If the polymathic Bamber Gascoigne was ever irked by the fact that he was best known to the British public for the phrase: “Fingers on buzzers … your starter for 10,” he never showed it. More than 30 years after his retirement as the quizmaster on University Challenge – a post he had held for a quarter of a century between 1962 and 1987 – the phrase still dogged his footsteps, despite everything else he did.
Gascoigne, who has died aged 87, with his easy patrician manner, born of a family steeped in centuries of aristocratic connections, proved an inspired if incongruous choice to chair a television quiz show on a commercial channel, even in the early 1960s. He looked and spoke like a junior don, gradually evolving into an uncensorious professor. He did not mind being parodied by Griff Rhys Jones in the anarchic 80s Young Ones comedy series, or by Mark Gatiss in the film Starter for Ten in 2006 – about a student desperate to appear on the show – and he even played himself in an episode of the Jonathan Creek mystery series.
His genial presence – fair, curly hair and tolerant smile – hovered over University Challenge long after it was revived in 1994 under his more acerbic successor, Jeremy Paxman, with his displays of incredulity at the ignorance of contestants. Gascoigne never showed such impatience.
Gascoigne, who was not much older than the contestants when the quiz started (and did not look much older than them when Granada first ended it in 1987), had much to do with the show’s enduring success. Despite being pitched at a level of knowledge above the heads of many viewers, it did not patronise or condescend either to those taking part or those watching.
The show, originally based on an American television quiz called College Bowl, required only 40 days a year of Gascoigne’s time, for which he was initially paid £40 a week. That meant he could indulge his wide-ranging other interests, including opera, theatre and the arts along with a number of serious historical studies, some linked to television documentary series.
“University Challenge gave me economic freedom, although not much,” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2012. “I love playing games, the students were incredibly nice and it was great fun. I have only watched it two or three times since – but then I never watched myself either. We don’t watch television as early as 8.30 in the evening so I have only seen it very few times.”
Gascoigne was the son of Lt Col Derick Gascoigne and his wife, Midi O’Neill. He was descended from a long line of military men and the Gascoignes traced their roots back through Yorkshire landowners to the 14th century. Bamber was a family name too – an 18th-century predecessor of the same name had been an MP. His uncle Terence O’Neill was the Ulster Unionist prime minister of Northern Ireland in the 60s. There were family connections also with the Cecils, Tudor and Victorian power-brokers and prime ministers.
He was educated at Sunningdale prep school, Berkshire, and was a scholar at Eton. He claimed that the scholarship boys were looked on as impoverished scum and although he said he enjoyed his time at the college, he would not have sent a son there because he did not believe in the separation of social groups. National service in the Grenadier Guards was followed by an English literature degree at Magdalene College, Cambridge, and a year in the US at Yale. At Cambridge he reviewed plays for Granta and then became theatre critic of the Spectator and the Observer, from which he was plucked to chair the new university quiz show.
At Cambridge he had written a revue, Share My Lettuce, which was produced in the West End, starring Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. Over the years it was followed by other plays: Leda Had a Little Swan made it to New York in 1968 (it had been refused a licence by the lord chamberlain, whose responsibilities then included censoring plays, in London the previous year); The Feydeau Farce Festival of 1909 was put on at Greenwich in 1972 and Big in Brazil was produced at the Old Vic in 1984.
For television Gascoigne wrote and presented a major documentary series for Granada called The Christians in 1977, co-funded by Dutch and German channels. The series took three years to research and present and Gascoigne insisted – in the face of criticism from the church – that his lay status was precisely what was required: he said he wanted Christians to assume he was a believer and non-Christians to assume he was not.
Further documentaries included Victorian Values in 1987, Man and Music in 1987 and The Great Moghuls in 1990. Usually these were accompanied by books. There were also novels, potboilers and short histories as well as Quest for the Golden Hare (1983), documenting the treasure hunt that followed the publication of the bestselling book Masquerade (1979) by Kit Williams, which set readers clues to finding a precious object hidden somewhere in Britain. From 2000 he became editor-in-chief of historyworld.net and he also accumulated trusteeships in the arts, at the National and Tate galleries, at the Royal Opera House and the National Trust. He was appointed CBE in 2018.
Gascoigne was unexpectedly left a 16th-century stately home, West Horsley Place – once owned by Henry VIII – near Guildford, Surrey, by his great-aunt Mary Innes-Ker, the Duchess of Roxburgh, who died aged 99 in 2014. The house, with its 50 rooms and 380 acres of grounds, was in a dilapidated condition, as she had lived alone for many years and had not been able to maintain the building. “Every time there was a new drip, she thought: get a new bucket,” he said in 2018.
Instead of selling the property, as the duchess had imagined he would, Gascoigne and his wife, Christina, decided it should be renovated and turned into a community arts centre. The £10m cost of repairs was largely met by selling much of the contents, including paintings by Edward Burne-Jones and a study for Lord Leighton’s famous Flaming June, at Sotheby’s. A 700-seat opera house was built by Grange Park Opera in the grounds and the house itself is intended to be used for conferences, classes and for filming.
“We both felt it was a bit feeble not to give it a shot,” he explained. “A place that for several centuries has been entirely private, somewhere people did not even really know was there, can look forward to many centuries of people enjoying it. I think that’s a wonderful thing.” The duchess’s ashes are buried under the orchestra pit.
Gascoigne had met Christina (nee Ditchburn), a photographer and ceramicist, at Cambridge, and they married in 1965. She survives him.
• Arthur Bamber Gascoigne, writer and broadcaster, born 24 January 1935; died 8 February 2022
• This article was amended on 10 February 2022. The artworks sold from West Horsley Place included a study for Lord Leighton’s Flaming June, rather than the painting itself, as an earlier version stated. Flaming June has been in the collection of the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Puerto Rico since the 1960s.