Weaver's Week 2022-08-21

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University Challenge

We planned to review The Connection this week. It's a gently entertaining Dutch show, where contestants try to find the link between sets of four things.

But the events napkin has unswivelled, and we're bound to follow its clothy motion.


Follow That!

How do you succeed a host like Paxman?

For the past six months, there have been no former hosts of University Challenge alive. The programme's been on air almost continuously since 1962, yet only two people have hosted it.

For the past sixty years, we've been able to say that the host of University Challenge is Bamber "Bambi" Gascoigne, or Jeremy "Thumper" Paxman.

Bamber Gascoigne Bamber Gascoigne, host from 1962-1992.

This week, we heard that Jeremy Paxman is to step down as UC host. The former journalist has presented the quiz since 1994, this year's series will be his 29th.

The new series – Thumper's final series – begins on 29 August. We think it'll end somewhere in late May or early June next year, and we'll pay a full tribute to Jeremy Paxman at that time.

University Challenge Jeremy Paxman, host from 1994-2023.

For now, we must turn to the matter of his successor.

Back in February 2021, this column put together a job specification for the Mastermind host. Four qualities were essential: precise and swift diction, a credible authority figure, empathy with the contenders, and the audience recognises the new host. The same description applies to the University Challenge host.

According to the BBC, the new host is Amol Rajan.

People's reaction to this appointment was unusually hostile. Why is this? Three reasons seem to dominate.

1) Amol Rajan comes across as shallow and insincere.

Who is this person? Born in 1983, Amol Rajan was educated at the state school Graveney School, then took English at Downing College Cambridge. A researcher on Channel 5's gabfest The Wright Stuff, Rajan was promoted to the secondary presenter, someone to read out emails and calls from the viewers.

Rajan moved to The Independent newspaper in 2007, where he worked across a number of sections, rising to be the editor of the paper's comment section. He was appointed editor of The Independent in 2013, and oversaw the closure of its print edition in 2016.

Newspaper editor Amol Rajan talks to chat show host Andrew Marr.

He took up a specially-created post as BBC Media Editor in 2016. He tried to provide holiday relief on Radio 2 for stars like Zoe Ball and Simon Mayo, but this proved not to be his forte. Moving to speech radio, Amol Rajan has hosted Radio 4's The Media Show since 2017, and been on the presenter roster for The Today Show since 2021.

On television, he's hosted some editions of The One Show, and fronted a documentary about press intrusion into the royal family. High-profile interviews, such as one with tennis player Novak Djokovic, have been described as anodyne and milquetoast, they didn't challenge the subjects or ask the questions the viewers were thinking.

Although he's mostly worked on radio, Amol Rajan is often criticised for poor diction. Gabbled, garbled, sometimes plain incomprehensible. The audience for The Today Show on Radio 4 expect to be challenged by the content, but not to have to struggle to comprehend what the host says.

Knowing all of the answers is another part of the role of a quiz show host – or faking it so it looks like you know all the answers, even when you don't. Bamber Gascoigne was an expert at this, he threw in enough extra information to make us think he knew everything.

We remember Amol Rajan's two weeks on House of Games (3) with Richard Osman. They weren't amongst the best. He was more competitive than the gentle format requires, and didn't seem to meet his own high expectations. When everyone relaxes into the show, House of Games is wonderful; when one of the panel stirs it up too much, when there's somebody with an over-inflated sense of self, the programme collapses like a bad soufflé.

2) Amol Rajan brings his own baggage

University Challenge Bamber could paint a picture of huge knowledge.

Bamber Gascoigne was a blank canvas. He hosted the landmark documentary The Christians in a way that both atheists and believers thought he was one of them. Jeremy Paxman kept his personal politics quiet until he had left journalism.

Amol Rajan's career has been framed by his personal beliefs. He has subscribed to, and written for, The Salisbury Review. It's a very right-wing publication – recent articles conflate "mass immigration" with refugees, there are conspiracy theories and quack medicine. We can understand why a journalist would want to read this publication: there is some scholarly and journalistic merit in exposure to many views, and it is a useful skill to discern compelling argument from crackpot bloviation. To move from "subscriber" to "contributor" allows us to presume that Rajan shares some of The Salisbury Review's unsocial opinions.

In 2020, Rajan praised a piece from JK Rowling. Rowling, who writes in the universe of Tara Gilesbie's My Immortal, wrote about hatred for trans people. Rowling's effort was a litany of debunked stereotypes, repeated many misleading assertions, and was filled with illogical arguments. Amol Rajan might have critiqued the poor quality of rhetoric, or engaged with the substantive attacks on people's right to truly exist. Instead, he chose to praise the "bravery" of Rowling to publish her tissue of piffle.

Earlier this year, Amol Rajan used the term "pro-life" to describe campaigners who force women to give birth against their will. Even the BBC's style guide counsels against the term he used, "anti-abortion" is the recommended neutral phrase.

All of this matters, because the host must have empathy with the contenders. We've praised the work of the production team on University Challenge to expand their knowledge pool, to feature the work of Black people, the work of women, of queer people, of neurodiverse people. This year's series, we're told, has no all-male teams, which will be a major and laudable achievement.

University Challenge One of the last groups of men to make the final.

Student-stars need to feel safe and secure, that lets them give their best. When the student-stars give their best, we get great television. An unfriendly host is a surefire way to make people feel unsafe. By "unfriendly", we don't mean "delivers withering putdowns as part of the format". We do mean "refuses to acknowledge you as you are".

