Bamber Gascoigne, urban presenter and author who made University Challenge a television institution – obituary
The following year Gascoigne published a history of theater in the 20th century and worked as a theater critic for The Spectator (with Bernard Levin) and The Observer.
In 1961, Gascoigne auditioned for the job of quiz master on an English version of the American show College Bowl. Granada originally thought University Challenge would fill a nine-week gap in the 1962 broadcast schedule. The program proved so popular under Gascoigne’s presidency that it was revived for several seasons until that it earns a long-standing place in Granada’s repertoire.
Some universities were initially wary of the scheme, but Granada’s offer of £100 to student union funds overcame most reservations.
Much to his chagrin, Gascoigne was dubbed “the boy every woman wants to mother” and received considerable amounts of fan mail from middle-aged women. He liked to play the role of quiz master because recording the program only took 40 days a year. ‘Granada’, he asserted, ‘was the closest thing to an 18th century patron I was likely to meet. The University Challenge has allowed me to pursue all of my other interests while remaining financially secure.
In 1964, while working as a literary critic for The Sunday Telegraph, Gascoigne wrote his first play. Surprisingly, given his position as “television’s most intellectual quiz master,” it was about a little boy’s unnatural passion for a mechanical duck. Leda Had a Little Swan was banned by the Lord Chamberlain before it hit the London scene.
Gascoigne hoped to have better luck on Broadway 18 months later. In a 1965 interview, he confidently expected the play to be a success. “When I start as a playwright,” he said, “it will be with a big bang.” Although Leda Had a Little Swan survived rehearsals and previews in the United States, it was removed before opening night.
Gascoigne’s second attempt at playwriting proved no more successful. His play dealt with a utopian community in the Scottish Highlands but was never performed as it required a cast of nearly 50 people. Seemingly undeterred by his earlier theatrical failures, Gascoigne immediately wrote another play (again unstaged) which required a cast of 40 pygmies.