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‘Astonishing speed!’: the University Challenge final reviewed by last year’s winner
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‘Astonishing speed!’: the University Challenge final reviewed by last year’s winner

This series on University Challenge, we have a new intro, a new set, and most importantly a new host. While Jeremy Paxman left some awfully large shoes to fill, Amol Rajan has stepped skilfully into the role, his tone somewhat softer but his great enthusiasm shining through. Possibly most notably in his quote, “I can’t accept drum’n’bass – we need jungle, I’m afraid,” which went viral on X and has been sampled and remixed into an incredible number of jungle tracks.

As ever, the series began with about 120 teams from all across the country auditioning for the chance to show their mettle. The producers whittled this down to just 28 universities. After 36 tightly fought matches, two remained to battle it out: University College London, captained by Tayana Sawh, and Imperial College London, captained by Suraiya Haddad. They’d each made it here undefeated despite fierce competition, and aced questions on topics from Korean mythology to cellular automata, from the plays of Arthur Miller to the music of Kendrick Lamar. The incredible strength of both teams made it impossible to call who would win in advance, and all we could be sure of was that the trophy was on its way to London, one way or the other. The desks of the new set (which are finally free of Covid screens!) were as ever adorned with the teams’ mascots: UCL’s stuffed Jeremy Bentham doll (though they have wisely elected to leave his actual preserved remains at UCL) and Imperial’s stuffed otter (called Carole Otter), which has gained new accessories throughout the season, including bells and a cape.

Host Amol Rajan.View image in fullscreen

The game began with the first starter for 10, about days of the week and Germanic deities – snapped up by Ali Izzatdust of UCL. His team quickly made the most of this start, taking all three bonus questions about the Mamluk sultan Baybars with no hesitation – only for both teams to promptly remind us that there are limits to the knowledge of even formidable competitors, tripping up on a question about Venice. Imperial quickly recovered with a question about urea and a full set of art bonuses. This tit-for-tat exchange continued with UCL’s James Hall taking a starter about the artist-curator Lubaina Himid, and two bonuses.

We were then blessed with our first picture round, featuring maps of sites associated with the pilgrims in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Imperial’s Justin Lee used it, along with two of the bonuses, to close the gap with UCL, his team taking a remarkable seven more starters before UCL managed to get back in. Highlights of this tour de force included Sourajit Debnath single-handedly taking a whole bonus set on Bafta-winning games without even letting Amol finish the questions; Lee taking a starter question about Berengaria of Navarre only a couple of words into the question; and the team winning a complete set of bonuses on the sacks of Rome.

With the scores at 225-25, UCL’s Izzatdust finally managed to take a starter about the physicist Enrico Fermi. The second picture starter was correctly identified by Imperial’s Adam Jones as a Winslow Homer painting, and the next starter about the Andaman Sea was taken by UCL’s Jacob Finlay. Seemingly recognising the urgency of their 170-point deficit, UCL’s Izzatdust buzzed for the next question with astonishing speed after only hearing the words “Porto Delgado” with the correct answer of “the Azores”. Unfortunately for UCL, this was not the start of an epic comeback, as Imperial then took three more starter questions, including an incredible eighth correct starter of the match for Lee. UCL managed to take another pair of starters to leave the scores 285-120, but before they could take this last set of bonuses, the gong rang, ending the series.

The sportsmanship of the competition was evident, with Imperial’s captain graciously thanking her opponents, calling them “a really lovely team, [who] played brilliantly”. The trophy was then presented by Tom Stoppard, who said that University Challenge is “the only show [he] makes a rendezvous with, generally speaking”. He added: “My impression is that the questions get a little harder as the years go by, and the teams a little cleverer.”

Although people talk about Oxbridge domination, given that the universities’ colleges are allowed to enter as separate teams, this marks Imperial College London’s fifth victory in the competition, a feat unequalled by any other team. Though Paxman is sorely missed, the quality of the competitors shone through to make this a compelling watch. Hopefully this marks the beginning of a new era for the show – one that will see more great quizzing from many knowledgable competitors.

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Source: theguardian.com