University Challenge has a lot of queer, trans, non-binary, disabled, and neurodiverse contestants. They're not going away, because society is finally allowing people to be who they really are – and that includes labels such as queer, trans, non-binary, disabled, and neurodiverse. When people are disrespected, by anyone involved with the production, the quality of the programme will suffer.

3) It's another bloke from Cambridge!

Amol Rajan took English at Downing College Cambridge. The retiring UC host, Jeremy Paxman, is a graduate of the English course at St Catharine's College Cambridge. His predecessor, Bamber Gascoigne, attended Magdalene College Cambridge, where he read English.

All of the hosts have been men, who studied English at Cambridge University.

If you didn't study English here, sling your hook.

There is literally no beginning to the diversity of the University Challenge host pool; across seven decades, every woman has been discarded, everyone who did not study at Cambridge University is not to be employed, and anyone who did not read English can sling their hook.

There is a general suggestion that Amol Rajan has been promoted by the BBC in the hope that he'll become a hit with viewers and/or listeners. There is a suggestion that no other host was considered for University Challenge, not even Samira Ahmed (she would have stepped in had Jeremy Paxman been unable to make recording dates).

Check your privilege

Before publishing, this column asks itself: are we being unfair to Amol Rajan? Are we holding the host to a higher standard than other comparable quiz show hosts? Would we have had the same reaction if he had been appointed as the new Pointless Friend, or to Countdown?

Yes, we think our reaction would vary with each show. Pointless needs someone with an air of authority and slight nerdishness; with a little training, Amol Rajan could be a workable booking. Countdown is more of a personality show, it requires soft skills like asking good questions and being friendly with everyone. Amol Rajan could be great as the host of Countdown.

Countdown Countdown knows about unsuitable hosts.

What is different about University Challenge? It's the fact that the students are young, still blossoming into who they are going to be. Very few other shows celebrate young people's achievements, there's already more than enough prejudice against university students.

University Challenge does its best to check its privilege, to reflect the world in all its varied wonderfulness. This achievement is under attack from forces that do not believe in equality. There is a pervasive sense that Amol Rajan does not share that vision. We cannot say whether that sense is accurate or not, we can and must report how a lot of people are worried that University Challenge will change, that the progress of recent years will be lost.

University Challenge The diversity of recent winners.

Back in February 2021, this column put together a job specification for the Mastermind host. Four qualities were essential: precise and swift diction, a credible authority figure, empathy with the contenders, and the audience recognises the new host. The same description applies to the University Challenge host.

Of these four key qualities, we believe Amol Rajan currently meets one: he is recognised by the audience at home. He is not a precise speaker, though he can improve this in the months before recording. He does not demonstrate empathy with the contenders, and it is not clear how he can repair the ill-feeling from many good people in the short time available. He does not appear to be a credible quiz host in the style of Gascoigne or Paxman, though our opinion may change if we see him in action.

University Challenge Roger Tilling expects to remain as the show's live announcer.

We hope not to have to return to the subject of Amol Rajan. Indeed, we hope to be able to point to this column in summer 2025 and say "we had these fears, and they weren't borne out". But we would rather not hope, we prefer to expect the host will be brilliant. Please let our fears remain unrealised.

In other news

Popstar to Operastar Darius performs "The toreador song".

Darius Danesh Campbell has died. Darius shot to fame in 2001, when he performed "...Baby one more time" at the Popstars auditions. Though technically promising, Darius's image – long haired ponytail, scruffy goatee beard – did not match what the judges wanted. It was the watercooler moment of Popstars, something quite unprecedented.

Without Darius's performance, the Popstars format could well have been a one-series wonder. We would still have got Hear'Say, but that would be it. No Pop Idol, no Will Young, no Gareth Gates. No Popstars: The Rivals, no Girls Aloud. No Fame Academy, no Lemar. No The X Factor, no Rage Against the Machine revival, and Simon Cowell remains reviled solely for inflicting Robson and Jerome on us.

Darius came back, and auditioned for Pop Idol later in 2001. Initially bumped for Rik Waller, he returned and finished third place. His solo single "Colourblind" was an absolute masterpiece, telling an optimistic love story as a metaphor through colours. He was fated to go into musical theatre, playing Chicago, Guys and Dolls, Gone with the Wind, and many more. Darius later produced television thriller Imperium, and won the first series of ITV's Popstar to Operastar.

Darius died in Rochester, Minnesota, on 11 August, aged 41. The cause of death is not immediately known. He's survived by his ex-wife Natasha Henstridge, brother, and parents.

Duggie Brown

Duggie Brown has died. The comedian and light entertainer had a few game shows to his credit, not least as one of the Gag Squad in early series of 3-2-1.

Creative work to the fore this week. Jewellery on All That Glitters (BBC2, Thu). Landscape gardening in Garden of the Year (More4, Mon-Thu). Cookery in Bake Off Down Under (E4, weeknights).

We've some Catchpoint repeats in daytime (BBC1), and Moneybags continues with civilians (C4, weekdays). The final week of Game on Grandparents (CBBC). With Front Row taking a week off, Radio 4's weeknight evenings are graced by Unreal, a documentary series about reality television.

Various celebrities on next Saturday's Pointless Celebrities, and there's a new ep of The Hit List. If you're heading off for the late August holiday, set a video for The Chase Celebrity Special (ITV, next Sun), as Quiz Nemesis Basil Brush is back! Back!! BACK!!!

Pictures: Granada Television, BBC, Open Street Map, Expectation Entertainment / Can Can Productions, Renegade Pictures / Globe Productions / LWT.

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