Documentaries about clever people do not generally give a good impression of clever people. BBC 2’s Wonderland episode on University Challenge contestants served to poke fun at the odd-ball quizzers, and indeed previous incarnations of the Child Genius documentary series on Channel 4 have often seemed more focused on the intelligent children’s interpersonal deficiencies rather than their talent. This year’s edition of Child Genius, though, was a surprising breath of fresh air, where the audience were always rooting for the kids, and their skills were of more importance to the camera than their shortcomings. Finalist Ben and his fellow intellectuals at school revelled in their friendship group being known as “Team Geek”; it was heartening that the audience were encouraged to laugh with them, not at them.
Children of 7-11 years participated in a Mensa-organised, televised competition to find Britain’s “Child Genius”, with knock-out rounds of spelling, arithmetic, memory and debating. Ultimately, Shrinidhi, 11, a four-time novelist and international Scrabble champion emerged victorious, with the television audience surely cheering her victory. Her joy at smelling old books in the library (who hasn’t done that at one time in the Bod?) was infectious, and it was exciting throughout the process to see someone primarily interested in language have talent in mathematics and memory tests. The complex personalities of the competitors shone through; each week, viewers would be on the edge of their seats willing the children to do well, whether it was in spelling and defining “lapilli” – a blob of molten lava, apparently – or recalling the 52nd card from a memorised deck. These were not a precocious bunch of know-it-alls, indeed general knowledge was much less prioritised than exploring their natural intelligence through questions of the sort found on the actual Mensa IQ tests. What could easily have been a dull, repetitive experience of watching children complete tasks (there were 21 at the start of the process – a large number to wade through) actually became fascinating, as their different strengths were explored.
Some will argue that the parents are the villains of the piece, pushing their children to the limit for their own personal glory at being able to prove their offspring is the most clever. One father had a strict daily regime for his son, to be followed even when he was on a residential school trip; he argued that it was better to have eighteen years of strict control and development for a future with any possibility, than a wasted childhood leading to restricted opportunities and difficulties in employment. Whether one agrees or otherwise with his near-Spartan idea, it is important to remember (as shouldn’t be too difficult for Oxford students) that the majority of these kids want to be doing the hard work. From a young age, bright children enjoy succeeding and challenging themselves, and it is not simply the parents bullishly pushing them over the edge.
Certainly, one can imagine these children pushing themselves through the rigorous Oxbridge admissions procedure – as their parents might expect – but not just because they are clever, but because the majority actually have a passion for their ability and interests talents; take Shrinidhi’s love of the dictionary, or the from-memory recitation of the periodic table by Connor, aged just 9. A former children’s quiz show winner myself, I absolutely identified with these kids, and hope we’ll see them in Oxford’s class of 2024.