Thursday, April 8, 2010

2009 March 8th: GAIL TRIMBLE

This piece was written before the University Challenge final and the shambolic events that overtook the contest.

The Corpus Christi captain has trounced all opposition on University Challenge almost single-handed. Will she do it again in tomorrow's final?

Jeremy Paxman has gazed at her in rapt admiration, awestruck opponents have repeatedly been beaten to the buzzer, and the student blogosphere has turned her into a controversial cult figure. Tomorrow Gail Trimble, captain of the Corpus Christi College, Oxford, team is set to confirm her status as the greatest University Challenge contestant ever.

If form is any guide, when Corpus Christi take on Manchester University in the final, Trimble, 26, will wipe the floor with them, ruthlessly amassing starters-for-10 and cowing the competition with what one contestant described as a form of "intellectual blitzkrieg".

In the Oxford college's run to the final, Trimble has scored more points than her three team-mates combined. In their semi-final, Corpus Christi defeated St John's College, Cambridge, 260-150. Trimble's personal haul was 185. In the quarter-finals, Trimble racked up a record 15 starters-for-10 as Corpus Christi raced to 350 points. Opponents Exeter University limped to 15 points, the equivalent of one correct starter and bonus. It was the lowest score since 1971 and only five points more than the worst of all time.

When Trimble, a Latin literature student from Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, finally got a starter-for-10 wrong, interrupting Paxman and costing her team five points, a TV blogger was shocked into posting the exact time of the incident - 16 minutes eight seconds into the semi-final.

Paxman is often left shaking his head in admiration. "My God! You're laughing because they're so easy," he exclaimed on one occasion during the quarter-final.

The eulogies have come thick and fast. She has been called a "TV quiz phenomenon", "the female Stephen Fry", "a one-woman knowledge factory" and someone who has a "breadth of knowledge that has crushed all opposition like a panzer squadron racing across the countryside". Men have been captivated by "hot lips Trimble" and "tasty Trimble", and she has been described as "a fine young lady, beautiful in a scholarly sort of way".

But not everyone has warmed to the Trimble manner. One irate viewer felt compelled to blog: "Not for some time have I been so angry at a complete stranger as I was with this Trimble character. Each answer was met with a smug grin or a cocky smirk. My normally placid girlfriend ended half-poetically seething: 'Not a friend did she own at school', before physically turning her back on the screen so she didn't have to bear this odious little smug specimen."

Speaking to the Observer yesterday, Trimble said: "I've been aware of the attention and the things that are being said. It makes me realise how people see you as a person and how you come across on TV, as opposed to how you have always imagined yourself to be in real life. I don't know quite how some people can get an impression of who you are having only been on a couple of half-hour TV programmes. I don't feel I would have been treated the same way were I a man. Part of it is also to do with the fact that I am the captain, who is always giving the answers."

She is no stranger to success. Educated at Lady Eleanor Holles in Hampton, Middlesex, Trimble won a place at Oxford in 2000 after achieving 11 GCSEs and four A-levels in Latin, Greek, English Literature and Maths - all at grade A. She won a declamation prize at Oxford for Latin recital in 2001, gives recitals in her lunchtimes at college as a soprano singer, lectures on Ovid, Hellenistic poetry and, a favourite of hers, Catullus 64: Ariadne's Lament (a sophisticated miniature epic of Greco-Roman mythology written for a cultural elite in the first century BC).

Stephen Follows, a former University Challenge winner who sang with Trimble in a choir for several years, said she is certainly one of the best contestants to appear on the show.

He said: "People should be celebrating her achievements, not sniping at her. She is an extremely nice, kind person who would be mortified at the thought that anyone would find her condescending. The faces she was pulling in the Exeter match were very English ones of embarrassment over doing too well, rather than triumphalism. They need to get over their own inverted intellectual snobberies."

The 38th University Challenge final should prove her sternest test to date. Manchester won the competition in 2006 and swept away Lincoln College, Oxford, in this year's semi-final by 345-30. Whatever happens, Trimble has fulfilled a lifelong ambition simply by being on the show.

"I always wanted to be on University Challenge, ever since I began watching it with my family when it returned with Jeremy Paxman in 1994. Corpus Christi have had some very strong teams on in recent years, so I was really looking forward to the opportunity to be on.

"I've had a really good time. It's very competitive and that's what is such fun about it. Everyone at Granada made us feel welcome, as did Jeremy. Winning matches meant we travelled back and we were able to meet Jeremy again, so we hoped he would remember us the more he saw us. He did say he was impressed with my performance."

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