How ‘anarchist’ students BAN Manchester from the University Challenge


With four impressive victories to their name, Manchester are joint record holders of the University Challenge champions.

University of Manchester masterminds have come through the competition several times to join the Quiz Hall of Fame alongside an Oxford college.

But, in 1975, our town became famous for all the wrong reasons when a group of self-proclaimed “anarchists” staged a protest while the show was being taped.

The students had entered the competition for the sole purpose of “destroying the show”, according to quiz master Bamber Gascoigne, who died aged 87 last week.

In fact, their protest caused such a scene that it is believed that Granada Studios banned the University of Manchester from recording another team for several years.

In the BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Your Starter For Ten: 50 Years of University Challenge’, two members of the team recalled how the revolt began.

Team captain Quentin Smith, the architect of the now infamous protest, said students were asked to stand for the team of four, which was then chosen in an election.

One of those who stood up was David Aaronovitch, now a well-known journalist, who was frustrated with the ‘elitism’ of the University Challenge, which mainly featured teams from Oxbridge as their colleges were allowed into separate teams.

With an army of around 200 supporters, the Manchester side descended on Granada studios on Quay Street to take on their opposition from Downing College, Cambridge.

Smith said the team knew that if they went too far, the show would never air and their efforts would be wasted.

But they had a plan.

“We decided that we would not make any political speeches or attempt anything that would be offensive and prevent the show from airing,” Smith explained.

“We would effectively pass ourselves off as fools.”

The Manchester University Challenge team from 2013

Minutes before the cameras started rolling, Smith said his entire team had pinned “Glad to be Gay” badges on their shirts, causing the cameras to be readjusted to miss them from the shot.

“Bamber still thought it was just student jokes and stopped the program and said okay, let’s all have a good laugh,” he said.

“He said a rude word or two, treating them like minors in the audience, like they were going to make their system laugh, and then we continued the program.”

Footage from the show, which surprisingly continued to air despite the scenes, has unfortunately been lost.

But it was widely reported that the team’s first-round responses centered around the theme of revolution.

Aaronovitch said: “I was told, with great authority, that we answered every question by the name of a famous revolutionary – Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky – and I was told that he was established that this is what happened.

“That wasn’t quite my recollection.

“My recollection is that we just gave nonsensical answers in the first place.

“I remember one of our panel members said that the road from Kyoto to another place was the Yellow Brick Road for example, and the island between Honshu and Kyushu was called Shushu.”

Eventually, Aaronovitch explained, the producers “read the riot act” to the crew and they ended their protest.

“We were then told to take it more seriously,” he said.

“My competitive edge kicked in and we actually managed to get 40 points.”

Bamber Gascoigne, presenter of the University Challenge in 1992 – the quiz master died aged 87 this week

Team captain Smith admits he doesn’t regret what he and his teammates have done.

“If you don’t seize the opportunities in life, they pass you by and you have to live with that feeling of lost opportunity for the rest of your life,” he said.

In fact, he thinks their display may even have changed the history of the competition.

“I’d like to think that helped democratize the program and the fact that it covers a much wider selection of universities and made people think differently about university students,” he said.

But for Aaronovitch, regret for what he had done set in “almost immediately”.

He said a page of letters in the Manchester Evening News made him realize he might have upset his fellow citizens.

One letter, he recalled, suggested that the university and its many buildings had taken up a lot of space in the city, and the least the students could have done was not to ridicule Mancunians on television.

“I watched and that and thought yeah – I might have missed that aspect,” Aaronovitch said.

“There were people who really liked it whose taste and enjoyment I had waywardly interfered with and so actually the terrible truth is that I regretted it almost immediately.”

Gascoigne went on to explain how the students had “behaved rather badly” during the recording.

“They came to destroy the show and responded to silly responses,” he told an interviewer, but added that the students “turned out to be a really great team actually.”

Despite the hiccups, Manchester rose through the ranks to become one of the most successful schools University Challenge has seen.

The University of Manchester and Magdalen College, Oxford have the most wins, with four each, with Manchester last winning the title in 2013.

A total of 913 episodes were shown on ITV between 1962 and 1987, before the series was renewed by the BBC in 1994 with new host Jeremy Paxman.

The series is now filmed in Salford.


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