This series has been full of the memorable personalities we have come to love about University Challenge, from UCL’s mother-and-son duo to the beruffled genius of Southampton’s Lyon, and the animated conferring of Holloway-Strong from Newnham.
Southampton and Royal Holloway left the competition in the last fortnight and now only the strongest teams remain: young, scrappy and hungry to be crowned the reigning champions.
And what a marvellously cyclical way to end Jeremy Paxman’s own reign: the first match of this series, Bristol v Durham, will also be his last. In August, these titans met in a high-scoring clash, and Bristol lost to Durham with only 10 points in it. Despite that loss, statistically Bristol entered this final as the favourites, with slightly higher winning scores across the board. Both teams came to play in true Grand Final spirit, wearing the now unofficial uniform of stylish knitwear but Bristol undoubtedly won the battle of the mascots with a top-hatted teddy towering over Durham’s tiny ginger cat.
Because of the notoriously devious question distribution, this game really could have gone either way. And it was a match that truly showcased the UC roulette of subject matter. Some of the starter questions were devastatingly straightforward: the merry sounding monarch with many mistresses was just Charles II, and the experiment in Stanford was just Zimbardo’s prison, questions where you have to avoid overthinking and win the buzzer race.
As it should be, deep academic knowledge was rewarded, with bonuses on literary criticism falling well for English student Bea Bennett, and an excellent starter answered by Alex Radcliffe, referencing a paper about the physics of falling cats. Sam Kehler had two impressive history buzzes, including a challenging picture round of monarchs who gave battle in vain. Bristol then breezed through the accompanying bonuses in finals-worthy fashion, and Tess Richardson’s mental encyclopaedia of flags came in handy, as did Jacob McLaughlin’s terrific connecting of the dots between Arran and Andorra.
But it was Durham’s specialist knowledge that shone through, with Harry Scully’s brilliant grasp of biology terms rewarded, and a successful picture round buzzer race on Kandinsky against Richardson’s equally impressive art knowledge. Classic question writing hit the mark for musician Radcliffe in a starter on Saints-Saëns (though he did then lament “My teacher is going to hate how few of these I get” about the bonuses). But the UC question writers threw in entertaining swerves on Bad Art, actual rocket science and a charming set on the B-52’s.
Beginning a coronation to rival Charles’s with its simple brevity, we Austen fans greatly enjoyed Paxman’s exclamation: “You look like you’re about to burst into tears, Miss Bennett!” after the gong declared Durham victorious. Trophy presenter Jung Chang’s reflections on Mao-era censorship highlighted how precious access to knowledge is, and these young polymaths epitomised what makes this tricky show so watchable. As the sun sets on Paxman’s time as question master with an emotional last goodnight, this final heralds a promising new era for University Challenge.