Shook the BBC looks at the most momentous events in the BBC's 100 year broadcasting history.

University Challenge at 60, Monday 29th August, 9pm, BBC Two

September is quite a month for cerebral TV quizzes. On the 11th, Mastermind will celebrate 50 years of scaring the absolute bejesus out of its contestants. Meanwhile, on 21st September, University Challenge will mark 60 years of making the rest of us feel profoundly stupid as a bunch of whippersnappers show us what we could have become if only we’d read a few more books as a child.

To mark the milestone, BBC Two is showing an hour-long documentary this week, to coincide with the start of the new series. Intriguingly, the programme is embargoed until the day of transmission, meaning I’m unable to watch it. An embargo can often mean that there is a big news story in the programme, so who knows? Perhaps we’ll discover that every episode has been performed by actors and the whole thing is scripted. That would certainly explain how these youngsters know so much about astrophysics and the early works of Geoffrey Chaucer.

More probably, this will just be a fond and nostalgic look back at 60 years of arguably the best quiz on TV. Like Mastermind, the show’s longevity and success comes from its intelligence, but also its purity. It’s just about the questions, and the intelligence of the contestants. There are no gimmicks, there’s no element of luck, and no opportunity to win a caravan. It’s simply an intellectual exercise.

Another key to the show’s success may be its continuity. Remarkably, over 60 years, the show has had only two presenters – Bamber Gascoigne, from 1962 to 1987, and Jeremy Paxman, from 1994 to the present day (there was no University Challenge between 1987 and 1994). There have also been only three voiceover announcers on the show – with Roger Tilling having called the contestants’ names and Universities since 2001.

What else can we expect? Presumably there will be a section on the show’s best-ever contestants. In 2017, Bobby Seagull and Eric Monkman made a distinct impression, and went on to form a friendship and even a broadcasting career together. However, the most impressive of all the contestants must be Gail Trimble, dubbed “the human Google” by the press, who in 2009 led Corpus Christi, Oxford, to victory almost single-handedly. Ironically, the team was subsequently disqualified for having an ineligible member, which seems harsh, considering Trimble could have won the whole thing on her own.

It's not been the show’s only brush with controversy. In 1975, a team from Manchester University, featuring a young David Aaronovitch, answered every question with the response of “Marx”, “Trotsky”, “Lenin” or “Che Guevara”. It was a protest against Oxford and Cambridge colleges being able to submit separate teams. Of all the iniquities in the world, this seemed an odd one to choose. Manchester was banned from competing for several years thereafter.

Perhaps there will be time to take a look back at some of the great and the good who have appeared on the show over the years. They include Clive James, Miriam Margolyes, Sebastian Faulks, Julian Fellowes, David Starkey, Kwasi Kwarteng, David Mellor, Malcolm Rifkind, Christopher Hitchens, Charles Moore and John Simpson. Stephen Fry famously appeared on both the show and on a spoof version in an episode of 80s sitcom The Young Ones, where he represented the snobby Footlights College against Scumbag College.

There have been other fictional depictions of the show, most notably David Nicholls’ 2003 novel Starter for Ten, about a young student attempting to get on the college’s team, that was later made into a successful film.

And there will probably be mention of the best and worst ever performances. That means glory for University College, Oxford, who scored a ridiculous 520 in 1987, and humiliation for the University of Sussex, who have managed to wrack up a grand total of ten points on two separate occasions.

And there will doubtless be a section dedicated to Jeremy Paxman, who is stepping down from the show after this series following his Parkinson’s diagnosis last year. He has been a splendid host – irascible and funny – and will be missed greatly. The show will go on, under new host Amol Rajan, and will doubtless continue to be a success, but it won’t be quite the same without Paxman’s exasperated “Come on” punctuating any pauses. He will be missed.

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Days that Shook the BBC with David Dimbleby 1/3, Tuesday 30th August, 9pm, BBC Two

Another milestone. This, as you can’t really fail to have noticed, is the centenary year of the BBC. In its 100th year, the corporation is facing more questions than ever about its funding, its role in the digital age, even its very existence. For more than half of those 100 years, David Dimbleby has worked at the BBC. Indeed, with his father Richard having joined the BBC in 1936, very few people alive today will have any memory of a Dimblebyless BBC.

At the age of 83, Dimbleby is as sharp and enquiring as ever. In this new three-part documentary series, he takes a look back at the history of the BBC, and at the Corporation’s role in key moments of political and cultural change, its conflicts with the establishment, public controversies, and how it continues to engage with the British people.

In the first episode, Dimbleby looks at the BBC’s run-ins with the establishment, in the form of various governments, and the royal family. The BBC has a difficult relationship with government, because its job is to hold it to account and criticise it, but at the same time, the government controls its funding and is, ultimately, its boss. It’s a bit like me coming out every week and writing something critical about the editor of Saga Magazine. Except that she is utterly beyond reproach, and I would never dream of doing such a thing (please can we talk about my getting a work-funded superyacht?)

