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Amol Rajan will devote his first University Challenge to his ‘beloved’ father

New University Challenge host Amol Rajan says he will dedicate his first starter for 10 to his ‘beloved’ late father who moved his family to the UK in search of a better life – the start of a remarkable journey for the BBC golden boy. 

The 39-year-old, who was confirmed as Jeremy Paxman’s replacement on Tuesday, was born to Hindu parents in Calcutta, India, and moved to London aged three.

His father, P. Varadarajan, was a general manager at a trading company while his mother was a dinner lady and a nursery teacher and eventually worked in administration at the Foreign Office.  

State-school educated and living in Tooting, south London, he applied to read English at Downing College, Cambridge, buying a pair of mustard corduroys for the interview.

‘I thought that was what you were supposed to do,’ he told this newspaper. ‘Until then, I thought of posh people as a distant race. To me, Eton was like Mordor.

‘But going to Cambridge made me realise I could compete at the top on level terms, that the people who went to Eton could be my friends, that anything was possible.’

In a Twitter tribute to mark Father’s Day in 2020, Rajan described his father as ‘the cleverest man I’ve met, born into unconscionable poverty, who with his glorious wife (also one of 11 siblings) sacrificed everything to come to UK when I was 3, so that his kids may at least live a fuller, happier life than he did’. 

He once again recognised his father’s contribution in a statement greeting his latest appointment, writing: ‘I won’t stop thinking today about my late, beloved Dad, whose devotion to education brought him to England, whose love of knowledge I imbibed as a kid, and whose belief in the noble challenge of university so shaped my life. 

‘I’ll devote my first ”starter for 10” to him – and to the millions of quiz fiends who, like me, love those rare occasions when they know the answer before the students do.’ 

In a Twitter tribute to mark Father’s Day in 2020, Rajan described his father, P. Varadarajan, as ‘the cleverest man I’ve met, born into unconscionable poverty, who with his glorious wife (also one of 11 siblings) sacrificed everything to come to UK when I was 3, so that his kids may at least live a fuller, happier life than he did’

Rajan appeared on a celebrity series of University Challenge less than two years ago. The 39-year-old, who was confirmed as Jeremy Paxman's replacement on Tuesday, was born to Hindu parents in Calcutta, India

Rajan appeared on a celebrity series of University Challenge less than two years ago. The 39-year-old, who was confirmed as Jeremy Paxman’s replacement on Tuesday, was born to Hindu parents in Calcutta, India

Jeremy Paxman with his partner Jillian Taylor in 2019 at a performance of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ the Musical. She is in her early forties

Jeremy Paxman with his partner Jillian Taylor in 2019 at a performance of The Secret Diary Of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ the Musical. She is in her early forties 

Rajan is already among the broadcaster's best-paid staff. According to the BBC's latest annual report in the past year his salary increased by about £80,000 to up to £329,999 a year, while he is expected to get a significant pay deal to present the quiz

Rajan is already among the broadcaster’s best-paid staff. According to the BBC’s latest annual report in the past year his salary increased by about £80,000 to up to £329,999 a year, while he is expected to get a significant pay deal to present the quiz

From interview with anti-vax Djokovic to calling Philip a ‘racist buffoon’: Amol Rajan’s controversies 

‘RACIST’ ROYALS 

Rajan, a former editor of The Independent, was forced to apologise after making incendiary remarks about the royals in articles written for the newspaper in 2012.  

He described the public role of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as a ‘total fraud’ and called Prince Philip a ‘racist buffoon’.

After the remarks resurfaced, he tweeted: ‘In reference to very reasonable questions about some foolish commentary from a former life, I want to say I deeply regret it.’

HARRY AND WILLIAM DOCUMENTARY  

Rajan was criticised by the Royal Family earlier this year for a documentary about William and Harry’s relationship with the media called The Princes and the Press, Buckingham Palace.

In an unprecedented move following its airing, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Clarence House, released a joint statement criticising the BBC for ‘giving credibility’ to ‘overblown and unfounded claims from unnamed sources’.

However the BBC defended the documentary at the time, saying: ‘The documentary included interviews with a range of print and broadcast reporters who follow the royals closely and heard their views on the relationship the press has with the royal family and what influences the stories that are published.’

