Don's diary: Taxing audit ends University challenge

September 5, 2003

Almost halfway through my Association of University Teachers presidential year when the Trades Union Congress calls: would I be willing to join the team for University Challenge: The Professionals? And could I go, immediately, to the London studios for a test. Reading between the lines, the TUC brothers have realised late in the day that a sisterly presence is needed.

At the studios, I am relieved to learn that few of the teams will be chosen. Brownie points, then, for showing up, but hopefully no real danger of selection. I answer 40 questions at seven-second intervals and try to explain why I have volunteered. My co-interviewees, all women, have done so because they want to meet Jeremy Paxman.

I have forgotten all about University Challenge when Granada calls. Twenty-two teams have been selected, the TUC is one of them and will I, token woman, be the captain? Family, friends and colleagues are highly amused. I am appalled. My team-mates accept the challenge in better spirits. Steve Donnelly (Connect) does pub quizzes so is clearly invaluable, Roger Lyons (Amicus) knows Paxman so is potentially an asset.

As for Paul Mackney (Natfhe), he's always quick on the draw.

March 2-3
Contrary to popular belief, University Challenge does not go out live. All 11 games of the first round are shot in one weekend at Granada studios, Manchester. But first, the producer wants to make a film biography of all the competitors at work. TUC Congress House is not considered photogenic enough, so we spend the morning in the Museum of People's History, a fascinating place but bitterly cold, and it takes five hours to produce two minutes of video.

In the green room we discover - panic - that our opponents are the Cabinet Office, top mandarins all. They sit apart, revising from Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. Suddenly, I discover a fiercely competitive streak. Their lot has produced a white paper that could destroy for ever what we value most in higher educationI we've got to win!

It's a closely run game. My other half in the audience cringes when I miss the easy quotation from Hamlet. Still, at least I identify the porcupine and Parmigiano (in my best Italian accent). Steve is brilliant and, in the end, we are through to the next round.

March 15
Regretting the boozy night before with AUT (Scotland), I take the 6am twin-prop plane from Aberdeen to Manchester for round two. It's the clergy this time, a most sympathetic group. Steve is on brilliant form.

Paul's ecclesiastical upbringing stands him in good stead. I manage to answer some questions but, despite my love of the Renaissance, I fail completely on the classical references. It's close run, but we get through to the semi-finals. Paul asks the clergy for a blessing and Jeremy smiles benignly.

March 16
Done for by the Inland Revenue!

September 1
Trepidatious about the broadcast, but in hindsight what is my assessment? They were too taxing for us. Disappointed, but not surprised, we wish them a happy return and hope they're on form in the final.

Jane McAdoo is president of the AUT (2002-03) and University Challenge: The Professionals was broadcast on September 1.

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