Over the years, I've said quite a number of times that my great unfulfilled ambition in life was to take part in University Challenge. A joke, yes, but definitely one with truth at its core. Given that I've watched the show since I was a small boy, I was quick to apply to take part in our college team when I was a student. We were each given a test, but I didn't score highly enough to make the grade - and our team was knocked out quickly anyway. I have remained a devotee of the programme, but I thought my chance of appearing in it had gone. So you can imagine my astonishment when, while on holiday in Italy, I received an email inviting me to take part in Christmas University Challenge 2022.
The fact that the sender's name was Parody rang a faint alarm bell. After all, the contestants in the Christmas version of the show are supposed to be 'distinguished alumni' of their college or university, and there are lots of well-known people - much more famous than me, for sure - who have been to Balliol. However, the email wasn't a wind-up. Clare Parody is in fact the series producer.
I accepted with alacrity. I assumed I might be a reserve - especially given that the recording dates weren't far away. But it turned out that the recordings needed to be done earlier than usual and to my amazement I was invited to be captain. You may wonder why I was willing to expose the extent of my ignorance on TV, especially when Jeremy Paxman is such a feared Torquemada. But having loved the show for so long, I didn't care about looking silly (perhaps it's as well...) I just wanted to be part of Jeremy's very last shows before his retirement - after 29 years in the hot seat. (The student show continues to be screened, but their final was actually recorded months ago.)
As ever, a question is only easy if you know the answer, and only difficult if you don't (or if you can't call it to mind quickly - and speed of reaction is a key skill in this game, especially challenging for those of us of...more mature years).
One unknown concerned whether my team-mates would include a scientist. None of us knew each other, but the key to success is usually to have a wide range of areas of expertise - including the sciences. However, all four of us were on the arts side. In fact, three of us were taught by the late great legal philosopher Jo Raz. When I got to meet my colleagues - Elizabeth Kiss, Martin O'Neill, and Andrew Copson - I found each of them highly congenial. I decided that even if I wasn't any good at answering the questions, I'd try to be a good captain, so I suggested some tactics which they were happy with, and we took it from there.
I must admit that I was nervous about it. Much more so than I expected, for sure. But I knew it would be memorable, whatever the result. The photo above shows the four of us walking through the endless corridors of Dock 10 in Media City, Manchester, psyching ourselves up to meet our fate in the studio.
Naturally I now see yesterday's World Cup Final as the curtain-raiser for the tournament that really matters! As to what happened when we took on SOAS in the opening heat of the series- well, all will be revealed at 8.30 pm on BBC 2 tonight...