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.
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.