Two Yorkshire universities are in the quarter-finals of University Challenge. While York face the inquisitor tonight, Sheffield limber up at a pub quiz – with Sheena Hastings.
STUART, the rather wry landlord of The Mount Pleasant, a cosily old-fashioned boozer in Norton Lees, Sheffield, promises we'll find the quiz easy "...if you you know a lot about synchronised crochet and Corrie".
The locals guffaw into their pints of hand-pulled Town Crier. Stuart slowly tours the tables, flogging answer sheets at 25p a go. The prize for winning is 10 .."with a bonus if you're not the University Challenge team..."
The table of women of a certain age sipping gin and tonics and halves of lager remain unruffled. The good-humoured blokes in the corner jeer slightly. No-one seems at all impressed that they're up against a crew who been Paxman-ed twice and lived to tell the tale.
No starter for 10 and no need for much conferring, as question one is a gift: Who is the quiz master of University Challenge? Two: what is the name of Vera and Jack Duckworth's son in Coronation Street? Three: which TV gardening expert "has a relaxed approach to upper body support"? This is not going to tax anyone here, never mind the men who next week will take on Magdalen College Oxford in the quarter-finals of University Challenge 2011.
Six: In which fictitious township did Desperate Dan Live? The others nod sagely as Steve scribbles Cactusville. Question seven of the 20 presents the first challenge: Which song was Paul Anka's debut number one hit, in 1957? The blokes in the corner smirk confidently and have another swig. Sheffield University postgrad students Andy Bolton (geological archaeology) and Steve Jesper (librarianship), captain Tom Thirkell (a fourth-year biologist) and Hugh Bennett (fourth-year zoology) are not sure. Nor am I, but I suggest Oh Carol. I am such a fool, to borrow a lyric, as the answer later proves to be Diana.
With short pauses for refills, the quiz ranges across matters as diverse as fungi, late 19th century football clubs, Dixon of Dock Green, the Apollo space missions, Wimbledon, Pan's People, Isambard Kingdom Brunel's last great project, ornithology, Mars bars and tulips. Holland is famous for tulips, but where are they originally from? Hugh, 22, and from Gloucestershire, says he "just knows" that it's Turkey. Andy, 45, and a teacher who has done his fifth bout of higher education at Sheffield, agrees.
Steve, 30, and from Dinnington near Rotherham, hasn't actually appeared in either of the two rounds of UC in which this state school-educated team has triumphed so far, beating Newcastle by 315-70 and University College London 250-230. In the auditions – 50 questions covering science, arts, humanities and general knowledge sent out by the show's producers but administered by the University Union – he didn't score quite highly enough, but is the reserve. One of the quartet, Tristram Cole, hasn't made it tonight, so Steve has a small moment in the 60-watt lighting.
"We're probably the least prepared team in the competition", says Hugh. "Turning out for a pub quiz is all we do, but Oxford Brookes University have, it's said, the current Brain of Britain helping them to train". Andy says they did think about carving up a host of subjects between them and learning lists. "But none of us wanted to take that approach, really.." Two of the team, Tom and Hugh, had been in lectures together but the foursome didn't know each other at all until further audtions and interviews at the ITV Studios in Manchester, where the BBC2 series is made.
With a seven year break, UC has been running since 1962, initially with the patrician Bamber Gasgoigne in the chair, but hosted since its return in 1994 by the sometimes withering Jeremy Paxman. Faces as famous as Stephen Fry, David Starkey and Miriam Margolyes first faced the cameras on the student quiz show, but few contestants become household names.
A sizeable chunk go into academe or become school teachers, work in the law or the City, and many more end up in quite ordinary jobs. There's no guarantee that even the uber-geeky Gail Trimble (captain of the winning team Corpus Christi Oxford in 2009 and known as "the human Google") or Alex Guttenplan ("Wikipedia with a pulse"), who led Emmanuel College Cambridge to victory last year) will become enjoy lasting renown beyond their Facebook fan club.
The guys discuss what bird is known collectively as "a fall" and Hugh persuades us that it must be geese, although gaggle and skein are also known. He's a zoologist, so we defer. The answer is woodcock. A question about a 1950s and 60s sports presenter who entered the Monte Carlo Rally with a taxi driver as his co-driver also defeats us. Despite being flummoxed by mid-20th century popular culture, it's easy to see why these four men make a good team. When they discuss Brunel, between them they display an ecyclopedic knowledge of the great man's works. On the tennis question, they name the ladies finalists in every year of the 1970s and can name other tournaments Sue Barker did well in 1977.
Common traits seem to be good communication skills,
the magpie tendency that means they cover massive factual terrain, retention of hugely varied information and natural competitiveness. Andy is bouncy and a bit nervy, Hugh is quietly knowing and methodical in his thought processes, Tom is quick-witted yet calm, and Steve quietly curls almost into a foetal position while processing and delivering the perfect
"I don't mind not actually being on the programmes too much", he says. "But if it goes on much longer, I might have to poison someone.."
Tristram is apparently great at arts and culture, and fond of statistics – like the one that puts him second in the series so far in answering starter questions correctly.
All are addicted to quiz shows, and Steve even applied but failed to get into the York University team when he was an undergrad in 1999. They love BBC 2's Eggheads. Hugh wants to appear on Mastermind and would love to have a go at The Weakest Link, Only Connect and even Brain of Britain.
But it's University Challenge that he recalls invading his consciousness first. "Between us, we had a good team in my family, with Mum good at arts, Dad knowing lots of geography and my brother and I enjoying history and science. We had it all covered. If you're the kind of person who wants to be in quizzes, then you're interested in lots of things. I don't think sudden intensive preparation helps particularly".
At the audtions run by Sheffield for this series, only a handful of women tried their hand. "I don't think women collect information the way men do", says Andy. "And they go to the pub, if they do, to gossip, not to drink beer and do quizzes. We would have liked a woman on the team, but the only possible contender scored too poorly in the audition". Steve clearly thinks Andy's being controversial. "It's just cultural; boys are encouraged to be competitive".
As far this pub quiz goes, honour is satisfied. The older chaps in the corner win with 18 out of 20. Tom and his team score 15 and come second. The post-mortem reveals a weakness in what they laughingly call "old men's questions". Any other Achilles heel? "Classics – the stuff you pay for at private schools", says Hugh.
York University take on Peterhouse Cambridge on tonight's University Challenge at 8pm on BBC2. Sheffield University face Magdalen College Oxford next Monday.
UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE: TOPS AND FLOPS
Highest scores of all-time
1. University College, Oxford 520
2. Birkbeck, London 430
3. Leeds 425
3. Open 425
5. Open 415
6. Peterhouse, Cambridge 410
7. St John's, Cambridge 405
8. University, Oxford 405
9. Magdalen, Oxford 405
10. Sidney Sussex, Cambridge 400
Lowest scores, 1994-2010
1. Exeter (2009) 15
2. Lincoln, Oxford (2009) 30
3. New Hall, Cambridge
4. Bradford (2004) 35
5. Birkbeck, London (1997)
6. Oxford Brookes (1998) 40
7. St Andrews (2002) 40
8. Keele (2002) 40
9. St Andrews (2005) 40
10. Queen's, Belfast (2005) 40