Exclusive Interview: University Challenge God Guttenplan Speaks

Alex Guttenplan has been labelled an “unlikely internet heartthrob” by the papers this week. Read his first ever full interview here.

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Depending which newspaper or blog you read this week, Alex Guttenplan is a “sensation” (Mail), an “unlikely heartthrob” (Telegraph) or even “a sophisticated version of those giant computers that they had on sixties TV shows” (some nerdy online diary).

His encyclopaedic knowledge has led Emmanuel to this Monday’s final of University Challenge in spectacular style, and has won him hundreds of ‘Guttenfans’ on Facebook.

In his first ever full interview, Alex and his team told me about Paxman’s mispronunciations, his thoughts on Cindies and how he compares to the University Challenge greats.

For someone who knows as much as he does, Alex Guttenplan comes across as remarkably perplexed. And his army of more than 1500 fans on Facebook probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

The founder of his biggest fan group, ‘alex guttenplan; very clever. very nice’ told me that she suspects that “he’s a humble genius”, that “he’s dreaming of an alternate universe where everybody knows as much as him thus making his intellectual prowess less a need for celebration and more a way of life.”

When I put this to Guttenplan, his response is telling: “I’m not sure whether either of those is true. I look at the group quite rarely…It’s really a bit odd.”

It’s immediately clear quite how reluctant a celebrity Emmanuel’s newest wunderkind really is: Guttenplan agreed to speak to me only on the condition that the rest of his team were present. And it’s lucky that they are present because quiz god he may be, Alan Carr he is not.

And Andy Hastings, Jenny Harris and Josh Scott aren’t just useful to keep the conversation ticking over. Despite the media attention on their remarkable captain the three of them have played a major role in the competition, particularly in the semi-final where their areas of knowledge combined devastatingly to put Manchester to the sword.

The Emmanuel team during their 315-120 semi-final destruction of Manchester.

The team’s journey to the final actually began with defeat. Jenny Harris, the entertaining linguist who sits to Alex’s right on the show, recalls that after losing to Regent’s Park “I was just thinking that it’s nice that we get to be on TV twice!”

Medic Josh Scott admits that the experience was “horrendously nerve racking” although a rumour that Guttenplan was found throwing up in the loos before the match is strenuously denied.

Nevertheless he seems pleased to tell me that an American member of the St. John’s Oxford team who they play in the final on Monday “was heard singing the American national anthem very loudly before one of their matches”.

The Guttenplan juggernaut began to gather serious momentum in the second round when the team beat Christ’s Cambridge in the play-off. The fourth member of the team Andy Hastings, who a satirical website this week accused of “supplying brain enhancing drugs”, remembers the word ‘Guttenplan’ ‘trending’ on Twitter: “I don’t know what that means but it sounds like a big deal!”.

Another big deal has been Guttenplan’s perceived audacity in dealing with Paxman. The papers have hailed him for “facing down the show’s notoriously intimidating host” after he rebuked the great man for assuming an answer was a “good guess”.

So what do the team really think of Paxo?

Momentarily, Guttenplan’s understated diplomacy gives way to a sardonic smile: “I think he’s a very nice guy. But he’s very conscious that he is Jeremy Paxman.”

Do they resent his quippy, know-it-all comments?

“You get the idea on TV that he knows everything.” Guttenplan adds wryly.

Josh clarifies: “He mispronounces stuff all the time.”

“Sometimes if he mispronounces particularly badly they will re-take the shot at the end of the match” Alex adds.

Emmanuel have never won the competition in its history, despite having Sebastian Faulks on the team in 1972

And to my great disappointment, it turns out the boy-wonder – who everyone assumes really does know everything – confesses that even he sometimes takes pot luck: “Oh yes – and the Classical music round was always a lot of guessing!

The 19 year old seems to take some comfort from the fact that he not the first to have gathered a cultish following of Facebook fans.

Max Kaufman, a former Univeristy Challenge great who led his Chirst Church Oxford team to victory in 2008 and who competed with Guttenplan on a quiz team at Westminster School, was afforded a similar cyber-reception.

And yet you won’t find Emma’s newest star swamped by reformed blu-tacks in Cindies on a Wednesday night because, as he proudly admits, he’s never been: “I’ve been to Soul Tree – I went there in Fresher’s week and it gave me an impression of mainstream clubs in Cambridge as being like standing in the Tube while people play music you don’t like very much, very loudly”.

The University Challenge final is on Monday April 5th at 8.00 on BBC2.