The day we won University Challenge

Paxman with the Idlers

Here Tom Hodgkinson of the Idler tells the story of the Idler’s legendary appearance on University Challenge in 2008.

IN 2008 the Idler was invited to put together a team for a special series of University Challenge. To represent us, I chose the learned gastronome Rowley Leigh, Blur’s science-loving bassist Alex James, and former pop star John Moore. The four of us travelled up to Manchester, where the show is recorded, the night before broadcast.

“Shall we get completely wrecked and do it on a hangover?”Rowley suggested. I immediately outlawed this suggestion, and we all got an early night. The following morning we learned that our opponents were the Financial Times. Clearly we didn’t have a hope. The FT had selected its brainiest four hacks from a pool of two hundred brilliant writers.

The Idler’s full time staff at that point numbered zero, since we all put it together in our spare time, and this motley crew was the best I could rustle up. We waited nervously in the Green Room and tried to work out which of the serious-looking gentlemen seated around us were going to be in the opposing team. We took our places at the table. Mr Paxman entered and asked the first question. “’Awake! For the sun who scatter’d into flight’ is the first line of wh…” “Bzzzz!” “Idler.” “’The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam,’” shot back Rowley. It was the beginning of a magnificent tour de force with Rowley firing back correct answer after correct answer, as the big-heads from the FT began to quake visibly.

The high point was when Rowley halted proceedings by accusing Paxman of making a mistake in the questioning. The question related to a German author and the answer given by the FT was Kafka. “Kafka was Czech!” Rowley complained. The cameras stopped rolling. Headphones came off. A researcher was sent running off and returned to say that Kafka was indeed Czech, and that the BBC had made a mistake. That destroyed the FT for ever. Readers, we won that day.

Having never won anything in my life I was elated.

We went out celebrating in Manchester. First Moore and James were thrown off the Coronation Street set. Then we met up with legendary DJ lard for a curry. Then we ended up at the hotel that Paxo was rumoured to be staying at. I sent a note to his room saying that the Idler team would like to buy him a drink. He duly appeared and joined our group. We slagged off MPs and had a very diverting conversation.



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