UK News Electronic Telegraph
Thursday 5 December 1996
Issue 561

Your starter for minus 10
By Tom Utley

External Links

CollegeBowl: University Challenge page

NEVER since records have been kept has one team so spectacularly trounced another as in this week's University Challenge.

At the half-way stage, the score stood at: Manchester University, 200; Birkbeck College, London, minus 10. With only 10 minutes to go, the Birkbeck team at last came with its first correct answer, to a roar of relief from the audience. But by then it was far too late. At the end of the contest, no fewer than 320 points separated the teams, with Manchester at 360 - and Birkbeck 40.

The humiliation - the worst since records were first kept when University Challenge returned to the air three years ago - was so complete that the Master of Birkbeck College, Lady Blackstone, felt moved to issue a written statement. "I am very sorry to hear that the Birkbeck team did not do very well on University Challenge last night," the Labour front-bench education spokesman wrote, with masterly understatement. "But it has no reflection on the extraordinarily able and highly-motivated students who study here."

Oh no? Some 25 million toes curled all over the country as the programme's 2.5 million viewers willed Birkbeck on. But again and again, Manchester was first on the buzzer with the right answer. And again and again, Birkbeck either guessed wrongly - or simply gawped in open-mouthed ignorance.

"Your starter for 10," announced Jeremy Paxman. "What is the adjective that links the Monday in September . . ." Bzzzzz.

"Pearson, Manchester."
"Black is the right answer."

On most of the rare occasions when Birkbeck had a crack at the questions, the team just hadn't a clue. "Which explorer was the first to sail through the Canadian North-West passage, the first to fly across the Arctic, and the first to reach the South Pole as part of the successful Norwegian team in 1911? Birkbeck?" Dunno. Roald Amundsen, of course.

The team fared no better at science - an area in which Birkbeck prides itself. "Which iron-sulphide mineral, closely resembling iron pyrites but with a different crystalline form, is used in the manufacture of costume jewellery?" Again, Birkbeck had no idea. But then who can blame the team for not knowing much about marcasite?

Paxman's normally stony heart bled for Birkbeck. "Come on Birkbeck," he pleaded. "There is still plenty of time for a spectacular comeback." Everybody knew it was a lie.

The Birkbeck team had gone to ground last night. But Sim Bryce, president of their Students' Union, said: "It sounds a fairly resounding defeat. But it doesn't reflect on our standard of education in any whit. It's just a game show, after all. Somebody had to lose, and it happened to be us."

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