Making history

This spring, the University of Bristol celebrated a historic moment as they made it to the final round of University Challenge for the first time. We caught up with team captain Tess Richardson to find out more about TV’s toughest quiz team tournament…

The University of Bristol – which was the subject of the University Challenge-inspired film Starter for 10, written by Bristol alumnus David Nicholls – made history after making it to the final round of the quiz show for the first time ever.

The team consisted of captain Tess Richardson (BSc Chemistry), Jacob McLaughlin (BSc Economics and Mathematics), Sam Kehler (Medicine) and Alejandro Ortega (MSci Physics and Philosophy), all of whom trained hard to make it onto the 52nd series of the show – and the final series in which 73-year-old veteran broadcaster Jeremy Paxman would be asking the questions after 29 years in the chair.

Going into the semi-finals, Bristol had the highest average score across the series and they were no doubt helped by their fifth teammate, their teddy mascot Isambear Kingdom Brunel, named after the famous 19th century engineer.

Although not victorious in the Grand Final, losing to Durham University by 35 points (155 points to 120), the team have earned their spot in the history books. This month, we caught up with Tess, who took us behind the scenes of TV’s toughest quiz team tournament…

How did it feel to captain the first team from the University of Bristol to make it to the final of University Challenge?
We knew Bristol had only ever made it to the quarter-finals before but that wasn’t really on our minds in the early stages of the competition. It wasn’t until we had gotten to the quarter-finals ourselves that we realised we could go the furthest Bristol has ever gone, which made making it the semis even more incredible.Captaining a university challenge team would’ve been a pretty unforgettable experience for me no matter how well we had done but making it to the final has made it even more special.

Tell us about the application process to get on to Bristol’s team and the moment you found out you made it in…
The application process began with an exam-style quiz of 100 questions, which whittled 150 entrants down to 20. The second round consisted of two buzzer rounds where two teams of five competed and from that a final 10 were chosen based on individual performance. The final selection process was another 5v5 buzzer scenario followed by an interview with the quiz society committee.
A few very long days later, I received an email offering me a position on the team, as the captain! My heart was racing and I couldn’t believe it.

How does each team apply for University Challenge? Can you talk us through how Bristol made it to the starting line-up?
There was a written exam and an interview with the producers. From this, they selected the 28 best teams to compete on the show from over 100 applicants.

How did you prepare personally, and as a team, to make sure you had all subjects covered?
The first few practice sessions involved discovering each other’s specialist subjects and focusing on those individually. Then we split general subjects like world geography evenly amongst ourselves to ensure full coverage. Whilst doing our own individual research, we also did weekly play alongs to old episodes, buzzing in and trying to outperform the teams on screen. This strategy worked for us throughout the competition, as practice sessions became more frequent.

What was it like to go up against Jeremy Paxman and to be competing in his very last episode? How do you think the programme will change without him?
I was pretty nervous sitting across from Jeremy before filming started, but once the questions started firing you soon forget where you are and enter a bit of a zone. It will certainly feel very different without him presenting, but I’m sure the spirit of the show will continue on. I will certainly be watching no matter who is sitting in the chair.

Tell us about the filming process – when you started filming, how each round was recorded and how you kept it all a secret for so long? Did you get to know the other teams backstage?
The filming process was pretty much what you see on TV. We’d have a few bits to refilm at the end of an episode if there were any technical difficulties the first time round but that’s about it. Keeping the result a secret was certainly a challenge and I didn’t manage to keep it from my close family and friends. We got to meet the teams and chat to them backstage before each match and celebrated over a few drinks with the Durham team after the final.

What was a particular highlight for you during your time on University Challenge? Does one question always stand out as being particularly memorable?
The highlight probably has to be winning the semi-final, knowing we were going to be in the final felt so surreal. A few questions stand out to me, both good and bad. Mishearing my team saying Motown and answering Motel might haunt me forever!

What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I’ve been working in the pharmaceutical industry for about nine months now. I enjoyed my run of TV quizzing but I think I’ll stick to pub quizzes from now on.