University Challenge does what it says on the tin - it's a competition between two universities each week, with each uni being represented by a panel of four students. It's pretty sedate stuff, and has been since it started in 1962, famously fronted by Bamber Gascoigne and based on the American radio and TV show College Bowl.
There've been a fair few contestants who later became celebrities, for example former Conservative Foreign Minister Sir Malcom Rifkind, folk singer June Tabor and polymath Stephen Fry, but it's generally quite calming stuff. Until, that is, late in February, it became clear that a student so knowledgeable that she's been nicknamed "the human google" was going to lead the University of Oxford's Corpus Christi College to victory barring something really unlikely, like divine intervention or global warming. The Daily Mail's Melanie Phillips describes her as "achieving victory almost single-handedly by displaying in each round an extraordinary degree of general knowledge and answering more correct questions than any one contestant in the history of the programme." Even the show's present host, Jeremy Paxman, commented in amazement and on-air that Ms Trimble was laughing because she found the questions so easy.
Phillips' article was entitled "What the mob really hates about Gail Trimble is her glowing self-confidence". Trimble has had to put up with some awful epithets, starting with "horribly smug", "immensely annoying" and "a hateful know-it-all", and proceding to levels of malevolence that I don't want to give a soapbox on this blog, but a mild example can be seen in Labour's house paper The Sun, as ever in hot pursuit of the lowest common denominator. I believe Phillip's insight is the reason that the BBC has attacked her team so spitefully that the programme has achieved unprecedented front-page coverage.
According to the rules of University Challenge, all contestants must be students at the time the programmes are recorded and the year after. Corpus Christi student Sam Kay had been planning to study for a doctorate but was unable to secure funding, so had to leave the university, and is now working as a trainee accountant. After Gail Trimble led her team to victory in an amazing final, programme makers Granada and broadcasters BBC released a statement detailing the decision to strip them of the title and award it to the other side, Manchester University. The Telegraph's Cassandra Jardine (a University Challenge alumnus) captured the general feeling of the public in article entitled Gail Trimble must demand a rematch:
We all feel cheated: Manchester has won without glory; Corpus Christi, Oxford, is humbled; and, worst of all, the British public is missing out on what could be an exciting experience.I think key to understanding how sections of the media regard Trimble is Nuts' approach to her brother asking for her email address, saying it would like to do a "tasteful" photoshoot. Nuts is a "lads' mag" - playground pornography which can be bought by anybody of any age and displayed anywhere on the shelves - and the reply was classic: "seriously mate, would you give your sister's contact details to Nuts?"
Nuts and large sections of the BBC are pursuing the same demographic - (mostly) young males. Nuts wants to make money through publishing pictures of undressed women, and the BBC wants to secure the future of its licence fee, but the magazine's approach of Trimble typifies the pathology guiding both of the institutions: mysogyny informed by fear and insecurity. In Chicano Rap, author Pancho McFarland analyzes this phenomenon:
An important part of becoming a man in our contemporary society is to value women solely for their ability to satisfy male sexual desire. Other traits become unimportant and devalued. Women's intellectual, emotional, spritual and physical abilities are devalued by men because they pose a threat to men's access to women's bodies. Intelligent, strong-willed women challenge men's attempts to have sex with them and to treat them as less than fully human.You don't have to look hard to see examples of what McFarland is talking about. Natasha Kaplinski, shortly after she had started with the BBC, was still protesting against the application of the term "autocutie" when it was indicated to the intelligent, strong-minded newsreader that not appearing on Strictly come Dancing would harm her career. Cerebral presenter Joan Bakewell had to put up with the tag "the thinking man's crumpet".
Earlier today, University Challenge's original host, Bamber Gascoigne, lambasted the BBC for causing the problem with Corpus Christi by broadcasting the program in such a way that each series now straddles two academic years, and has pointed out that during his stint of compéring the programme, panellists would not only be allowed to appear after they had left university, but would sometimes be invited to do so. In addition, the Telegraph's Urmee Khan has broken the news that 2008's winners, Oxford's Christ Church College, also broke the rules by having a participant on its team who had moved to another college. Surprisingly, given its breaking a butterfly upon a wheel in the case of Gail Trimble's team, the BBC states it will take no action against them. Would I be right in guessing that Christ Church wasn't captained by a woman who was not only attractive, but incredibly intelligent and self-possessed?
Whether or not Sam Kay intentionally broke the rules, the BBC has created yet another rod for its back through the same means that it gave us the Jonathan Ross/Russell Brand obscenity: lazy producers sleeping on the job and not checking material thoroughly before they allow something to be broadcast.
I hope this whole unnecessary affair hasn't affected Ms Trimble's confidence too badly, especially at a time when the whole fiasco is getting very interesting. We need intelligent, resolute women at every level of every profession to counter the meretricious effects of discriminatory, gender-based assumptions reinforced by lads' mags and broadcasters like the BBC, which has revealed its own insecurity with this mess. And in doing so, has also earned itself Brownie-points with the Governent by railing against what New Labour fears most: genuinely-educated young people.
Thanks to John Lawrence for the photoshoot pics of Gail Trimble