Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Brain Games: Part 1 - University Challenge

You'd think the programme schedulers at the BBC would have sympathy on the Great British public, but don't you believe it.

As people across the land arrive home from work on a Monday evening, the first priority for many is to kick off their shoes and vegetate happily in front of the telly. Feet up on the couch and with full glass of Rioja in hand, there's a collective desire to recover from the start of the working week in an atmosphere of cosseted bliss where the TV provides gentle entertainment and mellow pleasantry.

What a shame, then, that the BBC has an altogether more sinister agenda for its license fee payers - to fry their brain with a relentless quiz-based attack on their mental equilibrium.

University Challenge, the trusty old workhorse of BBC2's Monday night schedule, continues to attract viewers of… how can we put this… a masochistic nature. And that's not meant to be an insult - moreover, the sort of people that watch University Challenge seek only to gain personal satisfaction from answering two or at best three of its ridiculously difficult questions during the half-hour it's shown.

Fronted by Jeremy Paxman, the show seeks to find the brainiest college or university in Britain just as it has done on and off since 1962. Each week, two teams convene in front of Paxman, a man whose authoritarian style of presentation is at times gloriously brusque to the point of being downright rude. More of which later…

The questions fielded by both teams cover any number of subjects including physics, mathematics, art and history, but all to an academic standard which would preclude the attempts of many ordinary mortals from answering correctly. Indeed some of the questions are so utterly long and convoluted that it's any wonder the show doesn't last twice as long in order to accommodate them. Here's a short example:

What term is used for the speed required for an object to travel in a parabolic orbit around a larger body and thus is the minimum speed required to overcome the larger body's gravitational attraction?
The answer - Scale Velocity - barely does it justice.

Fortunately Paxman is more sympathetic to those students who fail to provide a correct answer here than to a question about a well-known piece of classic literature of which he considers himself something of an expert. Contestants that prove less competent than he at identifying, say, the opening line to Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing' can expect a response so full of wrath that a lengthy spell of counselling on the part of the respondent is frankly inevitable.

And it's that which makes the achievement of answering one of Paxman's questions so deliciously enjoyable. If you're lucky, your best chance of doing so may come from one of the rare sorties into popular culture that occasionally arise.

Last week, a sizeable cross-section of the population moved nearer their TVs as one when the pictures of three computer game consoles from the 1980's and 90's were shown. Contestants and viewers alike were asked to identify them, and for many the momentary act of remembering a golden age spent playing a Super Nintendo or Sega Saturn was more reason than enough to justify watching the programme in the first place.

But boy is it hard work. University Challenge makes no allowance for ignorance or stupidity. If the programme has any message for its viewers, it has to be that if you can't answer any of the questions, watch something else or shut up.

Should you take the first option by switching to BBC4 when University Challenge ends, you'll only find a slightly less remorseless barrage on your senses than the one you've just experienced.

Only Connect merely repackages the quizzical challenge offered by Paxman and Co. in a way that skilfully lulls you into thinking you've found a show which is less taxing on the brain. How wrong you'd be to think that.

Only Connect is BBC4's way of completing your Monday night mental meltdown, and we'll be reviewing it in greater depth tomorrow in the second and final part of 'Brain Games'.


Red Two 23 October 2008 at 13:30  

Surely UC's attraction IS that it's pitched at a different level to the vast majority of TV quiz shows? Not for everyone, sure... but would you prefer a completely homogenised TV diet with the same questions rotated around arbitrary formats?

Chris O 23 October 2008 at 22:00  

No, absolutely not. That's what I like about it.

OK, so some of the questions are clearly out of the sphere of many ordinary people like myself, but like you say, that's what makes it so curiously engaging.

My point about it being fiendishly difficult is made with tongue firmly in cheek, it has to be said... :)

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