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Between the cerebral and the warm

University Challenge host Bamber Gascoigne was the quintessential Englishman

Artillery Row

During the course of a career that spanned five decades, Bamber Gascoigne wrote dozens of books that encompassed everything from serious historical titles, often in support of television documentaries that he had presented, to light-hearted children’s books revolving around the character “Fearless Freddy”. He worked as a theatre critic, was an informed and thoughtful expert on the Mughal Empire in India and served as a patron or trustee of numerous cultural institutions, including the Tate, National Gallery, National Trust and Royal Opera House. He was also one of those rare public figures who could be recognised simply by his distinctive Christian name. And yet, with his death from a short illness at the age of 87, there will be only one headline for all of the obituaries: “University Challenge host Gascoigne dies”.

Many of his catchphrases have passed into the national consciousness

Although he may have been irritated at his other achievements being so substantially eclipsed by his role as a television quizmaster, there can be little doubt that, for those of a certain vintage, Bamber Gascoigne simply was University Challenge. Although his replacement Jeremy Paxman has in fact presented the show for longer than he did for 28 years so far, to Gascoigne’s 25 it was his predecessor who developed the show’s unique feel, pitched somewhere between the cerebral and the warm.

It began in 1962, inspired by the American show College Bowl, with several distinctive features. Not only were its contestants all university-aged (although older postgraduate and mature students soon began creeping onto teams), but there was no cash prize or individual glory, simply the honour of taking part and, ideally, winning the trophy for one’s institution. Its questions were difficult, but not unfairly so, and both contestants and viewers watching at home were always pleasantly surprised when they found themselves keeping pace with the students being quizzed by Bamber. Even if one dissatisfied correspondent complained about his “pansy bastard strangulated voice”, he soon became a much-beloved icon.

Many of his catchphrases “fingers on the buzzers” and “I’ll have to hurry you” have passed into the national consciousness, as well as being part of Paxman’s own repertoire of sayings (to say nothing of the brusquer “Oh, do come on”, which it is hard to imagine the gentlemanly Gascoigne saying). One of them, “your starter for 10”, later gave rise to David Nicholls’ excellent debut novel Starter for 10, a warm and witty account of a naïve student on a University Challenge team falling in love with one of his teammates. Gascoigne, naturally, appeared as a character in both the novel and in its subsequent film adaptation, as played by Mark Gatiss; Nicholls today called Gatiss’ performance as the host “uncanny”.

He was also parodied as “Bambi” by Griff Rhys-Jones in a 1984 episode of the sitcom The Young Ones, in which the students from Scumbag College found themselves competing against Footlights College. It was not known what Gascoigne made of Rhys-Jones’ performance, in which the actor declared, in character, “This is where I get something back…if it hadn’t been for the chance to present University Challenge and start a new life, I’d be giving executive relief to woodland creatures to this very day.” When asked by Rik Mayall’s irrepressible Rick “Are you going to let us win?”, “Bambi” replied, with lordly disdain, “No, of course not. The posh kids win, they always do.” This was an exaggeration, but during the 25 years Gascoigne presented the show, it was won by Oxbridge colleges thirteen times, with their coming runner-up on a further twelve occasions: a suggestion either of intellectual genius or a structural bias towards the two universities.

Gascoigne dealt with the impertinence in suitably authoritative fashion by banning Manchester

Sometimes, Gascoigne could be irritated by the attention-seeking antics of those who appeared on the show. An especially notorious example of this occurred in 1975 when a University of Manchester team, with the writer and broadcaster David Aaronovitch amongst its number, deliberately tried to sabotage the episode in which they appeared by answering “Marx”, “Lenin”, “Trotsky” or “Che Guevara” to every question. Their rationale for so doing was as a protest at Oxford and Cambridge being allowed to enter a team per college, rather than per institution. Aaronovitch subsequently recalled meeting the host beforehand and realising that “he was a legendary figure, for all that he was the class enemy… and yet we were going to have to destroy his programme, his baby”. Gascoigne dealt with the impertinence in suitably authoritative fashion by ensuring that Manchester was banned from participating in the programme for several years, until the rebellious taint had been expunged.

When he wasn’t being portrayed in cinema by award-winning actors or irritated by socialist students, Gascoigne led a rich intellectual life, subsidised by his University Challenge earnings; he described this as “writing unprofitable books [thanks to earning] money for not spending much time doing something”. A 1968 play of his, Leda Had A Little Swan, would have explored the ever-vexed topic of bestiality, had it not been banned from appearing on the stage by the then-all powerful Lord Chamberlain’s office. In later life he devoted himself to a vast online historical encyclopaedia, History World, which prefigured Wikipedia in its painstakingly researched (and considerably more accurate) information. Only the unkind might have compared it to Edward Casaubon’s Key To All Mythologies.

Gascoigne came from a wealthy upper-class family and was educated in the usual privileged fashion (Eton, Cambridge). It was somehow typical of him that, at the age of 80, he inherited a large country house in Surrey, West Horsley Place, from a great-aunt. It now houses a 700-seat opera house, Grange Park Opera, after his initial objections to its construction were overruled by his wife Christina. It will be a lasting tribute to this quintessential Englishman, whose erudite passions and interests may not be popular in our grab-bag world of social media and online discord, but whose light-touch inspiration on our cultural life will last for, hopefully, many decades to come. That is the best starter for ten that anyone could hope to have.

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