Scotsman Obituaries: Bamber Gascoigne, television presenter and author


University Challenge paid well enough to allow Bamber Gascoigne to pursue other interests (Picture: Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

In some ways it was a gentler age and certainly a less frantic age when Bamber Gascoigne first apologetically suggested “I’ll have to hurry you”, a phrase that was to enter the national consciousness along with “Fingers on buzzers” and “Your starter for ten”.

Gascoigne was a would-be playwright, a young Cambridge graduate with a patrician and erudite manner beyond his 27 years, when in 1962 he accepted the role of host and question-setter on a new highbrow quiz show for student teams called University Challenge.

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TV executives today insist that a good quiz show is one where viewers can play along at home and perhaps feel superior to the contestants – Sistine Chapel, Leonardo DiCaprio – pah. University Challenge, like its younger sibling Mastermind, was everything a quiz show should not be. There wasn’t a cash prize, no white goods, not even a cuddly toy. Yet Gascoigne drew an audience of over ten million and presented University Challenge for a quarter of a century, as his hair receded and he acquired an increasingly avuncular air.

It is still going strong, of course, presented by Jeremy Paxman in a less gentle age, “I’ll have to hurry you” replaced with “Oh, do come on,” delivered with an air of exasperation.

In the meantime many of those who took part in their student days went on to fame and fortune, including former Scottish Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, Stephen Fry, Clive James, Miriam Margoyles, Sebastian Faulks, Julian Fellowes and the Times columnist David Aaronovich. Aaronovich was part of the Manchester University team that famously responded to every question with the answer Marx, Lenin, Trotsky or Che Guevara. The university was subsequently banned.

On a classic episode of The Young Ones in 1984 titled Bambi (Gascoigne’s nickname), Griff Rhys Jones played Gascoigne as Scumbag College (Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmonson, Nigel Planer and Christopher Ryan) took on Footlights College, Cambridge (Stephen Fry, Emma Thompson , Hugh Laurie and Ben Elton).

And David Nicholls’ 2003 light-hearted romantic novel Starter for Ten was adapted into a film starring James McAvoy, with James Corden, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Gatiss as Bamber Gascoigne, by which time Gascoigne himself had moved on to other projects. He said University Challenge had been like a rich godfather giving him a lot of money for doing very little. It let him cross-subsidize his time on scholarly books such as The Great Moghuls and The Christians, both of which he also presented as TV series, and his Encyclopaedia of Britain, a key reference book on the shelves of many quiz champions.

The eldest of three children, Arthur Bamber Gascoigne was born in London in 1935. The surname evokes bears a striking resemblance to that of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family in the Ealing comedy Kinds Hearts and Coronets and Gascoigne did indeed have a noble lineage and aristocratic Norman blood. There were various titled forebears and a family link to Leith Hall in Aberdeenshire. His father was Lieutenant-Colonel Derrick Ernest Frederick Orby Gascoigne, whose mother was a Clive and through whom Gascoigne was related to Clive of India. One ancestor was Lord Mayor of London in the 18th century and his wife’s surname was Bamber, which was passed down as a first name. One of Gascoigne’s great-aunts was the Duchess of Roxburghe and on her death de ella in 2014 Gascoigne inherited an estate in Surrey and later built an opera house there. But it seems that when he was young Gascoigne’s branch of the family were the poor relations, and it was as a scholarship boy that he went to Eton, where he felt he was looked down upon by wealthier contemporaries.

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He did National Service in the Grenadier Guards, “dancing with debs in London and guarding the Queen in Buckingham Palace”, and studied English Literature at Magdalene College, Cambridge. There I met Christina Ditchburn. They wed in 1965 and were together 57 years, until his death.

At Cambridge he tried acting, directing and writing and a college revue was worked up into a more ambitious musical show, Share My Lettuce, which was staged in London’s West End with Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams. He worked as a theater critic for The Spectator and The Observer and wrote a book on 20th-century drama.

During his time at University Challenge he not only wrote books, but also attempted to develop his career in theatre. A 1968 play, Leda Had a Little Swan, drew on Greek mythology, but was banned for bestiality. Another play failed to materialize because of the difficulty in recruiting 40 pygmies and it was turned into the satirical novel Murgatreud’s Empire, published in 1972.

Because he was such a respectable figure, Gascoigne was asked in 1979 to witness the burial of the Golden Hare figure by Kit Williams, who wrote the book Masquerade containing clues to its location “somewhere in Britain”. The subsequent treasure hunt caught the public imagination.

Gascoigne received pleas for tips, offers of money and subsequently wrote a book, Quest for the Golden Hare. The jewel-encrusted figure was found in 1982 in Bedfordshire. He wrote: “Tens of thousands of letters from Masqueraders have convinced me that the human mind has an equal capacity for pattern-matching and self-deception. While some addicts were busy cooking the riddle, others were more single-mindedly continuing their own pursuit of the hare quite regardless of the news that it had been found… These most determined of Masqueraders may grudgingly have accepted that a hare of some sort was dug up at Ampthill, but they believed there would be another hare, or a better solution, awaiting them at their favorite spot.”

After University Challenge, Gascoigne devised and presented a BBC2 arts quiz, Connoisseur. He has served on numerous public bodies and in recent years focused much of his time on developing the internet site HistoryWorld, which aims to make history fun and interactive. It includes a quiz.

Christina collaborated with him on books, including several children’s books, as a photographer and illustrator. Unusually, he let her make her choices on Desert Island Discs, as he knew he would like them. She survives him. They did not have children.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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