DJOKOVIC INTERVIEW 

Earlier this year his ‘world exclusive’ interview with tennis star Novak Djokovic faced criticism for airing the Serbian ace’s anti-vax views.

The tennis star discussed the chaos around the cancellation of his Australian visa ahead of the Australian Open in January due to his vaccination status.

But it was claimed at the time of the interview that insiders at the corporation were concerned by the interview, including Rajan’s apparent ‘chumminess’ with Djokovic.  

Rajan will take up the role in autumn 2023, with Paxman to have one final season asking the questions on the quiz show. The appointment caps a meteoric rise for the broadcaster. 

In 15 years he has gone from a researcher tasked with telling the audience when to clap on Channel 5’s mid-morning chat show The Wright Stuff to become a presenter on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme.

Along the way he edited The Independent newspaper, having been appointed to the role aged 29 in 2013 by Evgeny Lebedev, the Russian media magnate. 

But it is his ubiquity at the BBC that has raised eyebrows, filling a succession of high-profile posts, despite controversies that have included a humiliating public apology for disparaging comments made about the Royal Family.

As well as hosting the flagship news programme, Rajan has been given his own television interview series. He has also hosted episodes of The One Show and acted as a stand-in host for both Zoe Ball and Jeremy Vine’s Radio 2 shows. On top of which he has held the job of BBC media editor for six years, a position he will step down from when he takes up the University Challenge job.

Already the joke in broadcasting circles was that it was impossible to find a programme that was not fronted by Rajan, a feeling that has only been exacerbated by his latest appointment. 

‘People are seething,’ a senior BBC insider told the Mail last night.

‘He gets every gig going. They pay him so much that they have to find him stuff to do.’

Another leading industry figure added: ‘When somebody becomes flavour of the month and [the BBC] throws everything at them, it is not always good for them.

‘The public can quickly feel bored if they think someone is being thrusted on them all the time.’

Rajan was given a bigger role at the BBC last year after a rival broadcaster tried to poach him from the Corporation. The BBC put together a financial and programme package to keep him.

‘ITV approached him for the Piers Morgan role on Good Morning Britain and he met with them,’ an ITV source told the Daily Mail.

‘They offered it to him, he went back to the BBC and told them he had been approached. They offered him more, he went back to ITV, they offered him more, then he went back to the Beeb, then back to ITV, who thought he was massively taking advantage of them and ended negotiations.

‘The BBC didn’t know that but as a result he has had enough leverage with them to get whatever he wanted.’

Rajan is already among the broadcaster’s best-paid staff. According to the BBC’s latest annual report in the past year his salary increased by about £80,000 to up to £329,999 a year, while he is expected to get a significant pay deal to present the quiz.

Ahead of his appointment there had also been speculation that the time had come for a woman to be given control of the quiz show’s chair — during its 60-year history the two hosts have been Paxman, 72, and the late Bamber Gascogine.

Indeed, when it was announced earlier this week that Paxman would be stepping down, Samira Ahmed, a fellow BBC presenter, hinted that she was unhappy at not being considered for the role.

‘I approached University Challenge myself months ago,’ she posted on Twitter. ‘I’ve had an amazing time rehearsing and being a standby presenter for it this year. I’ve loved working with the fab team who seem to love me and just narrated a UC documentary that’s going out on BBC Two. And I’ve loved helping set a few questions for this series too.

Since joining the BBC, Rajan has provided holiday cover for a number of Radio 2 presenters, including Simon Mayo, Jeremy Vine and Zoe Ball. He has also occasionally presented The One Show (pictured)

Since joining the BBC, Rajan has provided holiday cover for a number of Radio 2 presenters, including Simon Mayo, Jeremy Vine and Zoe Ball. He has also occasionally presented The One Show (pictured)

In 2021 Rajan joined Radio 4's prestigious and long-running early-morning news and current-affairs show, the Today programme, as a presenter

In 2021 Rajan joined Radio 4’s prestigious and long-running early-morning news and current-affairs show, the Today programme, as a presenter

‘But no one from the BBC has spoken to me yet about taking over. I’ve always been happy to go through an honest, fair process and be judged on my merits. I still am.’

Rajan’s rise through the media world was vertiginous. In 2006, he was a lowly researcher on ITV’s The Wright Stuff. One of the guests was Simon Kelner, editor of The Independent and whom Rajan buttonholed and persuaded to give him work experience.

