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St John’s College win University Challenge for the first time

It is the first time since the show aired in 1962 that St John’s has won the televised quiz show

For the first time ever, St John’s College Cambridge have won University Challenge after defeating Merton College Oxford 145-100.

It was a tight, tense final, with Merton College taking an early lead. St John’s eventually managed to stage a comeback, eventually winning by a close margin of 45 points.

University Challenge team

The University Challenge team members stand outside College Chapel. From left to right: Matt Hazell, James Devine-Stoneman, John-Clark Levin, Rosie McKeown and reserve team member Aneesh Aggarwal.

It is the first time since the show aired in 1962 that St John’s has won the televised quiz show; until now the furthest teams from the College had reached was the semi-final in the controversial 2008-09 competition.

The St John’s team, made up of students James Devine-Stoneman, Rosie McKeown, Matt Hazell and John-Clark Levin, took the title without ever having lost a round, accumulating 1300 points.

"We said that as long as we didn't get knocked out in the first round we'd be happy."

Team captain James Devine-Stoneman did not suspect the team would ever make it to the final, let alone win.  “Not knowing how strong the competition would be, we said that as long as we didn't get knocked out in the first round we'd be happy, and that reaching the quarter finals would be a great achievement,” he said. For James, making it through to the finals was a big achievement, “I remember remarking that in the worst case scenario, I'll have become Eric Monkman's successor, which is quite an honour already.”

The team

"It's particularly special for my dad as I've watched University Challenge with him since I was about 11"

For Rosie McKeown, getting so far in the competition had personal significance for her. “It's particularly special for my dad as I've watched University Challenge with him since I was about 11 and it's been my dream to appear on the show since then - a dream which has now come true.” Rosie hopes that winning the competition will set good precedents, for the College and for future female competitors, “I'm so proud to have been part of the first St John's team to win University Challenge,” she said, adding “I hope that our victory will encourage more women at all universities to try out for the show. There's also plenty of room on the trophy for our College name to be engraved a few more times.”

Matt Hazell also grew up with University Challenge-loving parents. “My parents have always been huge University Challenge fans” said Matt. “They have been hosting watch parties at their house, so a fair few family friends have been roped in to watching as well.” Matt said there was a lot of pressure in the final knowing that Merton would be fierce adversaries, “Merton are an extremely strong team so I think everyone was a bit cautious.” Merton were, to some people, the favourites to win and as Matt explained, they all knew Merton were a very strong team, “they were a very well balanced team, are lighting quick on the buzzer, and they had a better record than us going into the final.”

James Devine Stoneman with an Eagle

Team captain James Devine-Stoneman with one of their mascots, Maggie the Eagle.

"Once in the Semi Final against Edinburgh, James buzzed in correctly after hearing just three words — one of which was 'and'!”

Hailing from the US, John-Clark Levin was only recently introduced to University Challenge by a British-born friend in the States, but had gained previous TV quizzing experience on the US show, Jeopardy! Although the two shows have similarities John-Clark said that there are some significant differences between the two. “University Challenge is a team competition, which provides both a sense of camaraderie and emotional support throughout gameplay,” he said. “The second difference is that on University Challenge you can interrupt the host partway through reading a clue. That adds another huge layer of pressure but fortunately we had some jaw-droppingly fast buzzers on our team. Once in the Semi Final against Edinburgh, James buzzed in correctly after hearing just three words — one of which was 'and'!”

Winning the competition was a different experience for John-Clark compared to his UK teammates, but not necessarily less significant. “I'm thrilled to be taking part in a tradition that people in the country love so much,” he said, adding “I've enjoyed getting to hear from people around College what the show means to them.”

The team inside the Great Hall

The team stand inside the College hall.

"There are so many nice tweets that the negative ones are easy to ignore.”

Being on a nationally televised show meant that the team members have received quite a lot of (often unusual) attention. For John-Clark, a lot of that has revolved around his supposed similarities to other actors and fictional characters. “The general fan consensus is that I look like a Bond villain, Michael Corleone in The Godfather, or Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate,” said John-Clark. “Carl Sagan comparisons are frequent as well. Actor and filmmaker David Morrissey tweeted to insist that I look like singer Neil Sadaka when he was younger, but I still don't see it.”

The comments Matt Hazell’s received vary from complimentary to somewhat unnerving, “I have been variously described as a ‘smug git’, ‘the only one you’d like to get a beer with’, ‘half asleep’ and ‘a stone cold killer’ he said. However he also describes reading these tweets as “one of the highlights of the whole experience for me.”

Unfortunately for Rosie, some of the attention has been somewhat less than friendly. “There have been a few less pleasant moments, she said, “my fashion sense, hairstyle and lisp have all attracted comments that aren't entirely complimentary. Fortunately, however, those comments have been far from numerous, and there are so many nice tweets that the negative ones are easy to ignore.”

Rosie with Paul Pig

Rosie McKeown with another team mascot, Paul Pig.

"I could not be more proud of the members of the team who have shown not just exceptional brilliance but also tremendous character at all times.”

The Master of St John’s College, Professor Chris Dobson, was particularly pleased with the final result. “I am absolutely thrilled that St John’s has been victorious in this year’s University Challenge, and I could not be more proud of the members of the team who have shown not just exceptional brilliance but also tremendous character at all times,” he said.

Throughout the series, the team impressed both opponents and audience members with their fast responses and knowledge of obscure topics. In their semi-final against Edinburgh University they even gained praise from Jeremy Paxman who ended the show by complimenting them, “you were well balanced, you were fast, you were great."

Published: 23/04/18

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Banner photo by Paul Everest. All other photos by Hazel Lawrence.