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13th April 2015

The 3rd Degree Recording

Entering its fifth season, the successful BBC Radio 4 show hosted by Steve Punt challenged students and dons of the University of Manchester alike

This show’s concept is an elaborate version of University Challenge, hosted by radio comic Steve Punt, in which three students of different fields try to beat the knowledge of professors of the respective field. The evening started with an applause and laughter practice and the audience was introduced to the concept and aim of the show by director and producer David Tyler. After exercising to laugh like pirates, the atmosphere became more serious and the recording began.

The introduction of the six participants lead to a funny start and Steve Punt knew how to delight the audience with his (scripted) wit. After introducing the University of Manchester in a very favourable light, the contestants had to introduce themselves to start the sixth episode of the fifth season. The nervousness of the participants was apparent, but everyone made a good impression nevertheless.

The dons were the highlight of the evening with their incredibly fast answers and funny facial expressions. Dr. Natalie Zacek is a lecturer in History and American Studies and impressed during the evening with her lightspeed response time and impeccable knowledge of her subject area. Her two team members were Professor Bernard Clarke, a honorary clinical professor of cardiology, and Professor Matthew Cobb, whose main research interest is the sense of smell of maggots.

The bright student contestants fought hard for points in order to beat professors with more life experience and clearly more knowledge in their field area. The student team consisted of Polly Martin, who was quick in eliminating wrong answers of her team members in a witty way, English Literature and American Studies student James Broadway, and Sam, a third year medical student.

I contacted James after the show recording to ask about the selection process, if he has any tips for students to get a better memory, and if he had any expectations prior to the show. “I received an email from my department asking if anyone was interested. I phoned the producer and he asked me some practice questions then I got in. I don’t have a technique for recalling information, but I do watch quiz shows all the time. I didn’t realise how much fun it was going to be but I thought we would get thrashed by the academic team… and we did.”

Photo: The Mancunion

The show consisted of seven rounds, of which the Highbrow/Lowbrow round was the most entertaining. Each contestant is given a short clue to a question and is then asked if they want to answer a highbrow or a lowbrow question based on the clue. The students scored two points if they get the highbrow question right or one point if they get the lowbrow question right. For the Dons, it was the other way around. When the contestant chooses the question, their academic rival has to answer the question not chosen.

Funnily enough, the questions that would have been answered very quickly by anyone in the audience posed most difficulty to the contestants. The apparent lack of general popular culture knowledge was obvious after Lana Del Rey was not identified and their TV and Film knowledge was not very extensive. This made some people in the audience feel smug at first, but then it might have dawned on them that some of the contestants save lives on a daily basis or will contribute to important research in the future.

The funniest moment in the show ensued when James was asked a lowbrow question about ‘Pacts and Treaties’ concerning the infamous book and film 50 Shades of Grey. To the question “What is the safe word used by the characters?” he answered “Is it my safe word?” Despite the competitive atmosphere, humour played a big role and everyone seemed amused, even if the answer they gave was wrong.

It was exciting to be in the audience, especially because we were present when retakes were recorded. Steve Punt had to soften an offensive commentary about Nigel Farage, who is allowed to be described as ‘white and floppy’, but not as racist. Another highlight was the re-taking of basic affirmations such as ‘Yes’, ‘Absolutely right’, ‘Spot on’, which actually made the audience roar with laughter. Being in the audience was very entertaining and everyone felt both a bit smarter and dumber at the same time after leaving the recording room.

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