Hugo Rifkind

Hugo Rifkind: Why did I agree to appear on University Challenge?

I promised the producers I wouldn't tell you what happened. But still, dear God...

14 December 2013

The worst thing about going on University Challenge, I now know, is when you interrupt a question and get the answer wrong. This is bad, not only because you lose five points, but also because it can mess up the general filming of everything, somehow, which means they make you do it again. And sometimes again. And while it’s one thing to say something quite stupid in the white panic of contest, with Jeremy Paxman glaring at you over his cue cards, it’s quite another to have to say it repeatedly, like an actor playing the imbecile you’ve just been. With Paxman repeating the same question, and you repeating the same, hopeless answer. Sort of like Michael Howard, I suppose.

Although I get ahead of myself. Yes! I did University Challenge! Only it might not have been on yet, so I’m going to have to be cagey about whether my team did well or middlingly or terribly. All I’ll say is that if it was good, then this was entirely down to other people on my team — my fellow Emmanuel alumni Rory McGrath, Simon Singh and Mary-Ann Ochota — being so very clever. And if it was bad, then this was also down to them being not quite clever enough to cope with the handicap of me. And if you think that’s faux humility, well, just watch it.

This was not, of course, true University Challenge. What they do is this Christmas alumni special, which is much the same, but features vaguely prominent graduates of various institutions. It’s nice to be considered vaguely prominent, but it does make you feel like you’ve a lot to lose. ‘It’s very good of you all to do this,’ Paxman said to us beforehand, in the slightly incredulous manner of Sir Humphrey telling Jim Hacker he was about to be brave.


On the train to Salford, all I could think of was the University Challenge episode of The Young Ones, and the point at which Viv, Adrian Edmondson’s punk shouts ‘I’m completely bloody sick of this!’ and lobs a second world war German hand grenade at his rivals from Footlights College, Oxbridge. Although, given that our opponents were from Reading, I suppose we were Footlights College, Oxbridge. Tweeting fretfully, I had a reply from the journalist Grace Dent. ‘I said no,’ she wrote. ‘I said I’d rather appear naked on The One Show.’ And I suppose I might prefer to do that, too. It would rather depend on the fee.

University Challenge, though, feels like something special. I tried to get on as a student, actually. My three housemates and I would spend our Monday nights shouting at the television, and eventually one of them came back with a form. You needed five, including a reserve, so we recruited a friendly geologist to fill the most obvious gaps you’d find in the mental encyclopaedias of two philosophers, a theologian and a student in English literature. Alas, by the time the people from Granada came to sound us out, our geologist was in Iceland looking at lava, our theologian was in Addenbrookes with a ruptured spleen, and our other philosopher had forgotten and was AWOL and couldn’t be called on his mobile because nobody would own one for about another three years. So it wasn’t to be. That was in 1997, the year that four girls from New Hall achieved the worst score the show had ever seen.

I am, I often think, stronger on RAM than ROM. In that I can source and process information pretty adeptly, but not a lot of it stays in the mind. Normally I put this down to a life of googling, and University Challenge seems to support this. The show has been running since 1962, and of the ten highest scores (I learn from googling) not one comes from after 1997. It’s not as though they’ve dipped glaringly since then, but they have dipped. Although, if that tells us anything, it should tell us that alumni scores would tend to be far higher. And without wanting to give anything away… well. No.

Tougher than the Tooth Fairy

I’m in Germany this Christmas, with the wife’s family. Look, they’re German. It’s not that weird. German Christmases, nonetheless, are.

For them, Santa comes on the 5th of December, and puts something in your boot. Also, they make little men out of figs and put them on the mantelpiece. (‘Do you eat them?’ I once asked, which was apparently hilarious.) The truly odd one, though, is the supernatural thingummy who brings your Christmas present. They call it ‘das Christkind’ and apparently it is sort of an incarnation of the baby Jesus.

Which is fine. I mean, laid out on the cold page, nobody else’s tradition makes much sense, either. What I have long puzzled over, though, is… when? Now? So why is he a baby? Before birth, then? Flying through time, with an iPod? Doesn’t seem right. I need to figure this stuff out. Pretty soon, my kids will be asking. The oldest broadsided me the other day, by asking who takes the Tooth Fairy’s teeth. Bloody good question. Anyone?

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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  • Martin Woolley

    I guess the tooth fairy is really a toothless old hag . . .

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