University Challenge is a British tv quiz show that is both iconic and much-loved, and sometimes a few of its contestants gain so much admiration that they gain a cult following. This was the case with the nerdy Canadian Eric Monkman, whose old fashioned appearance, breadth of knowledge, intense mannerisms and animated enthusiasm caused a sensation (#monkmania), in the last season. His performance knowledge and animation, was matched only by a fellow Cambridge student with the unlikely name of Bobby Seagull.
Now after all the hooha the former rivals, who ‘became household names’ in Britain, will present their own radio show.
University Challenge has been on tv for decades using the same, simple half-hour two-team format, and despite social media and the trivialisation of news and media generally, the show continues to be popular, in fact it remains a hugely popular Twitter conversation. Its contestants are very intelligent university students whose general knowledge spans nearly every subject, and generally every season there are some competitors who stand out not just because of how much they know, but also for their style of competing. Yet despite their knowledge and popularity neither Monkman nor Seagull were in the team that won University Challenge 2017 — it was won by Balliol College, Oxford, a group of very clever but non-memorable young men. Monkman and Seagull’s teams (Wolfson and Emmanuel) faced each other in a thrilling semi-final and in terms of popularity — they were both winners.
Well now they are back and the subject they’ll be discussing is clever people with a wide range of knowledge. ‘Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventure’ airs this week (the 21st), and for those of us confused by the actual meaning of the word ‘polymath’ — it is a Greek word that means ‘a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas’.
So the two polymaths are hosting a documentary about polymaths in life and in history. And while it’s lovely to see both these men back in the news, it remains to be seen if they’ll be quite as entertaining on radio as they were on tv.
But what the publicity around their documentary has revealed also is the life stories of these two brainy men. Viewers were bemused by why the desi-looking Seagull had this unlikely name — was it perhaps an anglicisation of Sehgal? Well apparently not — it was a reference to the Richard Bach book Jonathan Livingstone Seagull, which was about a bird who was in search of a higher meaning. Seagull told The Guardian, “My father wanted his children to have the same drive to be the best.” (His father gave the first two sons the name Seagull, but his mother took a stand with the two younger sons who were given the family’s Indian surname). He got a scholarship to Eton College, went to Cambridge, worked in finance for a while, but then opted to make a career in education, so along with teaching Maths at a state secondary school, he is also doing a Ph.D in education.
Monkman meanwhile is from a family of doctors but didn’t take that route as he “doesn’t like blood”. So he studied physics and then economics, and has now returned to London to do an internship at The Economist magazine. An uncle taught him Latin when he was just eight.
But what really sets these two men apart is not just the range of their knowledge but their zeal and the absolute delight they seem to take in learning and scholarship. Because of this they are definitely an inspiration in ‘a culture of anti-intellectualism in Britain’.