Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Best show on the box gives us all a good challenge

India Lenon
India Lenon

I only watch one programme on TV these days, apart that is from the footie. I'm hooked on University Challenge. Have been for years.

I don't say that to sound clever. I get very few of the answers right. I just love the cut and thrust of the competition, the pure promotion of intelligence.

While I'll never tire of watching Lionel Messi dancing around lumpen defenders, there's also something wondrous to behold in a spotty, socially inept student knowing the answer to this: The symbiotic association of rhizobium bacteria with the roots of legumes is the basis of which process, essential to agriculture? Come on. That's one of the easy ones.

The real joy of University Challenge is watching the players themselves, trying to guess which ones will go on to be prime minister, find a cure for cancer, or become a serial killer. I've spotted quite a few candidates for the latter over the years. There's always the wacky one with the crazy haircut who's staggeringly bright on the flags of African countries and Shakespeare's comedies, the nerdy one who can give you all you need to know on quantum physics and then the mature student who starts slowly, but comes through after the youngsters have run out of steam thanks to a knowledge of Stanley Baldwin and the music of Cole Porter.

No contestant ever gets questions right about cult films, or indie music, because they're too busy differentiating between two species of Madagascan Lemur to listen to the Velvet Underground, or watch The Bicycle Thieves.

Every now and then, the quiz goes mainstream culture, when a newspaper editor's dream – a bright contestant, who just also happens to be a bit of a belter – crops up.

This year, New College Oxford's India Lenon set male Twitter pulses racing. She's got a Scarlett Johansson/Naomi Watts vibe going on, was one of the more printable posts.

Her ability to be both intelligent and easy on the eye also earned her four proposals of marriage and a fruity picture spread in the Daily Mail, proving that some things will never change.

This series, the mature student slow-burner is played by Manchester University's Debbie Brown, reading pain epidemiology (whatever that is) and who looks like she's dropped in to give the boys their packed lunches on the way to the staff meeting.

But while the lads showboat and gesticulate, it's middle-aged Debbie (surely it should be Deborah) on the end of the row who more often than not comes across with the winning answer.

She's helped her team into the final where, next Monday, they will come up against University College London, the team I picked to win right at the start.

UCL have all the right ingredients to triumph. Firstly, the wacky, but super-sharp captain, Dennis, who even wears earrings to signify he's left-field and probably has naturist GPs as parents.

A man with virtually no vowels in his name, Tyszczuk Smith, which statistics show means he's smarter than the average. Something to do with being a bit foreign and more overachieving than 90% of the homegrown slackers who make up the UK university population. Quizmaster Jeremy Paxman bullied the nervous lad mercilessly in an earlier round for getting a rare question wrong and got massive internet pelters for it, too. Smug Paxo seems to forget he actually has the answers written on cards.

The third member of the team, Parton, looks like he should be doing woodwork, but is actually close to discovering nuclear fusion, and the final member is in it for comedy value.

This is because he's called Papaphilippopoulos and gives the announcer who has to shout out the names a heart-attack every time he presses his buzzer.

Forget the Champions League semis; next Monday's University Challenge final is the fixture you want to be watching. I say UCL to win by a short head.

By the way, if you actually want to try and answer the questions, rather than just gawp at higher life-forms, my advice is to answer every question with one of these three answers: Oscar Wilde, Plato, or Pi over two to the square of five. You'll get at least one point.

And did you get the answer to the legumes question at the top? It was fixation of nitrogen, of course. Everyone knows that.

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