Following an exceptional run on University Challenge, we sit down with team leader Alasdair Logan to talk about what the Jeremy Paxman is really like, his take on the explosive social media reaction following the airing of the show and of course, what happened with that month question (to which he answered, “Autumn.”)
Could you introduce yourself?
I’m Alasdair Logan, I am the team captain of University Challenge team and I’m also a fourth year mechanical engineering student.
Why did you choose to study Mechanical Engineering at Strathclyde?
It seemed to suit the subjects at school that I did well at. It’s a practical subject at the end of the day, it’s pragmatic, and can offer tremendous job opportunities related to mechanical engineering, especially at Strathclyde.
Was Strathclyde your first choice? Where else did you apply for?
Yeah, it was.
I did apply to do mechanical engineering at 5 places, and I actually did apply to Imperial [College, London], the team that we knocked out. They never got back to me, and I don’t know if I would have gone. I think Strathclyde was still my first choice, and plus, it’s free.
What made you want to actually apply for University Challenge?
I’ve been watching it for years, probably about 10 years. When I first started watching it, I couldn’t get anything – geography, maybe. But recently, maybe in the last two or three years, I realised that I can answer quite a lot of questions. I didn’t want to go too early, because with every year — you learn more and more and more.
I also didn’t want to leave it too late because Strathclyde rarely make an appearance in University Challenge, so I thought that if I had a few years, I would have a chance in one of those years. It turns out that the first year I applied, I got in, and that was when I was in third year. If I didn’t, I still would have had next year and then the following year. Maybe I would have known more, but I think you get on – but no complaints there, but I think it is a bit more difficult, for Strathclyde.
You only had two months to prepare for the show after being selected – was that overwhelming?
Well, I’d been preparing my whole life.
No, I don’t know, I was really excited to just get down and do it.
Truthfully, how many times have you watched Starter For Ten (film starring James McAvoy who is preparing to be on University Challenge.)
I’ve only watched it once, and I don’t even think I watched all of it because it would’ve been quite a difficult watch.
How many pub quizzes have you been apart of before this?
Not that many, I’m not a huge fan of pub quizzes. I’m not obsessed with pub quizzes – I don’t go regularly. I’ve been to one or two. The style of pub quiz questions don’t really appeal to me that much – the questions are all really fun, and I prefer more serious questions.
More academically challenging ones?
Yeah, yeah. I never actually win that many pub quizzes. It’s quite difficult. You need to know a lot about film and TV and stuff. Like, they’re not going to ask a question about Peter Abelard at a pub quiz…
You never know.
..but they might ask one about him on University Challenge.
What was Jeremy Paxman really like? What was he doing when the cameras were off?
He was a pretty cool guy. He wasn’t intimidating in real life or anything — he was perfectly affable. He’s in his seventies now, I think. He didn’t really talk when the cameras were off – he was just trying to like look at his lines, or have a coffee.
We spoke to him briefly, we exchanged a few words with him, but yeah, he’s a cool guy. I had an interview with ITV recently and the presenter there was really really… getting in amongst the people he was interviewing, in the green room before, but it wasn’t like that with Jeremy Paxman. He was reserved, but perfectly pleasant.
I feel like it must have been really intimidating, being filmed.
Before it started, it was quite difficult, but once we got going and I got the first starter, then things started to calm down a bit. Even, I think, people go on that were terribly nervous and have problems.
I suppose that you can just focus on the questions, and answer those questions and I think there’s a comfort about that. Despite the tension, obviously, of the contest and the cameras – there’s the comfort of simply answering questions about the middle ages or 19th century botanists, or whatever.
What appears to have struck with many people about you in particular, is that once you started answering questions, you were in your element and I think that’s what a lot of people picked up on and why there was such a hysteric reaction (on social media, etc) when the episode aired.
The media reaction has been extravagant. Yeah, I think the thing about success on University Challenge was about momentum, with one question following the other.
Once you get into your stride, you can get to the buzzer and you know some of the answers – you can really put your foot down. Because it was such a comeback, wasn’t it? We just really turned it on in the second half. That’s probably because we got a series of starters — and also because we knew the answers to the questions.
That always helps.
A lot of it is psychological conditioning.
What do you mean?
About the momentum – it’s about having the confidence to buzz in, knowing when to buzz in and it’s about taking chances. A lot of the time, when you buzz in, you’ll have a maybe 3 or 4 answers in your mind but you still have to go for it and pick one.
I take it you’re referencing the infamous answer you gave to the month question?
Oh yeah, the month. That wasn’t my finest moment.
To be fair, you took it really well.
Yeah, it’s fine, I got lots of other questions in that around. There is a very similar piece of music that is about the seasons, but by Tchaikovsky. It’s Tchaikovsky’s Seasons and they do sound bloody similar.
The reason I said “autumn” is because I was just too desperate to answer. I had ‘autumn’ in my head before the music started playing and it was so dominant that I didn’t even think whether he might have said “month”.
So you didn’t listen to the question, is what you’re telling me?
Yeah… well, I heard what I wanted to hear.
I had an answer and I only listened to the parts of the question that confirmed what I was thinking, and that’s the danger, you know?
If you have something in your head at the very beginning then it’s quite easy to be falsely confirmed by what he says. Even if what he says clearly rules out the possibility of it being the right answer. Which, in this case, it did, because autumn is a season.
It did make for a good meme. Did you see the meme?
On that page?
Strathy Memes for Useful Teens?
Yes, I’ve seen it. It wasn’t a meme, it was a video. [laughs]
Have you liked the page?
Uh, maybe. I see a lot of stuff on it – I don’t think I’ve actually liked it – but I do see things because everyone I know is liking different posts on it, or whatever.
Who are you going to be up against in the second round?
We can say that now that the first round has aired. It’s Emmanuel College, Cambridge.
How has life on campus changed for you after the episode aired, if at all?
Not very much at all, people don’t seem to recognise me. I mean, most of my colleagues and classmates have seen it – but no, I’m not being stopped in Cathedral Street by adoring masses, nor people on the bus peering over my shoulder, wondering what I’m reading or anything. So no, despite what the social media reaction was like, in real life, it was never going to be as hysterical as it was on Twitter or Facebook.
Do you think the social media hysteria was heightened because people tend to underestimate Strathclyde as an institution?
Yes. Strathclyde don’t appear on University Challenge all that often but we’re a very good university, but I suppose Imperial are too, aren’t they? Imperial is a very famous place and it’s called Imperial – maybe there’s a nationalistic element to it, maybe.
I think for a lot of people watching it, there was this feeling that Strathclyde were like the underdogs.
I mean yeah, definitely. You can’t bet on University Challenge, but we would’ve been the underdogs. When we were told it was Imperial and it was a big name – it was daunting. But we thought we could have them – and we did.
Do you use Twitter?
I don’t have an account, no, but on the night the show aired, I looked at it because my friends said I should have a look.
Why don’t you have an account?
I don’t have anything interesting to say, never have.
If you could answer on anything in the bonus round, what would it be?
Russian Literature, probably.
You study Mechanical Engineering and if you could answer on anything, you pick Russian Literature. How smart are you?!
No, no – I just like it a lot, I read it a lot. When it comes up in University Challenge, I always seem to know it. Also Euro 2016 was a good one.
You can watch #TeamStrathclyde (or #TeamStrathy, whatever you prefer for your chosen hashtag) for their second round of University Challenge playing against Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This will be shown in The Yard on Monday the 13th November at 8pm. GET INTO THEM, LADS.
All photography in this post was taken by Suvi Loponen on behalf of the Strathclyde Photo Club.