Watch tonight: UEA’s famous alumni prepares for University Challenge semi-final

They have already proven they know from where the word 'mistletoe' derives, and can identify – or at worst guess – the words of poet John Betjeman.

But tonight four famous University of East Anglia graduates will once again face some very tough questions from the surprisingly-nice Jeremy Paxman.

The team, made up of novellist John Boyne, BBC journalists Razia Iqbal and David Grossman, and actor, comedian and author Charlie Higson, will compete in the semi-final of the special Christmas episodes of University Challenge.

Having come through the heats earlier this week with the second-highest score, the UEA alumni will have had reason to feel pretty good about themselves ahead of this latest test.

Tuesday's victory over the University of Birmingham saw them score 195 points – beaten only by New College Oxford who scored 240 in their heat.

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But, with no scientist on their team, the UEA side had thought they might struggle.

Captain Mr Grossman, political correspondent for the BBC's Newsnight, said a practice ahead of filming had added to those fears.

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He said: 'During this time we didn't manage to buzz in once. At that point I thought 'this could be really embarrassing'.'

Birmingham took the lead early on but the UEA team soon bounced back answering questions on topics ranging from Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Match Girl and the background of the word 'omnishambles' to geometry and African rivers.

Charlie Higson, who graduated from the UEA in 1980 having met fellow comedian and bandmate Paul Whitehouse while there, said getting his first question right about the origins of the word mistletoe gave him confidence.

'You can see by my answer that I wasn't entirely sure, and I was expecting Paxman to give me a withering look and a snooty put-down,' he said.

'But he seemed as surprised as I was that it was the correct answer. Once I was over that hurdle, it was a lot easier.'

The four-strong team will once again risk Mr Paxman's 'withering look' tonight but Mr Grossman and Mr Higson both agreed he did not live up to his intimidating reputation.

The captain said: 'I've been working with Jeremy now for over 10 years so I would say I have more of an idea of the real person.

'On screen he is extremely intimidating, it is true, but in the Newsnight office he is very different. Extremely courteous and funny, and very friendly.'

All four contestants have been inundated with messages from current and former students who tuned in to watch the programme on Tuesday.

Mr Higson, who has previously appeared on Mastermind, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Only Connect and Pointless, said competing on the 'big daddy' of quiz shows was a proud moment.

The UEA celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and will stage a packed programme of events for current and former students, as well as members of the public, including a festival weekend in the summer.

Its vice-chancellor, Edward Acton, said: 'I am delighted to see our team of successful graduates doing so well in the alumni edition of University Challenge, particularly because the other three participants in the semi-finals were founded well before we even began our first 50 years.

'We wish them the very best of luck in the semi-finals.'

The UEA alumni have been tight-lipped about how they got on in the semi-final. To find out, tune in to BBC2 at 6.30pm.

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