The new season of British Television’s iconic game show University Challenge ended last week with yet another Oxbridge final and a social media furore over some of the most endearing brainiacs of the competition. The star of the show proved to be the captain of the Wolfson College, Cambridge team, a bespectacled and very clever young man from Oakville Canada, who became a rather unlikely social media sensation.
Eric Monkman, a geeky-looking student, sporting the sort of haircut you usually see on six-year-old boys, attracted a huge fan following on Twitter, and inspired the craze #Monkmania.
Viewers were enthralled by his intensity and enthusiasm, his array of knowledge and his very expressive manner. He wore the same shirt, tie and sweater through every round he competed in because as he told an interviewer, not having to think about his clothes allowed him to concentrate on the important stuff. His quick fire answers, his astonishing range of knowledge, the spontaneity of his reactions and his rather old-fashioned appearance (along with the slightly crazed grin) won over so many people that whenever Monkman’s team was on the Monday night show, the Twitter conversation would revolve around him.
But even though his many Twitter fans cheered him on into the final, their dream of seeing Monkman lift the trophy did not materialise as the Wolfson team was defeated by the team from Balliol College, Oxford.
Balliol was led by another very clever young man named Joey Goldman who was mostly as inexpressive as Monkman was animated, and whose knowledge, even of some very obscure subjects, more than matched Monkman’s. But after the final they were all — both teams — smiling because the show took them to Gonville and Caius College Cambridge where they met Stephen Hawking at the Presentation of the Trophy ceremony.
Somehow, even here Monkman managed to remain the focus of social media attention. He stood there staring at Professor Hawking with such a goofy and adoring expression that people on Twitter began to make comments like “Find yourself a man who looks at you the same way #Monkman looks at Stephen Hawking” and “I can’t believe Professor Stephen Hawking got to meet Eric Monkman”.
At the presentation ceremony Professor Hawking said, “I have said in the past that it is not clear whether intelligence has any long-term survival value. Bacteria manage to flourish without it. But it is one of the most admirable qualities, especially when displayed by such young minds.” And admirable is certainly how viewers seem to regard University Challenge, the show that is a gladiatorial contest of intellects and that has continued in the same very basic format since its inception in 1962.
In fact, University Challenge is an interesting illustration of how tv doesn’t necessarily have to be low brow or voyeuristic in order to be successful or appeal to viewers. When the half hour show airs on Monday evenings, it is accompanied by a veritable Twitter storm of a conversation.
True, some of the questions are incomprehensibly erudite and obscure, but the overall sense is that of excitement at the achievements of humankind and the scope of the knowledge that is tested.
And there is of course the admiration for the personalities competing. It’s the revenge of the nerds… And we love it!