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The 2017 Merton College University Challenge team with Jeremy Paxman

University Challenge: Merton through to second round after defeating KCL

October 2017

A team from Merton scored a convincing win over opponents from King's College London in Monday's first round contest, coming away winners with an impressive 285 points to KCL's 110. Captain Leonie Woodland, now a second-year Physics undergraduate, led team-mates Edward Thomas (History, now graduated), Alex Peplow (History, postgraduate), and Akira Wiberg (Molecular & Cellular Medicine, postgraduate) to victory, answering questions on topics as diverse as religions of the Asian subcontinent, serial publications of the nineteenth century, astronomy, and the Cold War.

After the episode was broadcast, Edward and his fellow contestants wrote this account of their experiences:

As any non-Mertonian is happy to tell you, all members of the college spend all their time working in the library. Putting up with such slander is a small price the college pays for its peerless academic reputation. Yet in one high-profile area of the academic world, Merton has fallen behind its rivals.

We haven’t had a team on BBC 2’s University Challenge since 2011. We’ve only won the competition once, in 1980. That year, as all Mertonian history students know, a team including their legendary tutor, Steve Gunn, won the title by beating Queens' College, Cambridge, who fielded none other than QI supremo Stephen Fry.

This year, though, we put an end to our six-year absence. On an otherwise unremarkable mid-Hilary Term Wednesday, the programme’s producers informed us that we had a place on the 2017/18 series.

This was the culmination of a selection process that had started the term before. Firstly, the college had to put forward a team. In time-honoured fashion, roughly 30 students sat a trial quiz under the auspices of the JCR’s Information and Returning Officer (Anna Gatrell, 2015). This number was whittled down to the eight highest-scoring candidates, from whom the final five were selected by means of a further quiz.

The team comprised Alex Peplow (2013), Edward Thomas (2014), Akira Wiberg (2016), and Leonie Woodland (2016), with Caleb Rich (2014) as reserve. We decided that Leonie should be captain. She had the highest cumulative total from the trials and, as the team’s only undergraduate fresher, she brought with her some youthful zeal – between the rest of us, we had eight unsuccessful attempts at getting on the programme.

The next stage was to complete a written quiz. This was to be done as a team in timed conditions, under Anna’s watchful eye. Happily, we didn’t find it too much of an ordeal and it gave us an opportunity to identify gaps in our collective knowledge. While waiting to find out whether we’d secured an interview with the production team, we divided the sum of all human knowledge among ourselves (or at least tried to) in an attempt to fill those gaps.

We started practising and doing quizzes together. We were nothing if not serious, albeit sanguine at the same time – the probability of success was low. To put things in perspective, in a normal year something north of 120 teams apply to be on University Challenge; of those, only 28 reach the first televised round.

Just after the end of Michaelmas Term, we heard that we would be interviewed at the beginning of Hilary. We spent our Christmas breaks taking the weekend newspaper quizzes slightly more seriously than usual.

As the date of our interview approached, we thought about strategies for making ourselves as interesting and camera-friendly as possible. We considered co-ordinating outfits, dyeing our hair… In the end we decided to be ourselves and hope that persistence and our natural charm would pay off.

Once we’d been asked probing questions about our life stories and our reasons for applying to the programme, we had to sit a further quiz, with the added difficulty of not being allowed to collaborate. The questions were significantly harder than those we’d faced before and the presence of other auditioning teams piled on the pressure. Afterwards, we felt that collectively we had done fairly well, though of course we had no idea how our score would fare against the other entrants’.

A couple of weeks later we received the surprising news of our success. That meant we had just under a month to prepare for our first-round contest. We began practising using old editions of the programme on the internet, which meant effectively having to play eight people at once! We also entered the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Quiz to give ourselves ‘live’ buzzer practice. It all started to feel rather real when we had to sign contracts and make travel arrangements.

When the day arrived, our journey up to Manchester was thankfully somewhat less chaotic than that experienced by The Young Ones in 1984. After our arrival at Media City UK, we had plenty of time before our match, which, we were advised, would be the last of the first round and would be against King’s College, London. Our trip to the make-up room took us past the studios of an eclectic mix of programmes. We glimpsed the likes of Newsround, BBC Sport, Blue Peter, and Jeremy Kyle. The last of these was particularly worrying – had we been mistaken for a dysfunctional family? The dressing rooms labelled ‘Roger Tilling’ and ‘Jeremy Paxman’ were more reassuring.

Once we had been beautified we returned to the green room. The moment of truth seemed imminent and the tension made swotting almost impossible. We resolved not to allow ourselves to be put off by our opponents’ ostentatious display of obscure knowledge. Finally, it was time to go.

If walking onto the set was a strange experience, chatting to Jeremy Paxman was positively surreal; hearing him say "Here’s your first starter for ten" was even more so. Before any time at all we had got through the first picture round, the music round, the second picture round…

The questions ranged from English stately homes to the pigeonhole principle. Though at one point our distinct lack of football knowledge was laid bare, we managed to get a fair number of points, though keeping track of the score was not on anyone’s mind during the contest. At the gong we had 285 points, trumping KCL’s 110 and seeing us safely through to the second round. Relief mixed with satisfaction as we realised we had achieved the highest score of all the first-round matches.

The adrenaline of competition had made the recording seem to go incredibly quickly. Indeed, we were in the studio for less than an hour – the match was played almost exactly as it is seen on screen. A couple of Paxman’s questions and the contestants’ answers had to be re-recorded, but that was all.

On the way home I was surprised at the number of questions we could remember between us. Already the experience was oddly distant and the fact that we wouldn’t hit the nation’s television screens for several months made it seem all the more disconnected from the present. Nonetheless, we returned to Oxford safe in the knowledge that we would soon be back in Manchester. We would have to do it all over again.

The episode is available to watch again until 23 November via the BBC iPlayer; the date of Merton's second-round match, and their opponents, have yet to be announced.