UCL Faculty of Laws


James Hall, UCL Laws LLB student, reflects on his journey to the University Challenge finals

28 May 2024

Last month, UCL faced Imperial College London in the finals of the hugely popular quiz show. 2nd year LLB Law student James Hall writes about his University Challenge experience, what inspired him to try out for the UCL team, and his role as UCL Law Soc's Publications Officer.

From left to right (front row); James Hall, Ali Izzatdust, Tayana Sawh, Jacob Finlay

‘Starters for Ten: My Reflections on University Challenge’, by James Hall

From a young age I have always enjoyed knowing things, although, ironically, I have never known why. I don’t at all say this to sound impressive or academic – far from it – because the things I love knowing most are the things I have the least reason to know. When it comes to learning about the principle of legality in Administrative Law or the rules of tracing in Property II, it takes as much effort as it does anyone to get these into my head, and even more effort to actually understand them. The content of my legal education, as much as I find it interesting, rarely sticks in my mind on the first try, but tell me about notable works of performance art or the capital of East Timor (it’s Dili, by the way) and I couldn’t get it out of my mind if I tried. I have always loved knowing such things, even if they are often totally useless. That is, unless, there was some way I could make something out of them…

Enter University Challenge, one of the world’s longest running quiz shows. Famed for the fiendishly difficult questions it puts to two teams of baffled students each Monday at 8:30pm, the show rewards the kind of bizarre knowledge I pick up. There is no prize money, and rewards are limited to being able to say you’ve been on the telly and put your knowledge to use for your university. Nevertheless, when I was aged about eight and I first saw the show on the TV, I was immediately absorbed. I can’t pretend that I understood any of the questions, but it stuck in my memory as being something that was, at the very least, interesting. Although it took me several years to start watching the show in any meaningful and regular way, with its millions of viewers University Challenge is firmly cemented in the British consciousness and was therefore never too far out of my mind. When I followed a series from start to finish for the first time, in 2018-19, I realised that I was actually able to answer about one question an episode. As a few series went by and I studied for my A Levels, I began to be able to answer more of the questions and enjoy the show even more. Although I was still in awe of the likes of “St Edmund Hall, Leo”, “Imperial, Brandon” and “Reading, Hutchinson”, I found myself thinking that one day, it might be possible to hear “UCL, Hall” echoing out through that studio.

In my first year at UCL, I tried to get on the team but missed out by a painful two incorrect questions. It didn’t matter though, as the team that year were led by the incredible James Salmon to the quarter-finals, the best UCL result in almost a decade. A year went by, and as I watched another series, played more Sporcle quizzes, and fell down more Wikipedia rabbit holes, I tackled the team trials again, and this time I managed to make it, alongside the marvellous Ali Izzatdust, Jacob Finlay, our captain Tayana Sawh, and our reserve Callum Jack.

Each week, the five of us met up to practice quizzing. Without a doubt, I have to say the question I get asked most is how on earth practicing for quizzing is possible. When you have all human knowledge to revise, where do you begin? Answering this question was certainly one of the biggest challenges we faced as a team. However, armed with a set of buzzers borrowed from the Student Union, access to BBC iPlayer, and a weekly selection of sweet treats, we set about trying to answer that question. Out tactic was to watch episodes and play against both teams on the screen, allowing us to build a team dynamic, learn each other’s strengths, and work out which topics we were collectively weak on. Where we found a topic none of the five of us could answer, we noted it down and allocated them all at the end of each session. So, in between the ordinary general use of Sporcle and Wikipedia to branch out our knowledge, we tackled specific areas to fill gaps in our collective knowledge. Combined with the buzzer and team practice we got each week, it seemed to help a little.

Following several months of this practice, we arrived in Salford to film our first round against King’s College, Cambridge. I can confidently say that I have never had a more surreal experience in my life than walking into the studio and seeing our names on the panels of a show I have been watching for years, but I was so pleased to see it. I distinctly remember my first correct ‘starter for ten’, a question on what word can follow “storehouse” in Yogachara Buddhism and “false” in Marxist theory. I answered “consciousness” correctly, but only because a fortnight before I had learned that in my Rule of Law Jurisprudence seminar. Law questions are very infrequent on University Challenge, but I was very pleased my degree could help me out in some small way. Following a consequent series of wins over Hertford and Christ Church Colleges from Oxford, Trinity College from Cambridge, and the University of Manchester, we found ourselves preparing for the series final against Imperial.

