15 January 2018 | Goingbegging
Heck of a spectator sport
Quizmasters are often sneered-at for their bogus air of omniscience, just because they've got the answers in front of them. But in the case of Bamber Gascoigne, what you saw was what you got. He was gold-standard Oxbridge at its highest and noblest, hosting a hit-show that reached out to millions who may never have read a book, but who knew a good spectator sport when they saw one.
Yet he arrived just as centuries of university culture were being turned on their head. Suddenly it was mass higher education, inevitably a cheapened experience. And among these masses was a startling new species - the girl student on the pill, ready to play havoc with the young male mind. Soon these social changes were being mirrored on the show. On came the (deliberately) irritating cuddly-toy mascots, a clear sign of dumbing-down. Then Miriam Margolyes obliged with the f-word, just ahead of Kenneth Tynan, as she boasts proudly in her old age. Fatuously, the Manchester team sabotaged their own chances in the contest by answering every question with "Karl Marx", "Trotsky" or "Che Guevara". The unreconstructed David Aaronovitch still uses 60's vocabulary about the new poly-universities, representing "our proletarian brothers and sisters in the struggle" and condemning the 'elitism' of allowing each of the Oxbridge colleges to field its own team. (He can't seem to see that if Oxford and Cambridge were allowed only one team each, they would inevitably sweep the board - a much more 'elitist' result.) No wonder Bamber Gascoigne's successor Jeremy Paxman said he wanted to reassure viewers that the taxpayer's money was not being wasted on higher education!
As always, it's fun to see clips of celebrities before they were famous, as Stephen Fry, John Simpson and Ian Hislop, among other early contestants, give us their considered wisdom, forty years on. A small quibble, but I would have been interested to know if the programme's enduringly catchy theme-tune 'College Boy' was written specially for the show.