Monday, April 27, 2020

A Black American Whiz Kid Beats England's Best: A Queens Yankee Takes the U.K. Quiz Crown

By Elliot Kaufman | The Wall Street Journal

Brandon Blackwell thinks during an April 13 episode of ‘University Challenge.’ Photo: BBC

Brandon Blackwell outsmarted the competition and ruffled feathers on ‘University Challenge,’ Britain’s most highbrow TV quiz show.

Screenshot: University Challenge 2019/2020 E20 – iPlayer

“I came to Britain specifically to go on this show, win and beat Oxford and Cambridge,” says Brandon Blackwell, and he did. The young American knocked the stuffiness out of the British elite on “University Challenge,” which he calls the “highest-class, poshest TV quiz show on planet Earth.”

The show’s questions are difficult and decidedly highbrow, attracting the U.K.’s finest young nerds and toffs as contestants. “Historically, it would be four white guys in suits and ties from Oxford playing four white guys in suits and ties from Cambridge,” Mr. Blackwell, 26, says in a phone interview, “and they’d be sitting there stoically answering questions about Aristotle for 25 minutes.” 

Even in the heat of competition, “nobody showed any emotion.” There are more Asians today and it’s looser, but Mr. Blackwell, who was one of only two black contestants among the 112 on “University Challenge” this season, says he’s OK with the old-school-tie style. It just isn’t his, and he doesn’t see why that’s a problem: “This isn’t ‘Finishing School Challenge,’ ” he says.

Here’s a vignette from the show’s 2015 final, featuring regular host Jeremy Paxman and a sweater-laden student contestant:
“Right—10 points for this: Meaning ‘said only once,’ what two-word Greek term—”

“Hapax legomenon.”


Enter “Brandon, out of Jamaica, Queens, in New York City,” as he introduced himself before each round. Jamaica isn’t quite London, Suffolk or Northamptonshire, but it’s his home. 

From there he trekked to the competitive Bronx Science public high school. 

Still, why not simply say “New York City” for a British audience? 

Because that could convey a completely different background: “I wanted people to be perfectly clear that this is the kind of person you’re dealing with.” 

He wore a pin bearing the words “Not Here To Make Friends.” For a quiz competition, he brought a pinch of reality-show drama.

Led by Mr. Blackwell, the Imperial College London team walloped the competition, winning each round, including the grand final against a team from Cambridge, by an average of 150 points

The show was taped last spring, long before the lockdown, but aired one match a week on BBC Two from July until this past Monday. 

Mr. Blackwell regularly outscored opposing four-person teams all by himself, and had fun doing it. 

This earned him the scorn of British tabloids and many viewers, who called him smug, arrogant, attention-seeking and a bad teammate—in other words, an American upstart.

Mr. Blackwell says he was simply being himself and joking with teammates.

“What’s perceived by Brits as arrogance or smugness, that’s just how people act in New York,” he explains. “It’s cultural.” 

Maybe the custom in London is to offer polite suggestions, but who has time for that nonsense in Queens? 

When conferring with teammates, Mr. Blackwell sometimes gave orders and spoke strongly.

His mannerisms were picked apart. 

The face he sometimes made as his brain raced earned him the nickname “The Scowler,” picked up by the Daily Mail; a head shake and half-shrug with two hands out seemed to say “too easy”; an “Are these guys serious?” look prompted an intervention from Mr. Paxman, the host: “You look as if you find the question insultingly easy.” 

Again, on a later episode: “Sorry it’s so easy for you.” 

Not for nothing was Mr. Paxman once accused of “bourgeois priggishness” while doing his day job, aggressively interviewing newsmakers for the BBC.

Very often Mr. Blackwell knew the answer, but he deferred and collaborated when he didn’t. He praises his teammates: Caleb Rich was “the best physics player in the tournament,” yet somehow “a normal dude,” not a quiz-obsessive. “He just shows up and knows stuff.”

Mr. Blackwell, by contrast, trained under “Jeopardy!” all-timer Roger Craig to learn “how to solve game shows and optimize studying.” 

He even listened to dozens of old episodes of “BBC Newsnight,” formerly hosted by Mr. Paxman, to learn the nuances of the host’s accent.

Right before the final aired, the Daily Mail reported that Mr. Blackwell had already won more than $450,000 in prize money from three game shows, including “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” 

Mr. Blackwell tells me he has appeared on seven programs, including a reality show. 

He got his start on “Jeopardy! Teen Tournament” 12 years ago, and says he chose a British university for his master’s in computer science because of the country’s superior “quiz infrastructure.” 

He started studying for “University Challenge” in 2016.

Everybody knows Americans sometimes succumb to an English accent, mistaking it for Old World sophistication and intelligence. 

But the trans-Atlantic dance also works the other way. 

Speak a little loudly and bluntly, use the wrong fork or spoon, and the Brits can be quick to think they’re dealing with a boor, an amateur, a New World parvenu.

Mr. Blackwell is a pro and a showman.

“I knew I was going to be the bad guy,” he says. 

By the time his British critics stopped looking down on him, he was already home in Jamaica, Queens, celebrating his triumph.

Mr. Kaufman is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.