I have always been scared of television and team sports. Novelists should stick to radio, if not to print. Intellectually we may be showoffs, but our awkward self-consciousness and deadline hair are unsuited to the screen. In the U.K., though, there is one televised team sport at which even our kind can excel, for which our decades of book-hoarding and embarrassingly recherché interests become assets: “University Challenge,” a TV quiz program so difficult, so unlucrative, and, crucially, so snobbishly acceptable that even the most camera-shy cannot resist. Academics and teachers openly enjoy it; who wouldn’t love shouting at a physics postgraduate for not recognizing the first line of “Uptown Funk”? The show, which first aired in 1962, usually features university students as contestants, but, at Christmas, soi-disant distinguished alumni are given the chance to represent their alma maters, offering viewers the chance to mock them for not knowing something that any fool . . . hang on . . . it’s on the tip of my tongue. . . .
Obviously, I knew that I’d never be invited, and I tried to tell myself that I wouldn’t want to be. The questions are famously taxing; the show is filmed “as live.” The host, Jeremy Paxman (only the second in the program’s history), is notorious for his grumpy intolerance; many intelligent friends have admitted that he’s starred in their anxiety dreams. Also, I try not to broadcast that I went to, er, an illustrious institution; why would I want to out myself on television? No question: were I to be asked, I’d definitely say no.
When the e-mail invitation arrived, in October, I immediately consulted only those people I knew would encourage me to say yes. I explained my terrors to my father. When he stopped laughing, he said, “Don’t be silly. You’re always great on television.” “Dad. I’ve never been on television,” I said. Everyone else was openly amazed. Why me? What if I knew nothing? Whom had I slept with? Was I really willing to travel for hours to the show’s headquarters in Salford, in Greater Manchester, one of the hottest spots in Britain’s rampaging COVID-19 epidemic, for the sake of a game? Besides, did I not realize that social-distancing measures meant I’d have to do my own stage makeup?
Filming took place one day in November. I was definitely not nervous, not remotely. Bearing an official permission to travel from the production company, like a wary diplomat entering the court of Genghis Khan, I sat in an almost empty train with M., my travelling companion/fluffer/ally; my only belongings were a vast sack of refreshments, my dazzling intellect, and my novel-in-progress, which I ignored. A previous contestant had told me that some teams played not simply to have fun but to actually win. “How ridiculous,” I said, while privately planning for victory. Yet I managed no swotting up. Instead, I used my train trip to become consumed with the fear of being rubbish, letting down everyone who’d ever met me.
Half an hour from our destination, M. dared to ask me a few mild questions from an Internet quiz: Kardashians, kids’ TV. All utterly stupid and deeply non-“University Challenge.” Which country has the most miles of motorway? (China.) When did the Beatles split up? (1970.) “They’ll never ask that kind of thing,” I snapped at her lovingly.
When we arrived at MediaCityUK, the sprawling complex where the studio is situated, we failed the first intelligence test of how to find it. At last, following various arrows, we met my future foes in the foyer, including a self-effacing yet world-leading forensic flea expert. Her first name, I thought I overheard her say, was “from Evan Spencer’s ‘Faerie Queene,’ if you’re of a literary bent.” The only subject I knew was literature, yet I’d never heard of Evan. Panic began to set in.
My teammates, assembled in a cavernous green room deep inside a highly sanitized labyrinth, were discussing how to drink together before, after, or during the show. Lucy, our team captain and a renowned zoologist, had brought me two enormously smelly cheeses from the farm where she was spending the winter; their aroma slowly filled the corridors. None of us knew anything about sports, physics, music, or what to do with the mattifier that the makeup artists, unable to touch us, passed around in cardboard boxes. Our male teammates, a journalist and playwright, asked me to check their outfits; I felt oddly maternal as I adjusted their collars. We practiced our introductions. Mine was faultless: Charlotte, ancient and modern history, novelist. Was my delivery so smooth because I was a.) impressively calm, b.) stunned with cheese fumes, or c.) not yet on air?
The studio was huge, bright, and daunting. Paxman looked scowly. My surname was writ large on a special nameplate on my “desk”; whenever I hit the buzzer my name would illuminate and, thrillingly, the announcer would call on me. We inserted our sterilized earpieces, tapped our Perspex dividers. Everything was fine. The questions began; a poem by, maybe, Donne? Bravely, I buzzed; my answer was entirely wrong. But our one strategy was to buzz on the complicated starter questions if we had even a clue; besides, honor—of the Mendelsons, of literary swots everywhere—was at stake. I blundered on. And, as when a warrior, clad in breastplate and greaves, breaches a citadel and makes her first kill, I found my stride. Which letter connects something, something, and John Singer Sargent’s portrait of a socialite, Virgini—wait, wasn’t there a painting by him called “Madame X”? BUZZ, and then came the announcer’s voice: “New College Mendelson.” “X?” I said, gingerly.“CORRECT,” Paxman said.
Even the bonus questions about dead mathematicians that followed, to be answered as a team, could not deny my sudden courage. So much could still go wrong, yet I was filled with the joy of General Knowledge. We were clueless about wild reindeer, the Arctic Circle, cyclists. Of course I knew that Marilyn French wrote “The Feminine Mystique”: What did you take me for? But then came a question about a nineteen-twenties novel’s first line, “ . . . Marabar Caves.”: BUZZ: “New College, Mendelson.” “ ‘Passage to India’?” Correct. There was a question about a bird, which I rashly, and correctly, guessed was a flamingo. The bonus questions were on pairs of authors: I knew them, too. In my delight, I lost all inhibitions. I laughed, air-punched, accidentally saluted Paxman, said “sexy” on air, did what my sister later referred to as my trademark “proud equine nod.”
Like a shooting star, we shone brightly, if briefly. We won the first match but didn’t make it through to the semifinals. Did we care? We did not. I have always preferred to quit while ahead, and in another match what were the chances we’d be asked about Laura Ingalls Wilder? Because of COVID-19, we were denied our post-match booze-up, but we shared a car ride back to London in a penumbra of adrenaline, pride, excitement, and the stinkiest of cheeses.