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Triple first: Bamber Gascoigne - The Old Un

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Triple first: Bamber Gascoigne

Bamber Gascoigne wasn't considered university material but rallied to achieve three firsts

‘This boy is not suitable for university,’ declared the Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, after interviewing the lad who grew up to become the first presenter of University Challenge.

Bamber Gascoigne, who died in February, aged 87, won a scholarship to Eton at 13.

Once there, he was daunted by the intellects of fellow scholars (two of them used to play chess at meals without a board). Consequently he became merely ‘the sort of chap who played games’.

At 16, the unsuitable boy, asked about his interests by the Dean, gave a highly disappointing reply: ‘Shooting and fishing.’ He hastily and untruthfully added ‘reading’ – but was stumped when asked what he was reading at the time.

Finally, he remembered his grandmother was halfway through The Cruel Sea. What did he think about this gung-ho wartime yarn which wasn’t exactly on the A-level syllabus? Er, ‘It’s about convoys crossing the Atlantic.’

Chastened by the Dean’s verdict, and tutored by more academic fellow Etonians, he worked so hard that he won an exhibition to Magdalene, where he achieved a First in his first year.

In his second year he informed Arthur Sale, his supervisor later described by his pupil John Simpson as the best English teacher in Cambridge, that he wouldn’t be handing in any essays for a bit. He was writing and directing the college revue, Share My Lettuce. It transferred to the West End. Gascoigne pulled off Firsts in not only his second but also his third year.

Not bad for someone who wasn’t university material.

This story was from April 2022 issue. Subscribe Now