On 28 January 1979 a team of students from Bradford University triumphed against Lancaster University in the final of University Challenge, 215 points to 160.
University Challenge is a notoriously difficult and fast-moving television quiz. Produced by Granada Television, the original programme was presented by Bamber Gascoigne and ran from 1962 to 1987. It was revived by the BBC in 1994 with presenter Jeremy Paxman (an honorary graduate of Bradford University) and is still running today. Contestants are usually university students although there have been series which used different formats.
The Bradford University team of 1979 boasted three postgraduate computer science students (John Watt, Mike Bradford, John Simkin). The other team members were Maxwell Cooter, an Interdisciplinary Human Studies student, and a reserve, Martin Lee, a postgraduate in Social Sciences.
The dominance of computer scientists apparently “amused and bemused” Bradford’s opponents, though in fact the three were studying conversion courses. Along with their colleagues, they had excellent general knowledge spanning key subjects such as classical music, literature, sport and art.
The team actually criticised the University Challenge format, which they felt “tested school rather than at university learning” and called for “fast recall of fairly shallow or even trivial knowledge, rather than the analysis or coherent pattern which University education should develop.” They emphasised that it was no measure of intellectual ability, and might even mislead the public about the nature of students and university life.
The University of Bradford’s Corp Comms managed to track down three members of the team for a 2002 series celebrating forty years of the programme: University Challenge Reunited. Bradford, Simkin and Cooter were joined by the reserve, Martin Lee. The team lost narrowly to their 1979 final opponents, Lancaster, but enjoyed the experience. John Watt saw the event on television and got in touch later on.
A Bradford University team who took part in the 2003/04 season were less successful, scoring a mere 35 points in their first-round match on 15 December 2003 against Queen’s University Belfast, who scored 280.
Whatever the scores though, the programme has provided plenty of entertainment. As Bradford’s winning team observed, “It seems that this sort of quiz would be best approached in a mildly egotistical mood, as a load of laughs, proving nothing in particular!”
Notes and queries. There is some confusion around the years of wins, partly caused by inconsistencies in listing styles by the programme makers. Bradford’s win is often attributed to 1980, as can be seen in the 2002 image above. Mr Cooter’s first name is “Steve” in the News Sheet article, but “Maxwell” elsewhere.
Sources. Quotations from News Sheet March 1979 p.3-4 and 21 and News and Views May 2002 p.7. (also online, the 2002 press release seeking the 1979 team). I have also found many other sources useful, including the BBC site and sites by enthusiasts Blanchflower (useful on statistics and the issue of the varying years of wins) and UK gameshows.