Roadshow expert is a winner on University Challenge

By Alice Hancock,
6th January 2014 - 16:36
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Ceramics specialist Lars Tharp helps his old university team to victory

It was a nail biter of a final but when the gong went only one team could be crowned winner. Happily for antiques fans everywhere, the victors of this year’s Christmas University Challenge, which features famous alumni from various universities, was Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge, the alma mater of jovial ceramics and Chinese specialist, Lars Tharp. The team beat fellow Cambridge college, Emmanuel, by 175 to 140 points.

We caught up with Lars after the final broadcast…

How did your appearance on University Challenge come about?

I was phoned up out of the blue back in October by the team at ITV productions and they asked if I’d like to take part. I have to admit I had to think long and hard about it. I’ve watched University Challenge since the days of Bamber Gascoigne and it’s a hot family favourite. My daughters who are 21 and 27 got very excited and insisted that I did it.

Were you nervous about your appearance?

Well, I at least knew they would be a bit softer on us than on the young people who have working brains!

Was it odd being on a programme you had watched for so long?

I’d never have made it onto the team in my university days. I read archaeology but really I spent more time playing the cello. When we got to the studios, the joke that everybody made backstage was ‘oh I thought the teams sat one above the other’ like in the Young Ones sketch. Actually I was surprised by the distance between the teams and Jeremy. And the audience was barely visible which I hadn’t expected.

Did you remember any of your teammates from university days?

Mark Damazer (former BBC Radio 4 controller and the Gonville and Caius team captain) had been in the year below me. [Lars was at Caius between 1973 and 1976] He was the type of charismatic person all us undergraduates were aware of. I hadn’t met the others before but I think we’ll all stay friends.

Did you do any last minute revision or quickfire practice?

We did do a four-way conference call practice before our first appearance… On hearing the Christchurch line up, [Christchurch College, Oxford, were their first round contestants] all Mark could say was ‘Oh my god’.

And did you have a game plan?

Our strategy, of course, was to win! Not really. Mark went into the first round saying he would be happy to get 100 points. Thankfully we managed that.

What was your proudest moment?

In the first round we were asked a question about the compound in fruit that causes it to set in jam-making. Everyone expected the scientist on our team, Quentin Stafford-Fraser, a computer scientist, to get it. Of course, computer science is a bit different to biology so once I’d answered ‘pectin’, everyone started looking to me to answer all the science questions. I only knew because the week before I had been making a batch of quince jelly!

How does it feel to be a University Challenge victor?

It was very gentlemanly – we all shook hands at the end. And actually my daughter got a small ceramic vase engraved as a trophy for my Christmas present which I’m very pleased with. Of course because the final hadn’t been aired yet I had to open it in secret.

Any plans for more TV quizzes in the future?

I think, as they say, I’ll quit while I’m ahead.

And finally, what's your opinion of the famous Paxman beard?

To return to Jeremy’s own introductory words about our team: 'Age hath not withered them'...but the beard? He was seen making off with a large Fortnum & Mason hamper along the studio corridor after the show ...or was it Father Christmas?

If you missed the final, you can catch up on the action on BBC iPlayer now