University Challenge, it’s fair to say, is knitted into British culture in all sorts of odd and interesting ways. The only other parallels I can think of for cultural influence and longevity are shows like Blue Peter and Dr Who. The headline for this post, for example, is instantly recognizable to pretty much anyone over here. It’s actually host Jeremy Paxman’s opening line in the show. I’m not quite sure what makes it so durable: there are no big money prizes and no film or book deals tacked on after a win. Nothing, in fact, apart from a rather odd trophy and a few all expenses paid trips to, ahem, Manchester (where filming takes place).
University Challenge is, in fact, a celebration of sheer braininess. It pits two British Universities in teams of four against each other and asks them increasingly difficult (and more rapidly delivered) questions. Oxford and Cambridge — rather than entering corporately, as entire universities — enter only as Colleges (up to five each). People have complained about this, calling it unfair, but I have a strong feeling that the system dilutes Oxbridge sufficiently to allow other universities a chance at the win. Reduce Oxbridge to their corporate identities, and I have no doubt that four Rhodes Scholars would face off against four Gates Scholars almost every year, and be pretty much unstoppable. The greater British public would soon grow tired of their most venerable game show coming to resemble the Boat Race.
The power of a single (small) Oxford college is highlighted by this year’s winner, Corpus Christi, or more particularly, Corpus Christi’s gifted captain, Classics DPhil student Gail Trimble. Corpus Christi (student population 400) knocked off the University of Manchester (student population 40,000). The strangest part of the whole deal is that Trimble’s superb performance (she scored 2/3 of her team’s points throughout this year’s series) has uncorked a bottle of national soul-searching.
Dubbed ‘the Brainiest Person in Britain’ and suddenly exposed to a mass of media attention, she has been fiercely attacked and defended throughout the British press and across Britblogistan. She’s even been invited to do an arty photo shoot for a lads’ magazine (the answer was a polite and slightly arch ‘no’):
“Would you believe it, my brother received a Facebook message from Nuts yesterday morning saying ‘can we have your sister’s e-mail address, we want her to do a tasteful shoot’,” Miss Trimble told BBC Breakfast.
“So of course he sent them an answer saying, ‘seriously mate, would you give your sister’s contact details to Nuts?”‘
Thereafter, she was interviewed on half a dozen chat shows, profiled throughout the country’s still large and diverse print media and discussed in hushed tones around water coolers across the nation. Her name was increasingly twinned with that of Jade Goody, a reality telly star who seems to oscillate from adulation to revulsion. She’s loved at the moment, because she’s dying of cervical cancer, but she was once reviled for not knowing that East Anglia was part of Britain (she called it, somewhat pathetically, ‘East Angular’, and thought it a foreign country). Yet she made money, and became ‘famous for being famous’. Why do we love Jade Goody and vilify a University Challenge brainbox? ran one despairing headline.
Some of it is undoubtedly gender inflected, something Trimble has observed herself:
Some reaction has been less pleasant, with hostile comments posted on blogs early on in the series. She has been ridiculed on social networking sites for being too intellectual, and one newspaper this week asked: “Why do so many hate this girl simply for being clever?”
Miss Trimble – bespectacled, with long brown hair and a beaming, dimpled smile – said she had been taken aback by the hostility, after experiencing no such problems at school or university.
“Suddenly there’s this thing that involves being in the public eye, and I find all this reaction to me, and I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case if I wasn’t a woman.
“It is nice when people are saying nice things about my appearance, and not nasty things, but it’s sad that they feel it necessary to say things about my appearance at all.”
Some of it, however, is class inflected, the closest Britain comes to the culture wars. Buried in the angst is a dislike of snobbery and an argument over what constitutes ‘really useful knowledge’. Gail Trimble is privately educated, the daughter of two scientists and — crucially — unashamed of her cleverness, revealed attractively in this longer interview. In an attempt to bring her down, The Sun made a point of asking her five questions drawn from popular culture, none of which she knew. Infuriatingly for the denizens of the Sun (and to the even greater irritation of those who read The Sun), she did not seem to care. The idea that there may be hierarchies of knowledge is just a bit too freaky for some, and the venom of those casually dismissed (‘all the bits of Britain not for export’, says one Canadian friend over here) was on serious display:
“Not for some time have I been so angry at a complete stranger as I was with this Trimble character. Each answer was met with a smug grin or a cocky smirk. My normally placid girlfriend ended half-poetically seething: ‘Not a friend did she own at school’, before physically turning her back on the screen so she didn’t have to bear this odious little smug specimen.”
Speaking to the Observer yesterday, Trimble said: “I’ve been aware of the attention and the things that are being said. It makes me realise how people see you as a person and how you come across on TV, as opposed to how you have always imagined yourself to be in real life. I don’t know quite know how some people can get an impression of who you are having only been on a couple of half-hour TV programmes.
Intellect, gender and class conspired to combine into a toxic and hateful stew symbolic of these divided Isles, where — as one blogger observed — aspiration has been ditched in favour of spite:
This seems symbolic of the anti-aspirational attitudes found everywhere today. OK, Ms Trimble comes from a supportive middle class home and has had educational advantages. We should be saying, ’Let’s try to give more people those benefits’ but instead the attitude is, ‘Let’s bring her down!’ It’s a far cry from the Mechanics’ Institutes and Workers’ Educational Societies of old. Eheu!
That last sentence is particularly telling, and offers a hint that the politics of envy often associated with certain elements on the political left is, I think, relatively new. Ruskin College and places like it were built in order to give the disadvantaged the same things that Gail Trimble has enjoyed. Much of the early history of the Labour movement (in its broadest sense, and so taking in similar efforts in Australia) was about hope and progress, not a limiting insistence that all must have prizes or that all knowledge is equally valid.
There is another and darker message, too. Often in political philosophy — think, for example, of John Rawls in the development of his difference principle — intellectual brilliance is seen as a form of unearned merit, the consequence of lucky genetics (IQ is largely heritable) and a solid upbringing. The more I see of the treatment meted out to the very clever, however, the more I’m coming to doubt this. If intelligence is a form of unearned merit at birth, then it is rapidly earned as life progresses.
And Gail Trimble has paid her ‘merit tax’ in full this week.
[Two disclosures: I knew two of the Sun's posers (cinema buff, so sue me), and I've just been made captain of Brasenose's University Challenge team for the next season. Perhaps I can plead Australian ignorance ... because until this week, I had no idea what this show means to some people].
UPDATE: There’s an excellent and very thoughtful response to this post over at Fizzog’s blog. Highly recommended.