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University Challenge Review – Amol Rajan Is Lighter, Kinder And More Passionate Than Paxman

It felt fitting that one of the colleges competing in the first episode of series 53 of University Challenge was Cambridge’s Trinity. Most long-running shows – Match of the Day, Woman’s Hour, Newsnight – have had multiple presenters but Amol Rajan, taking over as poser, completes a trinity spanning 61 years of University Challenge, following Bamber Gascoigne and Jeremy Paxman, who retired in May.

Having reached newspaper editorships and the Today studios at precocious ages, Rajan is used to being celebrated for his youth but, of the hosting trio, he has only the second shortest age gap to undergraduates. He has four years on Paxman at his debut in 1994 but Gascoigne, remarkably, was 27 when he began the franchise in 1962.

Rajan was recently teased on Today by the sports presenter Garry Richardson for wearing a T-shirt and shorts on Radio 4, but for his University Challenge debut, he seemed to have gone to the gentlemen’s outfitter that rigged out Paxman, pairing a newsreader’s suit with the sort of bright tie and pocket hankie combo (for the first show, orange) favoured by his predecessor.

Rajan does have a new set, which requires him to read the questions from a device that resembles the stone cash registers in the shops the Flintstones used. Paxo’s chair seems to have been kept which, given Rajan’s shorter stature, leaves a lot of leather headrest visible. A less steep seat might make him look more comfortable at the desk.

After a question to which Warwickshire county cricket club was the answer, Rajan, in his most personal moment, suggested it would be good to have “more cricket questions on this programme”. Given his passion, he will understand that, when someone is picked at the highest level, armchair selectors may have doubts about a technical aspect of the newcomer’s game – in this case, his high pace but intermittent low accuracy of delivery.

In this respect, Rajan seemed to have been practising hard. The presenter was well down on the speed-gun from his morning radio broadcasting, and up in precision. This slower, crisper vocal makeover made him sound strikingly like Paxman. An incredulous “What?” to an improbable answer and the hurry-up catchphrase “Come on!” were close to a Paxo impersonation, though “Wow. Wow. Wow. That’s good!” to a bravura response on music, suggested the seeds of a lighter, kinder tone.

Beginner’s luck? Rajan with the team from the University of Manchester. Photograph: Ric Lowe/BBC/Lifted Entertainment, part of ITV StudiosThe host had a significant case of beginner’s luck with the result. Trinity and the University of Manchester reached an outcome Rajan will know has happened only twice in the history of test cricket and rarely on University Challenge – the final scores tied. In cricket, it stays that way; the brain game uses as a tiebreaker question for both sides on the buzzer: plus five points for getting it right, minus five for wrong. It was exciting but let’s hope they don’t go the way of the summer game and spin off a limited-answers UC of 20 double-buzzer questions only. Reassuringly, though, the questions here remained at the highest test level.

Revealed in last week’s BBC annual report to have received up to £339,999 last year from work for the BBC public service arm (Today, BBC News), Rajan will now get a substantial extra whack for the latest show in his portfolio, which, produced by ITV Studios for BBC Studios, is treated as a commercial engagement not needing to be publicly declared.

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A starter for three stars may seem measly to Rajan fans – and he was close to a fourth – but this is a gig measured by endurance not debuts. Gascoigne did 25 years, Paxman 29. Long before he could threaten those scores, the restless Rajan seems likely to have become the BBC director general or the editor of the Times, possibly both. But, however long he stays, he has shown how seriously he takes the role by significantly adapting his presenting style to this new challenge.

University Challenge is on Mondays at 8.30pm on BBC Two and on iPlayer.

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