Jeremy Paxman’s sudden appearance as Widow Twankey wasn’t the memorable thing about the University Challenge Christmas special.
For the first time ever, a University of Leeds team won the competition. Leeds now holds the distinction of being the first non-Oxbridge team to become the show’s Christmas champion.
Captained by Reverend Richard Coles (MA Theology and Religious Studies 2005), our champions also included Timothy Allen (Zoology 1992), Jonathan Clements (Japanese and East Asian Studies 1994) and Henry Gee (Zoology and Genetics 1984).
The team were pulled together by the producers and didn’t even meet until the morning of the first round, never mind find time to practice. Not that they needed it; through chance, they seemed to possess the perfect eclectic range of knowledge, from Richard’s familiarity with the flags of the world to Tim’s ability to speak Malay.
The world of University Challenge was familiar to one member of the team; Henry represented Leeds in 1983, achieving one of the show’s highest ever scores against University College Swansea. Yet other members of the Leeds alumni team had not had the opportunity to participate during their studies. Jonathan always felt short-changed. “It came off the air just before I went to Leeds, and came on again shortly after I graduated, so I missed any chance to be on it when I was actually a student.”
Top: the winning Leeds team: Jonathan Clements, Henry Gee, Richard Coles and Tim Allen Bottom: the finalists from Leeds and Wadham College, Oxford - Credit: ITV Studios
Credit: ITV Studios
This lack of experience didn’t stop them – they flew through the first round, beating Clare College Cambridge and securing a place in the semi-final against University College London. Among some guesses and gags, the team sailed past their London adversaries, scoring over 200 points.
As the grand final against Wadham College Oxford began, Tim revealed, to the audience’s amusement, that he had achieved the accolade of reaching the final without having answered a single question correctly. His luck changed with a question about the obituary of a Berlin-born musician. “I was having a bath in my hotel room the evening before the final, and I was watching a YouTube video about people who had died in 2019. André Previn came up and somehow that knowledge must have seeped in. When Jeremy starts asking questions it all becomes a bit of a blur, but I heard the words ‘obituary’ and ‘Berlin’, and buzzed. But then I thought, ‘it can’t be him – there’s no way that’s right’.”
Tim’s risk paid off, and with his crucial 10 points helping them along the way, the team went on to win a handsome victory. Modestly, they put their success down to simply “the right people at the right place at the right time.”
The Leeds alumni team didn’t know each other before deciding to take part; they just jumped right in and, together, created something a bit special. As Tim says: “The team worked because it was just a really good group. That’s Leeds Uni though – a fun place where everyone hangs out.”