REVIEW: BBC Radio Four ‘The 3rd Degree’ @ University of Brighton, 31/01/19

The Verse’s Jake Francis lets us know what he thought of BBC Radio Four’s show ‘The 3rd Degree’. 

What is your worst nightmare? Generally speaking, there are many that crop up time and time again. Whether it be falling from a great height, being chased by something unfathomably faster than you, or finding yourself naked in a double period of Chemistry. Alongside these cliché taunts of the subconscious is arguably the worst of all: being ill-prepared for a life-altering exam. According to recent studies, around one in five of us are set to ‘experience’ this nocturnal fate. Simultaneously waking in cold sweats and to an absolute certainty that you have royally cocked up a test of your abilities. With so many of us likely to live through this eye-watering trauma, a foreboding question comes to mind: why isn’t someone making a show around this?

Unsurprisingly, there already is such a thing- and it is called ‘The 3rd Degree’. Produced for BBC Radio Four and presented by Steve Punt of Spitting Image fame (or Horrible Histories for you Kidults), this show pits students against their professors for a crack at intellectual superiority. Structured into seven rounds, the show challenges its cast in both specialist and ‘garden variety’ knowledge. Allowing each student the chance to turn their education against those who facilitate it. Representing Brighton’s student body on this episode is Rachel, Vincent and Sara. Each paired with their professors Dr Sarah Pitt, Philip Holden, and Dr John Watson respectively.

Primarily centralised on the subjects shared by the before mentioned pairings (Biomedical Science, Marketing management, and Globalisation), Punt offers a number of opportunities for the tables to be turned. All doused in the half-quips and topical cheek that Radio Four is known for. After the oddly disconcerting practices at audience laughter, and the consistent ‘umming’ and ‘ahhing’ of our host, The 3rd Degree is well and truly in session…

Round one starts off informally with a battle of general knowledge; the score ending in an 8-6 victory for ‘The Dons’ (lecturers). As both teams arrive at the challenge with confidence and the expected hubris of being on a broadcasted quiz show, who would have thought that the ingredients of tzatziki would be such an area of contention?

Round two pits Rachel against Dr Sarah Pitt on their shared subject of Biomedical science; an area of theory so dense that even the BBC has to fact check the questions as they progress. Despite valiant efforts and an endless barrage of scientific muzak, The Dons maintain their lead with a score of 10-6.

Round three deviates back to unspecified territories, with each team asked to list as many entries as they can on their given subject within 30 seconds. It is here that we see generational culture in full throttle; the students achieving bonus points for their knowledge on the Gods and Goddesses of Olympia. A thank-you to Disney’s Hercules may be in order. Matching them at an absurd pace is The Dons, they too scoring top marks for their almost perfect recollection (and pronunciation) of Paris Metro stations; one comes to think that educators may get a discount on the Eurostar.

The score now stands at 19-15 to the Dons Round four returns to contestant specialisms, putting student Vince in the ring against tutor Philip Holden on Marketing management. Surprisingly interesting for a course with such a name, Vince offers one of the most entertaining moments of tonight’s recording; mistaking the well-known jingle for Intel with that of Sony PlayStation. Despite audience hair-pulling and nervous laughing, the score continues its trajectory, with the Dons leading 25-19.

Round five, or ‘high brow / low brow’ tests the intellectual sensibilities of each team – offering the student/lecturer in the spotlight to flaunt either their academic or average joe knowledge. Unsurprisingly the variety in questions is vast, with topics such as football sponsorship, Agatha Christie, and Japanese printmaking all being thrown into the mix. With The Dons were awarded bonus points for their correct answers in low brow, the students are handed the same when tackling the ‘finer’ things. Giving each an extra chance of success out of their perceived comfort zone. Although the Dons continue to strive forward with a score of 28-21, I for one am proud to say that I was the only student present not to recognise an Ariana Grande song – well done and no offence to Rachael.

Round six is the final head-to-head round, with Rachael facing Dr John Watson on the topic of Globalisation and modern history. Politician name mockery aside, the round lives up to its subject namesake – a vast spectrum of questions on 20th-century events, contemporary initiatives, and protest theory. Despite our student’s best efforts, it is evident that the travesties of colonialism are too vast for one person’s recollection, leaving the scores at 34-21 to The Dons. The seventh and ?nal round is an old fashioned buzzer cross-fire, it accompanied by the usual malfunctions and excitable confusion.

With questions on Art Nouveau, mathematical equations, Pina Coladas, and David Walliams, the high brow/low brow battles put on pause for the last round have obviously resumed; accompanied this time by the recognisable shrill of the bike bell. Most notable in the quick-fire successes is Dr Sarah Pitt, who mid-question answers gleefully with the all-too-revealing knowledge of what constitutes the street drug ‘Poppers.’ Alas, despite the domination of air time, the students are unable to claw back victory from their academic opponents, with the final score landing at 38-24 for The Dons.

Whilst the idea of going head-to-head with your teacher on a national radio programme may sound like your worst nightmare, it clearly warrants a lot of fun. Although Vince, Sara, and Rachel may not have claimed victory on this occasion, they have proven that the know-it-alls don’t, in fact, know it all, and that is a comforting realisation. ‘The 3rd Degree’ serves as a reminder that despite our place within our careers or intellectual qualifications, we are all able to feel out of our depth. And that is a cathartic thing for all to enjoy. At the very least, quiz shows such as these open you up to reconsider topics you may never have considered on your own. Or, to quote our host bluntly: ‘You learn something new, and largely pointless every day.’

‘The 3rd Degree’ is produced and distributed by BBC Radio Four with the Brighton episode set to air in Summer 2019 as part of the ninth season. For more information on the programme or its previous series please visit: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01d0q86

Jake Francis

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