University Challenge Class of 2014

University Challenge Class of 2014

For the past two evenings on BBC Two a charming documentary has been airing about the selection process for University Challenge. Class of 2014 is a warm knitted jumper of a show offering nothing but love and respect for both the long running quiz and the encyclopedic students who fight to take part in it. While The Voice may be a friendlier version of X Factor it still glorifies the ability to sing far too much in my view whereas here the focus is on the perhaps equally arbitrary skill of knowing a whole lot of facts.

I’ll confess to you now that I don’t actually watch University Challenge; the questions are way too hard for me and the contestants seem a little alien. While elsewhere on TV competitors are a glamorous and coordinated bunch here we are dealing with academics more likely to be seen sporting an unconvincing beard and functional glasses than skinny jeans and Ray-Bans. A huge portion of culture is teaching us to fit in and avoid the nerds but with Class of 2014 those very nerds are shown as human beings with hopes, dreams, and fears; all of which feature Jeremy Paxman. These are my people after all.

Across the two-part documentary we see the various selection processes each university uses to pick their five team members and follow each team as they are tested and interviewed by BBC researchers until the final 28 teams are chosen. Former competitors pop up in interviews commenting on the whole process like war veterans telling tall tales from the battlefields and are shown helping to train the new recruits to fight their rival teams and Paxman himself.

Stephen Pearson

One particular highlight is seeing the intense training regime organised by University of Manchester librarian Stephen Pearson who has been described as the “Alex Ferguson of University Challenge. With an iPad full of questions and a homemade buzzer system by his side there is no greater asset than Pearson for a budding University Challenge team. His generous spirit and dedication to the show is what makes this film special; everyone is just plain nice with no backstabbing or double-crossing.

Class of 2014 is a very simple documentary but one that I found strangely enjoyable. It was a window into a unique subculture that exists around a quiz show that I had never bothered to give the time of day before. A subculture in which Paxman is God and an encyclopedia forms the holy text.

I’ve no doubt fallen for a not-too-subtle marketing ploy by the BBC but who am I to complain? As the episode came to a close the filming of the quiz itself began and credits rolled. We now knew the contestants well, had grown to like their little ticks and personality quirks, and wanted to know how they got on. When the BBC announcer informed us that the new series of University Challenge would be starting on Monday night at 8pm my flatmate turned to me and suggested, “series record?”. Series record indeed.

You can watch the two episodes of Class of 2014 on BBC iPlayer now, I only hope it gives you half the pleasure it gave me.

Why I am, to my surprise, enjoying The Voice

The Voice series 3

‘Nice’ is an underrated quality in a TV talent show but it might be a good reason to watch The Voice.

I’m not much of a fan of reality television. I have dabbled in Britain’s Got Talent, because you sometimes see something genuinely original, and have consistently kept up with Strictly Come Dancing, because it’s pretty dancing, glamourous outfits and fundamentally meaningless fluff. But I don’t touch anything in the Big Brother / I’m a Celebrity vein and hate, hate, hate The X Factor. So it’s caught me by surprise to discover that I’m enjoying series 3 of The Voice.

When it first came to our shores, my reaction was total indifference. Another singing talent show? Yawn. Having the judges pick their teams based only on what the contestants’ voices sound like, without being influenced by appearance put a slightly interesting twist on the format, but that point of difference disappears after the blind auditions. I had no idea who one of the judges, Danny O’Donoghue, was (nor heard of his band, The Script), and didn’t really see what level of expertise he and Jessie J, who had released one album by this point, could bring to the show. So, the entire of series 1 passed me by.

I caught a very tiny bit of series 2 because of a minor personal connection to Leah McFall, the eventual runner-up, but I saw none of the early audition rounds. However, a few weeks ago, while waiting for dinner to cook, I got sucked into an episode of the current series, and have been watching it since. This is why:

You do not have to witness anyone be humiliated.
I know that some people watch reality TV auditions purely for the people whose self-belief does not match their talent. I am not one of those watchers. I desperately will everyone to be good, to perform well and when it turns out they really can’t sing/dance/make people laugh, I cringe as I share their embarrassment and disappointment. Everyone who makes it to the television stage on The Voice has already auditioned in front of the producers and so you are guaranteed that they meet a decent standard of vocal ability. This takes a lot of nervous tension out of my evening.

Jamie Lovatt - The Voice

The coaches have credibility…
Jessie J and Danny O’Donoghue did not return for series 3. They were replaced by Ricky Wilson, who has made as many albums with the Kaiser Chiefs as both Jessie and Danny put together, and Kylie Minogue, who, well, is Kylie. Alongside (Sir) Tom Jones and Will.I.Am, long-time artist and producer in his own right (Black Eyed Peas notwithstanding), this set of judges carry more industry weight that the previous line-up conveyed.

…and they actually seem to like each other
I don’t know what the chemistry between the coaches was like before and these four could all just be really good at pretending to get on, but I enjoy the interplay between the professionals. Maybe it’s because Kylie is so adorable. Maybe it’s Ricky’s charming everyman. Maybe it’s Will’s left-field wackiness. Whatever it is, they bounce off each other entertainingly (while Tom looks on, bemused) and their chatter doesn’t make me cringe. I don’t see any of the weary cattiness that I associate with these judging panels.

The Voice - Kylie and Tom

It’s only positive
The combination of the above reasons means that the whole experience feels like it can only be positive. Because all the contestants can actually sing, the judges never have to be harsh with anyone. The people they don’t pick, even though they haven’t got what they wanted, are encouraged to keep going and given constructive advice for improvement. They get a lot of personal interaction (and a whole lot of hugs) from the coaches – who do seem more like mentors than judges. There isn’t a Simon Cowell panto villain anywhere.

The blind auditions are now over, and with it the show’s selling point, so maybe the following episodes with their confusing ‘battle’ structure will lose me and perhaps the competition between the mentors will escalate and detract from the camaraderie I like so much. Even so, I’m looking forward to finding out and a few months ago, I wouldn’t have thought that I’d be saying that. Sometimes, it’s nice to be surprised.