Truthfully, I never expected to reach the final. While I have immense faith in the team, the things we had heard about Hertford, Oxford meant that I, and some of the team, were expecting Round Two to be our last hurrah. Even having got past this hurdle though, and finding ourselves in the last filming block of the series, we still agreed to pack a formal outfit “just in case” we made it to the Final – after all, we’d probably never end up wearing it. Nevertheless, the time came, and we were sitting down with Imperial suited and booted and ready to quiz, although my lack of preparedness for this moment meant that, reminiscent of David Tennant’s tenth Doctor, I was wearing a pair of sneakers with my suit. Thankfully, although some Twitter/X users compared my previous outfits to a train seat cover and a picnic blanket, this fashion mishap was avoided.

Sitting across from Imperial was certainly daunting. The first thing we said back in Round One when we found out who our opponents were was, genuinely, “thank God it’s not Imperial”. For those unfamiliar with the show, Imperial College London are a modern powerhouse, having already produced a record four winning teams and a reputation as fearsome quizzers. This year was no exception, and they stormed to take victory from us. They really did deserve this victory, however, as they were all wonderful people and, I would argue, the best team to ever compete on this show. Despite losing out at this final hurdle, we managed to equal UCL’s best ever performance in the over 60-year history of this show, and the experience was immense fun from start to finish. At no point can I say I felt at all dejected, because I had put one of my greatest passions to good use and achieved something I never thought I could.

The filming process for this period, however, presented an enormous challenge for all of us, in that it fell slap bang in our exam period. The time I would ordinarily have spent revising was instead taken up labelling counties of Ireland and learning shipping forecast areas. More accurately, it was taken up making sure I could pronounce County Laois properly for TV, and thinking that Fastnet sounded more like a Wi-Fi provider than an area of ocean. I would like to be able to tell you how I managed it, but frankly I have no clue – I think perhaps the satisfaction I got from learning the useless knowledge I so love carried me through. Or, perhaps, it was the pure adrenaline that I got from the high-octane sport that is quizzing. Who knows?

All this was also done, I should add, against the backdrop of my campaign to be UCL Law Society’s Publications Officer. Campaigning in Bentham House and snacking on chocolates and cakes provided by other campaigners (maybe it was the sugar that got me through, after all) was incredibly fun but also challenging. The work required in campaigning, as any Publications Officer will tell you, was nothing compared to the volume that I have had to proofread and design over the last year for all of the Law Society’s amazing publication opportunities. Despite all this, though, I will miss the role so much, not least because I will have to lose my fancy Law Society email signature. Publications was always something that interested and inspired me, so it was delightful to be able to see all the incredible work that my peers contributed, and to have the privilege of publishing their talents to the world. The Publications team and I managed to introduce a weekly events newsletter, publish the Legal Awareness Newsletter on time fortnightly for the first ever time, and break the record twice for most contributed-to edition of Silk v Brief. UCL Laws surrounds you with such talent and enthusiasm, and being Publications Officer allowed me to tap into that and see the full capabilities and passions of my classmates, so I am very grateful to them for all their help in this. With the DIO Officer and SPBC, we also managed to add some quiz events to the Law Society programme, with two pub quizzes going down as many people’s favourite events of the year.

I cannot stress enough how much talent I have been lucky to be exposed to during my time at UCL, and my advice on that note would be no matter what your ambitions are, just go for it. If you want to be on the University Challenge team, what have you got to lose? At the very worst, you get to do a fun quiz in the trials, and at best you end up on TV with the university’s support behind you. If you want to submit work to be published with the UCL Law Society, why not? Everything I was lucky enough to work on this year was marvellously written and fascinating to read, so you should absolutely get involved.

Now is as good a time as any to take this advice, because the future is looking bright for UCL Law students. Following another round of elections, the Law Society is being left in the hands of a competent and talented committee, and, separately, the wheels are being set in motion for a UCL Quiz Society. So few people are as lucky as us to get the opportunities we have here, so go for it. These three years will go by quicker than you expect, and if you have a passion for something that you never fulfilled, you don’t want to end up regretting it.