Goodbye, Paxman! – How Has ‘University Challenge’ Evolved and What Happens Next?

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After an almost 30-year tenure as the host of University Challenge, Jeremy Paxman’s last episode will air this summer. He announced his retirement last year in his ITV documentary, Paxman: Putting Up With Parkinson’s. Paxman was diagnosed with Parkinson’s by a doctor who had noticed his symptoms while watching University Challenge

Upon announcing his retirement Paxman said, “I’ve had a blast hosting this wonderful series for nearly 29 years. I’ve been lucky enough to work with an amazing team and to meet some of the swottier brains in the country. It gives me hope for the future.”

In celebration of Paxman’s career, let’s take a look at how a humble quiz show became one of the BBC’s most entertaining assets.

A long journey for a quiz show

University Challenge began on ITV in 1962, hosted by Bamber Gascoigne and ran for 913 episodes before being axed in 1987. Jeremy Paxman became presenter when it was resurrected by the BBC in 1994. Over the years, the UK’s longest-running TV quiz has made minor celebrities of nerdy uni students; think Monkman, Loveday or Bobby Seagull – who recently appeared in Indian Matchmaking on Netflix. Other previous contestants include Miriam Margolyes, Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens and Kwasi Kwarteng.

In 1999, the Open University won the series. Their team had an average age of 46, which Jeremy Paxman described as “not in the spirit” of the competition. The show still regularly features teams of postgraduate and mature students, who some claim have an unfair advantage over the younger bachelors students.

In (other) popular media

Throughout the years, University Challenge has been satirised endlessly. It was parodied by The Young Ones in 1984, Red Dwarf put their spin on it in 1998, and Time Trumpet included a University Challenge-inspired sketch in 2006. There’s even a 2003 film called Starter For Ten starring James McAvoy as a Bristol University student who competes in the programme.

Considered a somewhat historic piece of television, several documentaries have been made to look back on its many series. The Story So Far was broadcast in 2006 and in 2014, Richard Osman (another popular quiz show host — you can find him on ITV’s Pointless) narrated Class of 2014. This documentary told the history of the show and explained the team selection process. Last year, to mark its anniversary, the documentary University Challenge at 60 was broadcast. 

A BBC treasure, but not without controversy

The show is one-third of Monday quiz nights on BBC2, alongside Mastermind and Only Connect. To many, this piece of BBC scheduling is a definitive and comforting part of the week’s rhythm. So much so, that when it is disrupted, Twitter erupts in a flurry of exclamation. The slot was coopted by the snooker the other week to one fan’s annoyance, “I’m a bit put out, frankly, to discover that tonight’s #UniversityChallenge has been shunted aside for the bloody snooker!”

Recent controversy called out for the show for favouring Oxbridge teams. They responded by saying, “All education institutions that design and deliver teaching towards university level qualifications are welcome to apply to University Challenge independently. This is not limited to Oxbridge colleges, but also includes around 300 colleges of further and higher education across the UK, several member institutions of the University of London, and a number of UK conservatoires and art schools.”

University of Reading take on Paxman’s questions in 2021. | © BBC

So, what happens next?

Despite Jeremy Paxman, for so many of us, being a defining feature of the show, it’ll continue without him. Amol Rajan, another big BBC name, will instead take over. Last month, scoring the changes, the new title sequence graphics and pictures of Rajan on set were released. 

It’s not just the visuals that are changing, but the questions, too. Recent criticism of the programme dumbing itself down when it included a question about Love Island has prompted them to make them a little trickier. There have been noticeable changes in the content of questions over recent series, appearing, at least at first glance, as an attempt to capture the attention of a younger audience.

Some fans are likely apprehensive about the new series without Paxman. However, Pinki Chamber, BBC Commissioning Editor has said, “The competition is fierce, the questions are harder and Amol has taken to the programme in an instant. This is going to be one of our best series yet.” 

While we may be ringing the changes, fans will the reassured to know the theme music and unrivalled voice of announcer Roger Tilling will stay. It’ll be interesting to follow the show into this new era and indeed see, how long it’ll last. The show may risk losing some viewers, but still, there is no doubt that every contestant has bragging rights for life.

Words by Pippy Stephenson


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