John Bishop's Australia; University Challenge: Class of 2014 – TV review

Koalas can get chlamydia! That's just one of the things I learned from John Bishop's tour of Australia

John Bishop is clearly a man of parts. The comedian, actor, writer and former semi-professional footballer was in fact a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company until he turned 40. But as far as I know, he has no legitimate claim on Australia.

The possessive nature of the title of his two-part series, John Bishop's Australia (BBC1), therefore threatened the viewer with a particular convention in programming: a very personal take on a country from someone who doesn't know all that much about it. John Bishop can't claim to show you the whole Australia, or the real Australia, or even a side of Australia no one's ever seen. He's just showing you his Australia. He can't really fail at that.

Bishop has actually been to Australia before. In 1992, at the age of 25, when marriage and being a sales rep seemed too claustrophobic a future, he got the idea to cycle from Sydney to Liverpool, alone. Changed forever by the experience, he went home, got married and carried on being a sales rep.

At the time, he confessed, he didn't see much of Australia beyond the road Now he meant to look properly, first taking in the coast from the passenger seat of a seaplane, zipping over the land Captain James Cook decided would make an especially picturesque penal colony. "James Cook came from Middlesbrough," said Bishop, "so most places would've looked good to him."

The differences between Bishop's two Australias – then and now – are manifold. Back in 1992 he had a bike, a map and a diary. Now he has a bike, a BBC crew and a camera mounted on a remote-controlled helicopter to swoop round him dramatically as he rides along. Bishop is, in fact, a likable and engaging filter. "This is seeing Australia in a way I've never seen it before," he said, standing on a clifftop in his abseiling gear. "What kills it is this helmet, because I feel fantastic but I know I look like a bit of a knob."

He also approached each challenge with an endearing mixture of gameness and reluctance. He was brave, but also seasick. At the prospect of abseiling he declared himself "not keen", but he did it. He even managed to do the "joining in" parts of the travelogue – hammering a bit of rock, collecting venom from a funnel web spider – with a sense that he was doing more than just posing for a picture.

It wouldn't be a travel show if I hadn't accidentally learned some things. I found out that until 1967 Aboriginal peoples were classified as part of the flora and fauna of Australia. I learned that Australia is home to 10 of the world's most venomous snakes. And I learned that a koala can get chlamydia. Bishop's visit to a koala sanctuary's chlamydia testing facility was perhaps the most riveting – and unsettling – moment in the programme. It wasn't terribly dignified for the poor koala though, which had enough to worry about without serving as an illustration for the fact that a male koala's equipment is installed upside down, with the testicles at the top.

"Do they mate for life?" asked Bishop. "No!" shouted everyone else in the lab. "Of course they don't, do they?" he said. "What a stupid question. He's got a sexually transmitted disease."

University Challenge: Class of 2014 (BBC2) ran the risk of telling me more than I ever wanted to know about the 50-year-old quiz show, and I love University Challenge. Edinburgh has participated a record 20 times, without ever winning. Magdalen College, Oxford, which has won four times, was founded in 1458. Students are told to say "Jeremy" instead of "cheese" when they are having their picture taken for the application. Jeremy Paxman doesn't understand the maths questions. Stephen Pearson, the longtime coach of the University of Manchester's teams, has been referred to as "the Alex Ferguson of the quiz world", although probably not that often.

And the contestants really are all nerds. Happy, rather sweet nerds in most cases. Terrible, pretentious nerds in others. If you collected nerd cards, you'd have a full set: pipe smoker, novelty T-shirt wearer, someone who's having a bad-hair life, someone who teaches herself Icelandic as a leisure pursuit. The show's producer described successful candidates as "the sort of people who take atlases to bed with them", and one team member confessed to doing just that.

There's hope for him, though: all the UC veterans interviewed have gone on to become charming and perfectly presentable adults. University Challenge isn't just a venerable pastime for nerds. It's a cure. There's a part two to come, although I can't think why.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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