In theory, the government never makes any editorial decisions at the BBC. An independent, politically neutral national broadcaster is a key cornerstone of democracy. But that doesn’t stop successive Prime Ministers from heaping editorial pressure on the Corporation from time to time. In a fascinating trawl through the archives of television history, Dimbleby goes back to the Thatcher era, when the BBC and the government clashed repeatedly over the coverage of Northern Ireland.

The BBC felt it was imperative to cover the Troubles from both sides, including explaining the nature and context of Republican grievances. Mrs Thatcher saw this as a treasonous act of betrayal, giving a mouthpiece to those who wished harm upon the British state. Amidst a deterioration of relations between broadcaster and government, the BBC filmed a documentary that showed Martin McGuinness, widely accepted to be a senior IRA member, at home with his family and going about his daily life. The government objected to this humanisation of McGuinness in the strongest possible terms. It’s riveting, watching the saga play out, with BBC journalists ultimately at war with their own board of governors.

For Dimbleby, his own first encounter with political interference came with an interview he conducted with Harold Wilson over 50 years ago. A seemingly innocuous question about Wilson’s memoirs threw the former PM into a monumental rage – as is shown for the first time in the documentary.

If the BBC is happy enough to take on the establishment in the form of government, according to Dimbleby, it is distinctly more nervous of offending the Palace. Nevertheless, the infamous Diana interview on Panorama was always going to do more than ruffle a few regal feathers. Dimbleby covers the story – including the shameful way in which Martin Bashir secured the interview, with commendable frankness and honesty. There is time, too, to hear from Emily Maitlis about her explosive interview with Prince Andrew, regarding his relationship with sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

Filled with fascinating archive footage, and hearing from some key figures in politics and broadcasting over the years, this is a rich and rewarding dive into the history of the BBC. But, more than that, it is a reminder of the value of the BBC, and the importance of Public Sector Broadcasting. It is testimony to the Corporation’s scrupulously fair and neutral approach that it would allow a programme that is often critical of the BBC to air unencumbered. And it is worth remembering the role the BBC has played in speaking truth to power, often to its own detriment. To my eyes at least, the BBC is as relevant and important now, in an age of mistruths and misinformation, as it’s ever been.

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The best… and the rest:

Saturday 27th August

Noel Edmonds: The Rise & Fall of Mr Saturday Night, 9pm, Channel 5: A profile of the TV and radio presenter, revealing the extraordinary rise, fall and return of one of Britain's most unpredictable and ambitious TV personalities.

Sunday 28th August

Ridley 1/4, 8pm, ITV: Charismatic Ex Detective Inspector Alex Ridley (Adrian Dunbar) has retired from the police force after years of dedicated service due to his health concerns and grief after losing his wife and daughter. Ridley’s replacement is DI Carol Farman (Bronagh Waugh) his former protégée whom Ridley mentored for many years. When he's enlisted by Carol as a police consultant on a complex and compelling murder case, the investigation takes a dark and unexpected twist.

The Capture 1/6, 9pm, BBC One: Return of the police thriller starring Holliday Grainger as DCI Rachel Carey. When her former colleagues DS Flynn and DI Latif bring the case of a man murdered by invisible assailants to her attention, the stakes quickly become deadly, with links to an MP, and national security at stake.

Monday 29th August

Blackpool’s Dance Fever, 8pm, BBC One: Prepare to swing your hips, move those feet, and feel the heat… once a year, the best ballroom and Latin dancers from across the globe quickstep their way to Britain’s very own Blackpool, to take part in the most prestigious competition - the British Open Championships at the Blackpool Dance Festival. For the dance world this is Wimbledon, this is Wembley, this is the Tour de France… it doesn’t get any better.

The Suspect 1/5, 9pm, ITV: Dr Joe O’Loughlin (Aidan Turner) appears to have the perfect life – a devoted wife, a loving daughter, successful practice as a clinical psychologist, media profile and a publishing deal. He’s even a hero online after rescuing a young patient who was ready to jump from the tenth floor of the hospital where Joe works. When he’s assigned to help with the murder of a young woman is found in a shallow grave, he’s only too happy to help. But what is he hiding?

Wednesday 31st August

Grand Designs, 9pm, Channel 4: Kevin McCloud returns to follow more ambitious home-design projects, beginning by meeting adventurous couple Colin and Adele. They have employed a Swedish architect, an Italian interior design company and a Latvian building company to complete the eye-popping curved glass family home in the Manchester suburb where they both grew up.

Friday 2nd September

The Cotswolds and Beyond with Pam Ayres, 8pm, Channel 5: New series. The poet explores places surrounding the region, along the way meeting people who call this corner of England home, beginning by heading to Stonehenge in Wiltshire. With private access to this ancient stone circle, Pam watches the sun rise and chats to expert Susan Greaney to find out more about this historic landmark.

Have I Got News for Boris: A Special Tribute, 9:30pm, BBC One: The 64th series begins with a show dedicated to outgoing Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Jack Dee hosts, with journalist Janet Street-Porter and comedian Phil Wang joining regular team captains Paul Merton and Ian Hislop on the panel.

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