Last Night’s TV – Wonderland: I Won University Challenge

by Lynn Connolly


I got the distinct impression during this show last night that someone in the commissioning unit at the BBC might have been ploughing through a whole mailbag full of programme suggestions and, in despair of ever finding anything by his/her deadline, decided this idea about revisiting ex-University Challenge winners would do.

It’s not that it was totally un-entertaining; there were many amusing moments, but I just kept coming back to the question of, why? It could probably have worked on winners from any popular game show from way-back-when, such as Sale of the Century. Actually, it would’ve been quite interesting to see if Jean from Cheshire ended up keeping hold of her canteen of cutlery or vacuum cleaner.

I guess the one thing that gave this show any relevance at all is that everyone on it was of superior intellect, and in that regard, it was quite interesting to note that having a super computer for a brain doesn’t necessarily mean you’re automatically going to qualify for a life less ordinary.

Take for instance John who appeared on the show representing the Open University; he’s now a postman and feels unfulfilled and regrets not using his opportunities to the full. Pamela, now in her sixties, is nuttier than squirrel poo, but a very enjoyable woman who I admired for her singularity, though her Morris dancing is something that isn’t perhaps a vocation Pamela was destined for. But if she enjoys it, and she does, then good for her.

Then there was Tony from Birkbeck College who was tired and emotional as a newt when he appeared on the show, and it seems, has been on too many occasions to count since. And there was Thor, who, like Tony, has dabbled with pretty much every potential addiction going. They both reckoned they did so just to give their brains something new to do, other than that tedious being-a-genius malarkey.

One of my favourites on the show was Luke who, unlike many of his peers, is very happy that he’s brainy and quite comfortable with himself. The only minor niggle about Tony is/was his proclivity to say “yes” about ten thousand times per breath of conversation.

But he summed up his contentment nicely by saying, “One of the abiding pleasures of my life is the things my mind can do.”

Alisa Pomroy who made this film seemed to take a gentle humour approach to all the film’s subjects, which was alternately touching and at times, patronising. But oddly enough, the latter element didn’t seem to detract from the programme at all. Perhaps it’s because she was clearly quite enthralled by everyone she met.

And again, though I’m still not entirely sure why we needed to revisit these folks, it wasn’t as much of a yawnfest as I’d at first feared. I suspected we were going to be regaled with stories of a lifetime of academic servitude and bookish bores who liked to spout facts. Luckily, few of the film’s subjects were boring, and many of them so quirky, one wonders if they shouldn’t be on a stage somewhere.

Overall though, I think my favourite segments were the archive footage moments; good old Bamber there with his specs and inexplicable hair, students puffing on fags – and having the odd cigarette – and sexist questions about pressure cookers. Brill.

Lynn is an editor and writer here at Unreality TV and is trained psychotherapist and the author of two books. She's addicted to soaps, period drama and reality TV shows such as X Factor, I'm A Celeb and Big Brother.