14 Feb How I Made Paxman Blush (and coincidentally lost University Challenge…)
With Pete Stevens’ rather successful article letting the cat partially out of the bag, I concluded that the time was ripe to tell the story of one nineteen-year-old university contestant, a load of questions she couldn’t answer, and a daring outfit…
In 2002, I began an English degree at the extremely tiny Corpus Christi College in Cambridge, which hadn’t seen a team on University Challenge in anyone’s memory – though I hear another team is at last going on the show this year, so watch this space.
Contrary to what I thought before we applied, you can’t just put a team in for the show and immediately get on TV. So when four of us with very little background in quizzing except a few school competitions and Christmas games of Trivial Pursuit decided to enter, We had to go through a series of tests to get there. The first hurdle was a general knowledge test we completed in our own time which was said to be all but impossible to google (yes, they did have google when I was 19. And computers and mobiles and things. But it was, of course, marginal, and the phones were approximately the same size as my entire handbag.). I’m not sure if this was true. I didn’t try the googling tactic as my slightly paranoid thinking about the power of Jeremy Paxman made me afraid that if I tried, he would Find Out Somehow.
We sent off our efforts and waited, and to our mild surprise, found that we had made it to the next round. This was an altogether more complex procedure. We had to sit in a room with a TV person, and prove that we could actually communicate in the English language when faced with stressful circumstances (this is harder than it sounds). Thereafter we filled in a series of questions as a team, where we scored as long as one of us answered a question right, and we had to fill in our availability for the show itself. Oddly enough, I did better at the former than the latter, since my “I think I’m busy” for the week of the most important rowing races of the term didn’t get logged somewhere, and when we did get our place, it was to find that I was filming over the top of the last day of racing. Not so great when you’re the boat club captain and your college has put your exams over the other remaining days…
But that’s a less significant story for another day. On with University Challenge. We arrived late on Friday evening, exhausted after a long train journey to Manchester (all of us) and a really crazy week of trying to sit exams and organise a crew to make it out to race without me (just me). On Saturday, we made our way to the studio, where we had the first actual argument we had ever had as a team.
It concerned the top I wanted to wear, which was in fact the same zippy number you can see in the picture at the top of this blog. The one male member of our team felt that the way I was wearing it was somewhat too revealing. I was unwilling to sacrifice my very carefully chosen zip position in order to keep him happy. It might have turned nasty if it hadn’t been for the revelation that the light-up surname that was going to be in front of me actually covered up the problem entirely. Instead of a potentially over-revealing line of cleavage, what the viewer would see was in fact “LODGE” in capital letters.
And then the competition began. Among other things that it would be useful to know at this point were the following: 1) We were all 18 or 19 years old, except for our History of Art student who I think might have been 21; 2) We were up against the Royal Northern College of Music, which we thought was a win, as they’d only know about music; 3) It turned out that our opposition were in fact all about 35, and had previously taken multiple other degrees in variously chemistry, world literature, classical sculpture, astrophysics and trivial pursuit.*
All the apparent disadvantages would have been insignificant, however, against the one really significant unfairness of the show. The other team had a really not-cricket tactic where they kept buzzing in and answering the questions correctly.
Put simply, we sucked. I specifically sucked. I only answered three questions, and the one redeeming feature of the show for me (where I insulted the other team’s dress sense) didn’t make it to the final cut. There was little to shout about – and little did I know that I was about to experience my one Claim to Fame that I would be able to look back on and laugh to myself over.
We made our dolorous way backstage to sit around with the other teams, drinking tea and commiserating with the unsuccessful, and covertly flicking sugar and biscuit crumbs at the winners. At this point, none other than question-master Jeremy Paxman generously joined us. He made charming conversation about getting ahead, about choice of career, and about university life.
The part where I come in is when I sat at the opposite side of the table from him, with my name no longer emblazoned in lighted letters in front of me. For five solid minutes, dear, impressionable Mr. Paxman conversed with the chap from the Royal Northern College of Music who was sitting next to him. And in all that time, his eyes never once left the point where my zip ended and my cleavage began.
Obviously, I wasn’t going to get too angry about this. My nineteen-year-old self had worn said top for a reason. However, when Jeremy eventually happened to glance six inches higher and caught my eye, I wasn’t above giving him a look that I think could be best described with the acronym “WTF”?
And then it happened, that famous moment that was to shape my early career** – Jeremy Paxman, the scourge of politicians and theorists alike, blushed. It was one of those really wonderful blushes that starts at the collar and works its way right up to the hairline.
So in reality, you could say that Jeremy made himself blush. But I’ve still got it on my (non-work-related) CV, because who wouldn’t want to feel like they’d got a rather strangely non-feminist one over on a chap like Paxman?
I hope that Jeremy remembers the incident, although it might be that such things are more common than I think. Perhaps, off-screen, Mr. Paxman is a blushing English rose. Either way, it’s an incident I could hardly fail to write up.
*This might be a little exaggerated
**This is definitely exaggerated
Gytha Lodge is an award-winning theatrical writer and director, as well as a single parent of one totally nuts three-year-old.
She has a hit online fantasy series for young adults (and grown-ups) on Wattpad, the first book of which is the Watty Award nominated The Fragile Tower.