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regular-article-logo Wednesday, 04 October 2023

Calcutta boy Amol Rajan to host University Challenge

Presenting the BBC TV quiz show is one of the most high-profile, prestigious and sought-after jobs in British television

Amit Roy London Published 19.08.22, 04:36 AM
Amol Rajan.

Amol Rajan. File photo

Are you ready, India? Fingers on buzzers. No conferring. Here’s your starter for 10.

Who is taking over from the irascible Jeremy Paxman as the presenter of University Challenge, the quiz show on BBC TV?

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1. Is it Boris Johnson?

2. Henry (“My dear old thing!”) Blofeld?

3. Or Meghan Markle?

Any of those answers, and you get a five-point penalty.

The answer is so obvious: Calcutta boy Amol Rajan.

In case Rishi Sunak does not make it as Prime Minister, this will be some consolation to Indians because presenting University Challenge is one of the most high-profile, prestigious and sought-after jobs in British television.

In 60 years, Amol will only be the third presenter of University Challenge, following in the footsteps of the late Bamber Gascoigne, an intellectual who hosted the show on ITV from 1962 to 1987 and wrote the well-received book, The Great Mughals.

When the show resumed in 1994, Gascoigne was succeeded by Paxman, who has a devoted following precisely because he is rude to everyone, especially self-regarding politicians.

Jeremy Paxman.

Jeremy Paxman.

The questions tend to favour undergraduates who have studied classics at public schools (like Boris Johnson).

Amol has had a dizzy rise up the BBC’s greasy pole and in the media generally. He was born in Calcutta in 1983 to a mother from Pune and a Tamil father from Kumbakonum. His parents moved to England when he was three. Although his parents are Hindu, Amol has made a point of declaring he has not believed in God since the age of 15.

He grew up in Tooting, south London, is state-school-educated and read English at Downing College, Cambridge, where he contributed to Varsity and was editor of the student newspaper for a term in 2005. In today’s egalitarian climate, he does have the advantage of not having gone to Eton or speaking with a posh upper-class English accent. He is known to be cricket mad and plays a bit himself.

Amol was the first non-white person to be editor of a national newspaper when he took charge of The Independent in June 2013. When the paper dropped its print edition in February 2016 and became an online operation, Amol was retained for a period as “editor-at-large”.

He quickly joined the BBC as its media editor in November 2016, a job he will now have to give up. But he will remain one of the presenters of BBC Radio 4’s Today, the morning programme which seeks to set the political agenda for the day.

A year ago, 72-year-old Paxman had revealed he had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

“I’ve had a blast hosting this wonderful series for nearly 29 years,” said Paxman. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with an amazing team and to meet some of the swottier brains in the country. It gives me hope for the future.”

Amol said: “Being asked to host my favourite TV programme is dream-come-true territory.”

He added: “I have watched University Challenge obsessively for years, addicted to its high standards, glorious title music and inspirational contestants. It’s the best possible antidote to cynicism about young people, allowing millions of us to test our wits against the best minds of a new generation, and annoy and impress our families by barking answers from the sofa.”

Referring to the show’s previous hosts, he said: “I am very conscious that in the late, great Bamber, and that giant of British culture, Jeremy, I have vast shoes to fill. With his immense intellect, authority and respect from students and viewers alike, Jeremy hands over a format, and show, as strong as ever.”

Amol, who will take over next year, included a personal comment: “I won’t stop thinking today about my late, beloved Dad, whose devotion to education brought him to England, whose love of knowledge I imbibed as a kid, and whose belief in the noble challenge of university so shaped my life.

“I’ll devote my first starter for 10 to him – and to the millions of quiz friends who, like me, love those rare occasions when they know the answer before the students do.”

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