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Beating the Bully: How to School Paxman on University Challenge

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It's the same look that Pelé gives Bobby Charlton across the conference room at UEFA Champions League draws. It's the same look exchanged between the old boys in uniform at Remembrance Day services. It's the exact same look. The look of recognition between University Challenge veterans. We've seen such things. We hate the rest of you.

Paxman's latest mauling of a defenceless contestant made the news this week. 47 viewers felt moved to complain to the BBC. Meh. If you look back through the archives, you'll see a similar incident every season. It's not really a story: man we already know to be arrogant has all answers to quiz in front of him. Shouts at boy who doesn't know one of these answers. Boy with no social skills looks a bit upset. Some people feel sorry for boy and angry at arrogant man.

Please don't think me callous. I feel that boy's pain. I really do. When I went on the show, representing Edinburgh, I was on the receiving end of that withering Paxman gurn when the words 'The Countryside Alliance?' slipped out of my brain. He looked up from his card and fixed his furious eyes on me as if I had just defecated on the studio floor and said 'Oops, I done a bad-bad'. 'The Countryside Alliance?' he barked back at me, incredulity gathering in rabid saliva around his lips, 'You're only about 100 years out'.

He looked genuinely disgusted. As if the three words I had uttered were an affront to civilization itself. I half expected a producer to come out and hold him back saying 'Leave it Jez, he's not worth it.'

The boy at the centre of this most recent row - 20 year old Medical student, Tom Tyszczuk Smith, representing University College London - is now at a crossroads. He can enter the real world, full of its unexpected hostilities, pratfalls and disappointment, or he can carry on in academia, collecting regular pats on the back. He can accept that life is full of tedious, mean, petty Paxmans or he can choose the safety of Roy Walker's 'It's good but it's not right' attitude.

I guess I was at that crossroads as Paxman publicly critiqued my intelligence. And rather than retreating back into my shell, I was sort of emboldened. Jez's reaction had been so obviously absurd, so patently opposed to the whole spirit of learning and enquiry that underpin a show like University Challenge. It gave me a healthy perspective and I started buzzing in on every starter question. Oh, and I'd got through a few whiskeys before the show so I didn't really give a shit anyway. We ended up losing, but I did ok.

Of course, I had the stain of that Paxman insult on me. But I redressed the balance after the quiz came to an end. During the 'live' filming I had buzzed in at one point and guessed an answer. 'Is it Expressionism?' I had asked tentatively - almost apologetically. Miraculously, it flipping was Expressionism. For some reason though, the sound didn't get picked up so we had to do a 'pick-up' and re-record that bit. Paxman asked the question again. I paused, leant back in my chair and flamboyantly fingered the buzzer. 'EDINBURGH WHITE!' I paused again before pointing - actually pointing - at Paxman and delivering the coup de grace: 'That's Expressionism.' Pride restored. Jeremy even smiled.

If you go on a quiz show - and especially if that show is University Challenge - you had better get some questions right. And you had better not get too many questions wrong. And if you do get some questions wrong, you should try not to get them too wrong. But, when all is said and done, at least Tom opened his mouth. At least he had an answer. At least he had a go. He can wear his battle scars with honour.

And so, this Monday night, I'll be doing what I always do: sitting in a bath, with the door open, the tv volume unreasonably high, shouting out three answers to every question for the benefit of my wife, who hates quizzes. She'll be berating the geeks on the screen. And I'll be shaking my head and thinking to myself, 'You weren't there man. You weren't there.'