Starter for ten… can Dundee win University Challenge again?

Peter Burt, who captained the winning team of 1983
Peter Burt, who captained the winning team of 1983
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It is the jewel in the crown of quiz shows where the nation’s brightest students battle it out under the beady eye of former Newsnight inquisitor Jeremy Paxman.

Now the University of Dundee, one of only two Scottish institutions ever to have won University Challenge – in 1983, with a team captained by zoology undergraduate Peter Burt – is looking for a new team to bring back the title as the university celebrates its 50th year.

The search is likely to produce a fine haul of potential contestants given that the university was ranked in the top 20 of the world’s universities in this year’s International Student Barometer.

As former alumni and current students gather for a host of events to mark the anniversary, Peter Burt and fellow team member Graeme Davidson, recalled the nail-biting high drama which almost saw the chance of winning snatched twice from the Dundee side after adjudication errors.

The Dundee team consisting of Burt, law student Davidson, James Smith, who studied economics and politics, and medical student Donald Kennedy, travelled to Granada’s studios in Salford, Manchester, aiming to win three games to reach the quarter-final.

The Dundee team won their first two games but then lost to Balliol College, Oxford. But fate intervened.

“A week later Granada told us there had been a scoring error and we had actually won,” said Burt, who is now principal scientist at the natural resources institute at the University of Greenwich.

But the actual quarter-final appeared to be the end of their dreams, when they lost to University College, Oxford, by a mere five points. However, lightning struck twice.

“When the quarter-final was transmitted, viewers noted a disallowed correct answer. Consequently, we were invited back for a play-off against Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, who were in a similar position,” said Burt.

Dundee eventually competed in the final against Durham with a cliff-hanger finish. Davidson clinched the match with an interrupted starter for ten, only 30 seconds before the end.

He said: “I felt a range of sensations, all of them vast. The key ones were delight, surprise, achievement and pride. “And, perhaps embarrassingly, I also confess to having experienced in the moment a certain sense of ‘Ha, we showed them!’

“Some people who did not rate our chances of getting anywhere at all in the tournament – far less
 actually advancing to the senior stages and eventually going on to win the chuffing thing, after an utterly draining and totally nail-biting three-game final.”

Professor Sir Pete Downes, the university’s principal and vice-chancellor, said students “love the university, love Dundee and love Scotland”.

“We’ve been hailed for our excellent teaching quality and student experience, exemplified in the recent National Student Survey which ranked Dundee eighth in the UK for student experience and first in the country for personal development.”