The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Chennai chop on British pride
- London college gets a lesson in their own culture

London, Nov. 23: The reigning champions of the BBC’s University Challenge programme have suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a team of electrical engineers from India.

The team of mature students from Birkbeck College, part of the University of London, had been confident of an easy victory but were crushed 150 points to 85 by a younger team from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai.

Birkbeck’s defeat on the show — broadcast to millions on the BBC World satellite television service — was all the more bruising for national pride because so many of the questions were about British culture and history.

The Indian team scored well on subjects including English royalty, Sherlock Holmes, the Booker Prize and T.S. Eliot, and bagged most of the crucial starter questions. Birkbeck’s confidence was rocked when the Indian team raced to a 45-0 lead. For a while it looked as if the British team might not score at all.

The team was clearly rattled but managed to avoid total humiliation with a late rally in the dying minutes of the contest. The tension was broken only when filming stopped temporarily so that studio staff could remove a lizard that had fallen from the ceiling on to the floor.

Tony Gillham, the Birkbeck team captain, accepted last night that the competition and the choice of questions was “scrupulously fair”.

“We went out there feeling a little cocky,” he said. “We should have known pride always comes before a fall. We were up against a team of electrical engineers who knew their T.S. Eliot.” He added: “We could have done even worse but we pulled it back at the end.”

Birkbeck was one of four British teams to take part in the Indian version of the contest, which is one of the biggest hits on BBC World. The three other teams from Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland all won their respective rounds.

Gillham, 38, from Croydon, is studying for a Masters in applied linguistics. His teammates were Tony Walsh, 39, from Hertfordshire, studying history and archaeology; Thor Halland, 35, from east London, studying philosophy; and Colum Gallivan, 57, from Walsall, studying classics, who is also an actor and has appeared in Father Ted, Juliet Bravo and East Enders.

Gillham said he thought the fact that his team was older than their Indian rivals — whose average age is understood to be 21 — may have worked against them. He said: “We were like gentlemen amateurs up against a team of real professionals. Some of them had been on the Indian Mastermind. We were pitted against the cream of Indian society.

“We are a more mature team and our rivals were very quick on the draw. We knew the answers to most of the questions but we were just nowhere near as fast as they were. It was a very humbling experience for us and it took a lot of wind out of our sails.”

Birkbeck’s humiliation was welcomed by some of the other British contestants who took part at the invitation of the British Council. Alan McBride, captain of the team from Queen’s College, University of Belfast, which beat its Indian rivals by just five points, said: “The Birkbeck team losing was the funniest bit of the trip. To be honest, a lot of us thought they were just four complete drama queens.”

He added: “In the run-up to the filming sessions, the Birkbeck captain got us all together and said we needed a practice session in the hotel. We laughed at the guy and said, ‘Look, we are on holiday here, we don’t care if we lose.’ The English team had brought all these quiz books and were reading up on trivia. We said: ‘We do not want anything to do with this’.”

Although the Indian edition closely mirrors the format of its British counterpart, there are several crucial differences. The sets on the Indian show are brighter - or tackier, depending on your taste.

The theme music is Bhangra-influenced and filming gets under way only after a coconut is cracked open as an offering to Hindu gods.

The show’s host, Siddhartha Basu, who is the producer of the Indian equivalent of Who Wants to be a

Millionaire', and the presenter of that country’s version of Mastermind, is considered a more relaxed and amenable host than his British counterpart.

Viewers also find out more about the contestants, who are required to list their hobbies and interests as well as what they are reading at college.

Inter-team rivalry is much more obvious in the version on the subcontinent. McBride said: “We noticed a lot of the Indian teams would slap their hands and do high fives when they got questions right. At the end, after we won, we did a high five because we thought that was what was expected.”

Basu said: “Our challenge with this international version was to try to ensure that the questions were not biased in favour of one side or another. I think that we got that right in the end. We are a very quiz-enthusiastic country and I think that is reflected in the success of the Indian teams.”

The failure of the English team to repeat their success in the Indian version will again raise questions about standards in the British edition. A number of critics have highlighted the increasing tendency to ask questions about popular culture.

Birkbeck College won the national UK final in April after beating Cranfield University by 180 points to 155.

The Daily Telegraph

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