Poor old Monday. As days go it doesn't have a lot going for it. It's synonymous with dread and being far away, either in a distance or existential sense, from where you want to be. Rebecca Black is unlikely to write a song extolling its virtues. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. And the light has been bent into the unlikely shapes of a cantankerous news journalist and an ace poker player.
As it happens, one of my favourite TV rituals now takes place on a Monday, namely the high brow public service broadcaster quiz hour from 8pm. On BBC 2 Paxman's berating of undergrads on University Challenge kicks proceedings off, which is followed by a hop over to BBC4 for the toughest quiz on TV, Victoria Coren's Only Connect. Feeling intellectually inadequate has never been so enjoyable.
University Challenge has long been a staple of my viewing schedule (when I was younger I would basically watch anything that even slightly resembled a quiz show. Remember Turnabout? I do) but in recent years something strange has been happening: I'm able to get a bunch of answers right, as opposed to feeling proud that I understood the questions. One of the other things that always bewilders me about Uni Challenge (apart from the questions on turbo-physics) is the shocking blind spots some of these well-trained mental athletes have. The longest reigning British monarch of the 18th century? George III, of course. The third biggest state in Brazil? Mato Grosso, duh! Who played bass in Blur? Umm...Edvard Grieg?
More interesting though than the Achilles heels of the competitors are the competitors themselves, all of whom can be broken into seven easily identifiable groups: The all-powerful captain you're rooting for, the all-powerful captain you bloody hate, the mature student who if he were in a Disney film would be encouraging the team from the sky in which clouds had taken on his past form, the girl who looks like a character from Blossom, the girl who looks like Lisa Loeb, the one that only knows foreign languages/the periodic table/incalculable equations, and the one who never says anything. You will never see anyone competing on Uni Challenge who isn't one of these people.
There are two other characters that make the show what it is though. There's Jeremy "Hell Is Other People" Paxman, who has amazingly presented the show for 17 years and hasn't thrown his shoe at anyone once, and Roger Tilling the announcer, who really starts to shine in the last few minutes of a close contest and he gets ever so excited.
Once Roger Tilling gets to the pouring-water-over-himself stage you know it's not long til you have to switch over for Only Connect, and the altogether more welcoming yet somehow no less stern Victoria Coren. If my anecdotal projections are in any way accurate, Coren will get at least 700 emails a day from people asking to be her boyfriend. She has that kind of effect. Intelligent, beautiful wry women with a penchant for thinly-veiled ribald references who made porn for their birthday will do that.
It's a good thing there's someone as compelling as Victoria heading the show though, as the quiz itself borders on the impregnable. Two teams of like-minded individuals (trade unionists, orchestral musicians, linguists, what have you) have to find connections in puzzles played at random by choosing one of six Egyptian hieroglyphs like "twisted flax" or "eye of Horus". You can pick up what they are quick enough, but it must have been embarrassing outcomes in the first few outtakes: "Yeah, can I have the three zig zaggy lines please?" You mean 'water'? Oh, right yeah".
After that comes the wall, with which you can play along at home. Sixteen things pop up on a board, and you have to put them in four connected groups of four. Which is even more difficult than it sounds. The game ends with a series of words, places and things with all the vowels taken out and the consonants staggered weirdly. This is followed by a saucy quip from Victoria (at least, I always try and think of it as such), and a disbelieving look at the clock to see it's nine already from me, rueing how quickly the last hour of quizzing/couch sitting has gone in. Switching off has never been so mentally stimulating.