Keele University University Challenge

Keele University logoKeele University University Challenge

University Challenge is a long-running British television quiz show, licensed and produced by Granada Television. It was first shown from 21 September 1962 to 31 December 1987 and Bamber Gascoigne was its only quizmaster.

The show was revived for BBC2 with Jeremy Paxman as the new quizmaster and ran from 21 September 1994 to the present day. The format was based on the American show College Bowl, which ran on NBC radio from 1953 to 1957, and on NBC TV from 1959 to 1970.

Look Westward mini Bamber Gascoigne was the first quizmaster; he compiled the questions himself and presided in his uniquely urbane way until the end of the first incarnation of the series in 1987.  He had arrived at Magdalene College, Cambridge in 1955 to study for an English degree, during which time he wrote the musical Share My Lettuce, which became a West End production starring Kenneth Williams and Maggie Smith in 1957. As well as presiding for 25 years on University Challenge – the record for any presenter of a quiz show – he has also presented many documentaries and historical programmes including Cinema, The Christians, Man and Music, Victorian Values, and The Great Moghuls.  Since 1994 Bamber has been developing the history website HistoryWorld which won the 2002 New Statesman New Media award for the best educational web site.

His name is coincidentally an anagram of ‘Organise BBC Game’.

In a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes drawn up by the British Film Institute in 2000, voted for by industry professionals, University Challenge was placed 34th.

A spoof of University Challenge appeared in the notorious ‘Bambi’ episode of “The Young Ones”. The quizmaster on that occasion was played by Griff Rhys-Jones. University Challenge competitors are in illustrious company – notable contestants in the quiz include Sebastian Faulks, Julian Fellows, Stephen Fry, Clive James, Miriam Margolyes, David Mellor, Malcolm Rifkind, John Simpson, David Starkey and William Waldegrave.


In1968 a quartet of Keele undergraduates triumphed in TV’s toughest test of general knowledge.  Millions watched Paul Brownsey, Pam Maddison (Groves), Aubrey “Larry” Lawrence and Andrew MacMullen win the 1968 final of University Challenge. It was the first – and so far the only – time Keele’s team took the title but it was a decisive victory. Keele Team 1968 mini
In only the fifth season of the long-running varsity quiz, Keele swept all before them, answering even the trickiest questions put to them by Bamber Gascoigne. Captained by Aubrey Lawrence, usually known as Larry, Keele beat Jesus College Cambridge in the final.

Sadly, between the recording and the transmission of the final, a member of the Jesus College team was killed in a boating accident, although his family gave their blessing to the programme being broadcast as a tribute.  Having more than proved his worth Captain Larry went on to become BBC Radio’s Brain of Britain and to compete in Mastermind in 1978.

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“During the documentary ‘Memoirs of a Cigarette’ on Channel 4 about the national smoking ban,  prominent display is given to the Keele University Challenge team of 1968 and especially Andy MacMullen in the act of lighting up a cigarette on screen. It was deliberate – to put Jesus off at a crucial stage in the game. He told us he intended to do it before that contest was shot. Keele won, of course. Andy gave up smoking not that long afterwards: but that’s another story.…” John Meager (1968)

“A photographer from Granada TV tried to pose us against a wall at Keele on which all sorts ‘revolutionary’ slogans had been painted. I refused.  This wasn’t so much because I disagreed with the sentiments as that I objected to being used in that kind of way to make an ‘interesting’ picture which might lead to it being ‘inferred’ that I endorsed the sentiments: if I wanted to make a statement I would make it when and how I wanted to, not at some photographer’s whim.  There was much excitement when a female student who accompanied us bumped into Elsie Tanner in the ladies’ loos at Granada.” Paul Brownsey (1970)


Meeting Princess Margaret mini “The academic year after the victory I was the Keele exchange student to Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania. While I was there Swarthmore got invited to appear on the US version, College Bowl. I thought it would be fun to do the double and tried out for the Swarthmore team – and scored top marks. They then decided that since I was not a 100% pukkah Swarthmore student I shouldn’t appear.  Rather mean!  One night at Swarthmore I got back to my room to find a note on my door: ‘telegram from England at switchboard’.  As you can imagine, I imagined a death in the family, something like that, and hurtled over to the switchboard in panic.  When I opened it I let out a yell that startled the operator no end. It was telegram from Granada TV saying they wanted to fly me over, all expenses paid, for the Christmas special in 1969, at which we were to play against the girls of St Hilda’s.  This was a team who, on their original appearance some years before, had got lots of notice for their beauty-and-brains combination: all rather old-fashioned now, the idea that a glamorous girl could also have brains! This was in the days when people like David Frost made the news by flying the Atlantic weekly for one TV show in the USA and one in the UK.  So I felt somewhat like that as I taxied to the airport. It was a wonderful excuse for not attending classes.  I was taking four classes at Swarthmore and polished it just a little more for each performance: “Oh, Miss Snyder, I’m afraid I won’t be in class for the next two weeks.” “Oh?” (Remark already potent with reproof.) “Well…you see…British TV is flying me over for an appearance….” There were actually two Christmas specials, the one in 1969 when we beat the girls of St Hilda’s, and a second in 1970 when our own Keele dons beat us very decisively.  Who was on the team of Keele dons?  I confess I largely forget.  David Battye in Computing was definitely one and I have a hunch that Alan Iliffe, Senior Tutor, was one of the others” Paul Brownsey (1970)

“During an evening performance of “The Knight of the Burning Pestle” by Beaumont and Fletcher, again in 1968, word came through from Manchester that our University Challenge team had won the contest.  Jim Denman (1970), who played the lead, seamlessly moved from his lines to say “… and word hath come in from the north that Keele hath won University Challenge, that very merry quiz.”  Those of us on stage tried hard to remain in character whilst the rest of the Walter Moberly hall erupted!  What a night!” Julian Comer (1971)

In 2002, the same four members of the Keele team showed their mettle once again when they were reunited in University Challenge’s “Champions of Champions”, a special season marking the 40th anniversary of the quiz. Along with 30 other winning teams, they were once again put through the agony they had first endured 34 years before and made steady progress to the Grand Final of the special series, when they came up against Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, champions of 1979. Sidney Sussex beat Keele by 375 points to 185, avenging the defeat of their Cambridge fellows in 1968 but placing 2nd out of the 40 championship teams was no mean feat for Keele’s ’68 eggheads.