Joseph Webber on captaining Trinity’s University Challenge team

Joseph Webber captains Trinity’s University Challenge team – they are on air again tonight, Monday 30 March. We caught up with Joseph to find out what it’s really like on the famous set and what he has learnt from taking part.

What is it actually like on set?

The thing that struck me most is that everything looks exactly like I expected it to – barring the famous ‘one team on top of the other’ view that you get watching the programme. It instantly felt familiar walking on to the set and made it a lot easier to settle in and get going.

What is Jeremy Paxman really like?

We didn’t get much of a chance to see that much of Paxman, but it’s definitely the question everybody asks us. When he did join us after filming in the green room, he was always up for a chat and seemed genuinely interested in all of the teams and our progress in the competition. That wasn’t enough to stop me from constantly being on edge that he was going to snap back at one of our answers with a witty retort I wouldn’t be able to think quickly enough to reply to, though…

You never looked nervous: why?

I’ll take that as a compliment – in fact, we were all pretty nervous. I suppose it may not have seemed that way because we’d been on set for a fair while before the cameras started rolling – my attitude was very much just to get on with it and do as well as we could. Maybe I’m too relaxed about it, but at the end of the day it is just a game that you can’t take all too seriously – provided you forget about the millions of viewers.

How did you become team captain and what did you learn in that role?

The captain is chosen by the previous year’s team, for whom I was the reserve player. Captaining this team has been a relatively easy job. I’m well aware that I’m by no means the strongest quizzer of our team,  so I knew from the outset that I’d have to be really careful to listen to, and not accidentally overrule, people who know far more about many things than me. I knew that I could sit confidently when a literature question made absolutely no sense to me, safe in the knowledge that Nadia or Lillian could provide us with a full summary. Liam was always on-hand to provide some impressively quick music and science buzzes, and also to save me from embarrassment with any maths answers…

In fact, the hardest part of being captain was the logistics of hotel bookings, transport and making sure we all arrived in Manchester at roughly the same time!

What was the most unexpected part of University Challenge?

The process of picking the team and bringing together people with completely different knowledge bases has produced some new friendships that I didn’t foresee. Whether it’s wallowing in the mutual embarrassment of mispronounced answers going out on national television, sharing some questionable screenshots from the episodes, or pretending that the match against Corpus Christi just didn’t happen, I’m happy to report that our group chat remains active as ever.

Custard, Joseph’s childhood teddy and team mascot

What or who was most interesting behind the scenes?

Roger Tilling, alongside the producers, is one of the unsung heroes of the show. People might not realise it, but when a competitor presses the buzzer, Roger, who is a box beside the audience, reads out his or her name live. I don’t think he made a single mistake throughout the series. He was very interesting to chat to after the matches: his route into voiceover work came via aerospace engineering and aspirations to be a pilot, which gave him plenty of stories.

What response did you get on social media?

I’ve tried to avoid keeping too close an eye on social media. There’s always a few comments about Custard, our mascot and my (particularly hideous) childhood teddy bear. Choosing him as mascot was a conscious decision to try to deflect some of the online attention away from us!

Are Eric Monkman and Bobby Seagull a hard act to follow?

It was definitely an early boost when I played play against Bobby’s Emmanuel quiz team in my second year and narrowly won. But I knew that I’d never be able to match Eric and Bobby in personality or knowledge – it’s hard to escape the massive impact they’ve had on the show. But every series is a new series, with its own characters, tone and feel. I just hope that we’ve come across as friendly and collaborative as Monkman and Seagull’s teams were – I’d count that a victory in itself.

What are you doing now study wise?

I’m continuing with Part III Maths amid everything else at present – we’ve got an extended essay to write that’s taking up most of my time. After that, I’m coming back to Trinity to start a PhD in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics on the fracturing of ice shelves, which should keep me busy…

What’s your message for students thinking of applying to University Challenge?

The entire experience was great fun. To be on set with the incredible production team, and Jeremy Paxman, was an experience none of us will ever forget, and I’d definitely encourage any student at Trinity who thinks they’d enjoy it to give it a go next year. I never thought that I would have the knowledge or ability to cut it among everyone else here at but I – and the rest of the team – would never look back.

Trinity takes part in the last of the University Challenge quarter finals Monday 30 March 8.30pm, on BBC Two.

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