Let’s get quizzical! MM meets the brains behind Manchester’s University Challenge team

Ever sat there watching University Challenge and wondered how the heck the two teams seem to know so much?

Well, Stephen Pearson is the quiz guru behind the University of Manchester’s successful University Challenge teams.

Under his aegis Manchester have won the competition four times in the last 11 years – a total that puts them level with Magdalen College, Oxford on the all-time list.

A librarian at the university by day, he has coached Manchester’s quiz quartets for the past 21 years.

Before that he captained the team himself, getting to the semi-final in 1996 while studying for one of two post-graduate degrees he’s gained from the university. His team was pipped to the post at the last, losing on the very last question.

Because you can’t make a return once you’ve been on once, Stephen settled with passing his quizzing skills on to students.

“I was never any good at sport at school,” he tells MM, “so quizzes are the only competitive activity I can do well and be part of a successful team at.”

And he is an experienced TV quizzer himself. But as with University Challenge, he has come so close without winning.

In 2015 he and his team got to the final of BBC 2’s other quiz juggernaut Only Connect and he fell at the semi-final in his turn of Mastermind, answering questions on the composer William Walton.

It’s obvious quiz pedigree, but how much of Manchester’s success is down to Stephen?

He says: “There probably is something about me. The fact that I give them practice on the buzzer. I organise weekly sessions to get them used to the format, to give them experience of trying to beat the other team.

“I give more credit to the teams than to me.

“I make sure the team gets to know each other well because it’s important for them to know what each other has knowledge-wise.”

Many who watch the show will be awed by the speed of thought and depth of knowledge the students exhibit. Can this be taught?

“A lot of is down to whether you have the right kind of memory and whether you’re interested in the kind of things they ask about – it could be high literature or chart music.

“I have known other universities have tried to learn things they thought would come up I don’t know how you could do that.

“It’s about having the confidence on the buzzer and the familiarity with your teammates.” 

Manchester were not selected for the competition last year – the show only accepts 18 teams from the total of 150 that can apply – but now Stephen has safely guided them back in.

On how thinks this year’s team will fare he says: “You can’t tell until you get into the studio but they have been doing well in practice sessions.

“They’ve got a broad range of knowledge and are good on the buzzer. If all goes well I can see them getting to the quarter-finals for the first time in a number of years.”

Image courtesy of the BBC via YouTube, with thanks.

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