Birkbeck on University Challenge

Birkbeck’s University Challenge team stormed to victory in the first round of this year’s series. The programme aired on 10th August, with Birkbeck students facing the University of Reading. They secured a place in the next round with an impressive 295 points to Reading’s 50. Here, we catch up with the contestants Jonathan Willams (MA Classics), Joshua Mutio (MSc Politics, Philosophy and Economics), Jonathan Taylor (MSc Environment and Sustainability) and Nicky Clarke (PhD Early Modern History) on Birkbeck student life and their hopes for the next round… 

Pictured: This year’s Birkbeck University Challenge Team

Why did you choose to study at Birkbeck? 

Nicky: I did my MA here because I really liked the Early Modern History course and I also liked the idea that I wouldn’t necessarily be the oldest student in the room! 

Jonathan W: I’ve been interested in Classics since my schooldays, and I revived that interest by starting to study Latin and Greek in earnest a few years ago.  I took A-levels in both languages last year and wanted to carry on my studies so Birkbeck was the natural choice.  It has a great reputation in the subject, and it’s the perfect place to study if you want to maintain a career whilst studying.  It’s also close to where I live. 

Joshua: It meant I could study whilst keeping my full-time job as an analyst at NHS England. Plus, Birkbeck was the only university offering my preferred course for evening study, so it was a perfect match. 

Jonathan T: I chose Birkbeck because the course looked very good, and because the approach (part time, evening classes etc.) fitted well with other commitments. 

 What made you apply for University Challenge? 

Jonathan W: I’ve always enjoyed quizzing and am part of a regular pub quiz team. I saw the trials were on at the start of the year, and I thought, “why not? It should be fun!” 

Nicky: I didn’t get the chance to do it many moons ago as an undergraduate so I thought it would be fun to try this time around. 

Joshua: My hopes weren’t high, but I felt I had nothing to lose by auditioning. I‘ve always wanted to have something in common with Stephen Fry, too! 

Jonathan T: I applied for fun! 

What was your strategy ahead of the first round? 

Jonathan W: I think we wanted to cover as many subject areas as we could, so we each chose ones to swot up on.  I plumped for physics and chemistry, which seemed like a good idea at the time.  Not so much now…! 

Joshua: I’m not sure we had one… besides answering as many questions as possible, preferably correctly. 

Nicky: We practiced regularly. 

Jonathan T: Our strategy before the first round included several evenings of practice, we are doing the same now.   

What is Jeremy Paxman like? 

Joshua: A gent.  

Jonathan W: Very charming.  He even offered to show us the way to the studio from the stage door. 

Nicky: Pretty good making at teams feel less nervous. 

Have you filmed any further rounds? Can you give us an idea of how things go…? 

Joshua: Our next match is filmed in a few weeks, but we’ll be sworn to secrecy. 

Nicky: We have only recorded round one. The schedule has been disrupted by Covid and we don’t record again until September. 

What’s life been like since the programme aired? 

Jonathan W: I’ve had lots of lovely messages from people I haven’t been in touch with for ages, so that has been nice. 

Nicky: Much the same as before, though several old friends have said they nearly fell off their sofas when they saw me. 

Joshua: There were some articles about me in the tabloids, and Greg James spoke about me on Radio 1, which was all a bit bonkers. Besides that, totally ordinary. 

Jonathan T: Since the programme aired a surprising number of people have been in touch. It gets one of the largest audiences on BBC2 (around 2 million). 

Do you think that you can go all the way to the final? 

Nicky: To borrow a well-known sporting analogy, we are taking it one game at a time. 

Jonathan W: Absolutely! We’re certainly going to give it our best shot. 

Jonathan T: Too early to say how far we might go, the questions get tougher as the rounds proceed, and teams get quicker on the buzzer. 

Joshua: If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen… 

The team will appear in the next round in September 2020, we wish them the best of luck! 

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Alumni & Student Ambassador Officer

One thought on “Birkbeck on University Challenge”

  1. Fantastic, I tried out for a place on Birkbeck’s 2012/13 team, but didn’t even her past first tests. One of my nieces went to Reading, so I have even more reason to gloat now. Always very proud to be an Birkbeck alumnus.

    MA (Psychosocial Studies) Class of 2012.

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