Being on University Challenge: A Reflection

By Matthew Toynbee, Third Year Mathematics Undergraduate

With the 2018-19 series of University Challenge drawing to a close last Monday (15th April), I thought I would offer some of my thoughts and reflections on the show.

I’ve always been an inquisitive person. Since a young age, I’ve loved reading and learning new things – and remembering them too. I spent many a while reading things like lists of capital cities and flags, and committing them to memory.

My first experience with University Challenge came when I was about 15 or 16, when I first watched it on TV with my dad. Since then, I’ve been hooked. Finally, all that time I spent learning ‘useless’ facts came in handy. At first, I started playing along for fun, but it soon became competitive when I started keeping track of my score. When I started getting scores of 20 or 30 questions on an episode, I started to think to myself that this was something I could do. Since then it was one of my main ambitions of being in University to be able to make it onto the show.

Coming to Durham in 2016, it was soon announced that try-outs would be taking place for the inter-college tournament. I signed up and made it on to the John’s team. Although we won the inter-college tournament that year, the TV trials didn’t go so well. That meant my dream just had to wait.

Undeterred, I tried again the following year, making the John’s team again. Although we were eliminated in the quarter-finals, I was surprised to receive an e-mail that I had been selected to represent the Durham team in the 2018-19 series! On top of that, I’d get to be captain of the team!

The next stage was the interview in Edinburgh with the producers. We didn’t get off to an auspicious start, as train cancellations meant that Cam Yule was going to be late to the interview. Furthermore, when we heard the selection test questions, we all thought that it was the end of the road for us given how tough they turned out to be. So, you can imagine the surprise when I rushed out of my Algebra lecture to take the phone call that confirmed our place on the TV!

Now that we were going to appear on TV, it was time to put in quite a bit of effort. After all, nobody wanted to go on the show looking silly. We decided to meet every week for training sessions; borrowing a set of comedy buzzers from the Quiz Society and reading questions from a collected book. This was the time where I got to know my absolutely fantastic team mates a lot better: Sian Round, fellow Johnian and a particularly dab hand on art and film; Cam Yule, whose literature (and cricket) knowledge proved invaluable; and Ben Murray, our resident scientist, helping us to pick up points in chemistry and physics. Special mention goes to Will Tams, our reserve, who patiently came to training every week and was with us every step of the way despite not having appeared on the screen itself.

Finally, on a fateful weekend in February, we made our way to MediaCity in Salford for the show! It was a real eye-opening experience, seeing the behind-the-scenes of TV programmes. (The make-up room was particularly interesting!)

 I was a real bag of nerves that day; I still didn’t know how we would fare and how good the opposition would be. Eventually, we were led to take our seats in the famous studio.

This is a photo of us before our very first match against Strathclyde. Although you can’t tell, I was shivering in this photo from the nerves of playing. Would we embarrass ourselves on national TV? In the end, I think we did far better than any of us were expecting: with a 360-55 win, we managed to break all sorts of record (the highest score since 2000!).

I think I can speak for all of us when I say that every step of the journey went further than any of us could have ever imagined. We kept coming back for more, taking out Keble College Oxford in the second round and then Glasgow and Edinburgh in the quarter-final stages to reach the semi-finals. Having never thought we would even make the TV, being one of the top 4 teams of the series was both amazing and humbling.

Unfortunately, our run was broken in the semi-finals by Edinburgh in our rematch. They were later crowned series champions, so I think we can kind of say that we managed to beat the champions (!).  We still managed to make it to the after-show party though, and met the inimitable Paxo himself!

The support throughout the whole process has been absolutely amazing. Besides the production team (they are all stars – extremely kind and helpful), the support of friends and family have been truly wonderful.

To everyone who’s been supporting us throughout this entire journey, I want to say that I feel so honoured that I’ve been able to make your Monday evenings just a little bit brighter. Though we didn’t quite make it all the way, it’s been amazing having you all root for us. It’s certainly a change from the sometimes nasty atmosphere in the press and on Twitter. The other contestants, too, have been such lovely people to meet and having their collective support has been a real comfort. We’ve definitely made friends through the show and we do still keep in touch.

So, it looks like University Challenge is at an end for me… or is it? While I’ll never be able to take part again, it doesn’t mean I’ve stopped quizzing! In March I was part of the Durham team at the British Student Quiz Championships, where we came a respectable 8th of 28. I will also be the President of Durham’s Quiz Society for 2019-20, where I hope to help the next prospective University Challengers get on to the show and succeed.

If you want to talk to me about University Challenge, either as a prospective contestant or simply as a fascinated viewer, drop me a Facebook message or e-mail me at

I hope that Johnians will continue to take part in quizzes like this and I hope to see some of you next year!

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