Amid all the chaos of the pandemic, the University Challenge final served as a welcome reminder of normality. Then came quite possibly the highlight of many an Imperial College student’s lockdown. Caleb Rich captained a star-studded team including Richard Brooks, Conor McMeel, and Brandon Blackwell to victory for Imperial, bringing the majestic trophy back to South Kensington.
Except, they didn’t actually get a trophy. Nor did Imperial College.
Where is the coveted trophy, I hear you cry?
In the ITV studio.
This shocking truth was just one of the revelations that came out of a chat I had with the winners themselves. Fasten your seatbelts and read on for more behind the scenes gossip from the boys all about University Challenge, and most importantly, how you can be on the show next year to retain the title.
First things first, what was Jeremy Paxman actually like?
Conor: I think everybody expects to find the experience very intimidating at the beginning, but he’s very nice – he even signed my name plate.
Richard: He’s sort of as you see him on the TV. But it’s quite funny when someone gives a silly answer because it’s good just to sort of make a bit of fun.
Caleb: Most of the interaction with us was him being impressed with Brandon when he got some of his craziest buzzes.
But he wasn’t the only presenter in the studio, right?
Richard: The person in the studio who shouts out the names does it live when you’re there. So, when there were questions where I didn’t really have a clue, but no one was buzzing in I thought, “Well I’ll just buzz then he’ll shout my name out!”
Conor: His name’s Roger and he does all of these shows where you have to put on that kind of voice – it’s not that far from his normal voice actually! He’s a lovely guy and very tall.
How exactly was it filmed?
Caleb: There’s three filming dates from February till April up in Manchester. You have to bring a change of clothes because you might be filming the same day and you don’t want to look like you’ve come back a few weeks later wearing the same shirt.
Richard: They film for half an hour and that’s it. They do have to edit the odd bit but generally it’s as you see it!
How did you keep it a secret for so long?
Conor: I escaped to Japan after the first couple of shows aired, so I didn’t have to keep a straight face and could just send messages back saying “I can’t tell you”.
Caleb: My family knew because they came along to the recordings, so I had someone to talk about it with.
Did you have any tactics?
Caleb: As much as you can have. The strategy was trying to steal away starter questions as we were quite fast on the buzzers. So, we thought if we were quite aggressive about buzzing in early and answering quickly, we would be able to shut out the other team – the final was a culmination of that strategy.
Richard: Particularly later on we were a lot more cautious about buzzing in, getting it wrong and losing points. I think there were three or four rounds where we didn’t get any ‘negs’ as they’re called when someone buzzes incorrectly and gets negative five points. Ultimately, it’s a team game and we worked really well as a team. You’re very unlikely to win it if you’re an average team with one very good player.
Will we be seeing you guys on the show again next year?
Richard: You can only do one series, so it will be a completely new team on next series.
Conor: There are reserves in case someone is ill – they’re allowed back, it’s only once you’re on the air that you can’t go back. Caleb was a reserve a couple of years ago.
Caleb: I was reserve for a team at my old university, so I went with them to the studio when they were recording and that helped quite a lot actually knowing what it was going to be like.
What was the process of getting on the team?
Richard: I was chair of Quiz Society, so I had to organise try-outs. In the interest of fairness, we had a selection panel of people who had been on University Challenge in the past (three PhD students) and people from the union like the deputy president of societies. The first round was a written test of 40 or 50 questions read out and the top people from that round went on to a buzzer round. We played University Challenge style matches where the selectors put the people trying out into teams and read out questions, and we’d buzz in. We also had a general knowledge round with 100 questions, and you had 30 mins to answer as many as possible. They chose a team mainly based on the buzzer quiz but also using that test, so they had people who could do both.
Conor: Caleb was chosen at the trials by the people who picked the team to be our captain, but we did discuss it amongst ourselves. We agreed he was the best at talking and the best at soliciting the answer from the person who kind of knows it. He was the best at slowing the conversation down and just getting everyone’s opinions in quickly but in a calm fashion and making the decision when it needed to be made.
Had any of the rest of you previously tried to get in the team?
Conor: The three of us apart from Brandon were all very close to being on the show at different points – all three of us missed it on our first or sometimes second try. Not many people get in on their first try and even if you get in a team, there’s no guarantee that you will get on the show.
[picture 3, with the caption. Our interviewees from left to right: Richard Brooks, Connor McMeel, Caleb Rich]
So, once you’re in the team, how do you actually get on the show?
Richard: They get about 130 applicants from different universities from which they select 28 for the series. You do a test at the interview and you have to get to a pass level, but beyond that they’re looking for the personality of the teams and having a representative team.
Conor: They just do a lot of chat at the start of the interview, I don’t really know what they’re looking for exactly, but I guess it’s that you’re vaguely presentable and that you don’t come across as too strange on camera, you can have a normal conversation maybe. They asked us things like “Why do you want to be on the show? What sort of things do you like? What would you like to answer on the show?” We did get together and said, “Right, when we get asked about why we want to be on the show, we need to say something fun and quirky”.
How long was it between choosing the team and your first match?
Richard: Approximately 3 months plus or minus a few weeks. That was a decent amount of time to prepare.
What did your practice sessions entail?
Richard: We did the h-bar quiz as a team just after we’d formed. Caleb wasn’t there so it was me, Brandon and Connor and I think we ended up losing by one point. But I had turned up late annoyingly and a question which they had a guess at was one I knew the answer to, so really we should have won if I had turned up on time. I was late because I hung around a little bit after choir to eat some biscuits. Me, Conor, Caleb and our reserve went and played in a University Challenge preparation tournament which Southampton Quiz Society had organised.
Conor: We had a set of buzzers for Quiz Society and every week we would meet and play against the two teams who are in the episode.
Richard: We’d play along and if one of us buzzed in first, our reserve would pause it on YouTube so we could answer before the person on the show.
Imperial College is a STEM university, so how did you make sure you had all the other subjects covered?
Caleb: We talked about it and we made a big list/mind map and divided up which topics we thought would come up regularly and basically assigned each one based on who was interested in it.
Richard: For me, it was geography, history, classical music, and astronomy.
Conor: I can remember the ones I did (like poetry) because they barely came up in the show on our entire run, which was obviously really frustrating.
Caleb: I think I had modern history, some biology, and more biochemistry. Brandon mostly had the list-learning under control as in knowing all the Nobel laureates or whatever. We were very lucky to have Brandon on the team, he is one of the best quizzers in the UK, if not the world.
Brandon had a lot of media attention, what was that like?
Richard: That’s what we sort of expected, but I think he has dealt with it very well – on a lot of his interviews he emphasised that it was a team game.
Conor: I promised myself I wouldn’t comb through it, but it’s very difficult not to. It was difficult in many people’s eyes to break the perception that a lot of us were shit and it was Brandon doing everything.
Caleb: People saying that Brandon should be captain was probably the worst thing I got, which was not that bad – he’s a very good quizzer.
Conor: The experience has definitely made me a lot more sympathetic to when people look a bit silly on TV. I think a lot of the people who watch the show and comment about it on social media could definitely learn to be a lot nicer, particularly the grief that Brandon got and the grief that any woman gets when she goes on, it’s really awful.
A lot of people are finding life particularly difficult during lockdown, with many of us struggling with our mental health. There really is no better time to consider the effect your words have and show some compassion towards your fellow humans.
‘In a world where you can be anything, be kind.’
Josie Clarkson is a MSc Science Communication student at Imperial College, and a sub-editor of I, Science magazine.