Clash of the quizmasters: Humphrys takes on Paxman in prickly Radio 4 interview to celebrate 50 years of University Challenge

By Francesca Shanahan


Two of the most fearsome interrogators in the media clashed this morning, as Newsnight's Jeremy Paxman submitted himself to an interview by BBC Radio 4 Today programme's John Humphrys.

Mr Paxman was on air to discuss the 50th anniversary of BBC2's University Challenge, which he presents, but such a lighthearted topic of conversation did not stop the pair deploying their arsenal of tough-talking tactics.

Listeners squirmed as there were repeated interruptions, gasps of exasperation, accusations of badly chosen questions, poor research and failure to pay attention.

Scroll down to listen to the interview

John Humphreys
Jeremy Paxman

Clash of the media titans: Today programme host and Mastermind presenter John Humphrys locked horns with University Challenge and Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman this morning

The media titans talked over each other and exchanged jibes about their age, while the Today presenter repeatedly mentioned his own television quiz show Mastermind.

Confronted with Mr Paxman's scorn at some of the questions, Mr Humphrys was at one point reduced to saying: 'What would you like me to ask you?'

The exchange got off to a bad start when Mr Humphrys began by referring to Mr Paxman's long stint at the helm of University Challenge, which he began presenting in 1994.

'Seventeen years,' acknowledged the Today presenter.

After a long pause, a puzzled Mr Paxman responded, 'No, it's been on the air 50 years, hasn't it. I thought that was the anniversary.'

Mr Humphrys retorted, 'No, you haven't been paying attention. The programme's been on for 50 years. You've been on for 17, haven't you?'

Mr Paxman replied 'Is it that long? I hadn't realised.'

After the University Challenge presenter voiced his 'love' for the enthusiasm of the students on his show and praised their vast bank of knowledge, he was immediately riled by Mr Humphrys' follow-up.

'Here's the big question for you then,' said the Today presenter. 'Are they getting brighter, on the evidence of University Challenge, or are they getting dumber?'

Brainy: Jeremy Paxman has been hosting quiz show University Challenge for seventeen years

Brainy: Jeremy Paxman has been hosting quiz show University Challenge for seventeen years, which pits teams from two universities against each other in a high-brow test of general knowledge

Beginnings: Bamber Gascoigne was the original presenter of University Challenge, which begun in 1962, holding the position for 25 years until he stepped down in 1987

Beginnings: Bamber Gascoigne was the original presenter of University Challenge, which begun in 1962, holding the position for 25 years until he stepped down in 1987

Mr Paxman, evidently in Newsnight mode, chortled: 'Oh, come on, John! You have got to do better than that. This is a canard that has been trotted out by dreary columnists in the Daily Express and other similar papers.'

The Today presenter responded by saying 'I'm paid to ask questions. That's what we do on our programme.'

A riled Mr Paxman retorted 'Yeah? Well, ask some more interesting ones.'


The University Challenge host went on to explain that the programme had deliberately made questions more difficult over the years after finding that competitors knew increasing amounts about subjects like science, computing and culture.

But he acknowledged that in some areas, contestants were not as clued-up than their counterparts from the programme's early years, citing a recent edition when the students were unable to identify three hymn tunes, including The Lord Is My Shepherd.

Fearsome: John Humphrys is the presenter of television institution Mastermind

Fearsome: John Humphrys is the presenter of television institution Mastermind

The Today presenter then brought up Mr Paxman's own attempt to become a contestant on University Challenge in his student years.

'You tried to do it yourself - you wanted to go on University Challenge.'

Mr Paxman replied that he had 'failed as a student.'

'It was after dinner. Someone thought it would be quite a laugh to go along.'

Mr Humphrys was encouraged, 'I see, drink had been taken. What happened to you?'

Mr Paxman replied, 'I got nowhere near qualifying. There were people who knew a great deal more than me, of course.'

When Mr Humphrys asked the University Challenge host if he had tried to qualify again, he was told a firm 'no' and was accused of being 'misinformed'.

The Today host tried a different line of questioning, pointing out that the students who take part in his show might find it easier to retrieve and deliver answers than older people who could know more.

'You must find this too, as you get to your very advanced age,' said 62-year-old Mr Paxman.

Mr Humphrys, 69, hit back: 'My hearing's probably better than yours, but go on.'

Keen to bury the hatchet and secure the upper-hand, Mr Humphrys ended the interview on a generous note, wishing Mr Paxman 'another 17 years' as quizmaster on the show, with the clashing pair agreeing that there would be probably be a place on television for shows like University Challenge and Mastermind for years to come.

Battling it out....Listen to the interview here!



The comments below have been moderated in advance.

I heard the interview. I was in bed. I squirmed lying down. I don't think either of these men actually know how to just be relaxed and friendly. There was absolutely no need for either of them to be so attacking/defensive about the subject they were discussing. They were both just intensely showing off on air. Embarrassing for both of them I think. And don't now pass comment on what I have said. It is MY opinion, not yours ...!

Click to rate     Rating   3


Click to rate     Rating   (0)

They both need putting out to grass and replacing by intelligent, highly-educated people with normal-sized egos. Perhaps the BBC could find presenters for the 'Today' programme who are able to speak coherently, too, rather than umm-ing, aww-ing & errr-ing every few words. Listen out for it....

Click to rate     Rating   18

Paxman is an interrogator - Humphries is a poodle.

Click to rate     Rating   4

Two crashing bores clashing over who has the biggest.....erm...ego. This is news?

Click to rate     Rating   6

I have just listened to the interview and all I can hear is a light hearted banter between two interviewers. The talking across each other comes about because they can't see one another to interact with the signals of when a person has stopped talking. Happens all the time on the phone. People are just trying to make something out of absolutely nothing at all it seems to me. Just a couple of chums having a bit of a joke with each other.

Click to rate     Rating   67

To present a humorous tongue in cheek exchange between two seasoned presenters as if it was a genuine ill tempered contest between two rival prima donnas is about as far as it gets in misrepresentation! I heard the interview too, and formed a totally opposite impression; that it was a lot of fun; for them both!

Click to rate     Rating   72

I heard this. It was embarrasing to listen to. If these two are the best of the BBC we're being short-changed.

Click to rate     Rating   18

How many listeners" squirmed"? Do tell. Were they seated? Is it possible to squirm standing up? Don't forget it's the early bird who catches the....... And as the old song goes, "every squirm is sacred".

Click to rate     Rating   11

well what was it supposed to be about anyway

Click to rate     Rating   3

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.