From Wright Stuff mic boy to the UK’s ever broadsheet newspaper editor and now University Challenge host: The rise and rise of Amol Rajan 

Amol Rajan became the youngest editor of a broadsheet newspaper in Britain when he took the helm of The Independent in 2013, but now the BBC’s media editor faces an entirely new challenge as he gears up to quiz some of the smartest young minds in the country.

The 39-year-old journalist has been named as the new host of BBC quiz show University Challenge, taking over from seasoned broadcaster Jeremy Paxman.

Rajan started life in Calcutta, India, where he was born to Hindu parents and lived in the country until the age of three, when the family moved to London.

He was raised in Tooting, south-west London, and, after attending Graveney School, took a gap year to work in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office before going on to read English literature at Downing College, Cambridge.

Rajan's wife, Charlotte Faircloth

Rajan’s wife, Charlotte Faircloth  

After spending two years as a mic boy on Channel 5’s daytime talk show The Wright Stuff, Rajan joined The Independent newspaper in 2007.

During his time at the publication he held a number of roles, including news reporter, columnist, sports reporter and editor of the title’s comment section, Independent Voices.

Rajan was also a restaurant critic for The Independent on Sunday, leading to occasional guest appearances on BBC One cooking show MasterChef.

In 2013 he was promoted to editor of The Independent, which, at the age of 29, made him the youngest editor of a broadsheet title in Britain.

He remained in the role until the publication made the move to digital-only in February 2016, then becoming an editor-at-large before joining the BBC.

Rajan has previously been criticised over a number of comments he made about members of the royal family during his time at The Independent.

In a 2012 article about the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee written for the newspaper, Rajan described the Duke of Edinburgh as a ‘racist buffoon’ and the Prince of Wales as ‘scientifically illiterate’.

The piece described the jubilee as ‘little more than the industrialisation of mediocrity’ and was also critical of the Duke of Cambridge and the Duke of Sussex.

Rajan also came under fire after he presented a controversial BBC documentary titled The Princes And The Press, which explored William and Harry’s relationship with the media.

The first episode of the programme, which aired in 2021, included suggestions that negative stories about the Duchess of Sussex were leaked by courtiers and there was a competitiveness between households.

An accompanying podcast, Harry, Meghan And The Media, also presented by Rajan, claimed that Meghan Markle co-operated with author Omid Scobie on the Finding Freedom biography and ‘apologised for misleading a court on this’.

During his time at the publication he held a number of roles, including news reporter, columnist, sports reporter and editor of the title’s comment section, Independent Voices.

When The Independent was taken over, the proprietor — the now Lord Lebedev — chose Rajan to act as his media adviser.

As well as working hard, he also partied hard. Attending one of the Russian’s lavish dos, Rajan was reportedly observed doing press-ups while someone sat on his back

Rajan’s appointment as the title’s editor surprised many who worked there, due to his age and lack of experience. While some describe him as ambitious to the point of arrogance, Rajan says he is simply ‘driven’.

‘People talk of the morality of ambition, like it is a bad thing,’ he has said. ‘But I have never allowed being driven, focused and wanting to make something of my life to turn into denying opportunities to others, or being sharp-elbowed.’

He remained at the paper until the publication went digital-only in 2016, joining the BBC soon after. In May 2021 he made his first appearance on the Today programme.

It turned out to be a difficult debut for Rajan, who is married to the academic Charlotte Faircloth, an associate professor at University College London’s Institute of Education, with whom he has three children.

Unable to sleep the night before, Rajan decided to knock himself out with three large rums and half a sleeping pill ahead of his 3am start. ‘I might have still been a little bit p****d,’ he later revealed. ‘Slightly smelling of Old Havana. But the team were really, really nice about it. And adrenaline takes over.’

Other recent projects in which Rajan has been involved have ruffled feathers — both inside and outside the Corporation.

A documentary he fronted entitled The Princes And The Press about William and Harry drew censure from Buckingham Palace, Clarence House and Kensington Palace, and accusations of bias.

The series was criticised by the royal households for giving credibility to ‘overblown and unfounded claims’.

Rajan later found himself having to apologise after a series of past tweets and comment pieces he had written about the monarchy came to light.

In them he called for the downfall of the ‘ridiculous House of Windsor’ and joked about ‘throwing a brick’ at the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

In one message, posted on the day of Trooping The Colour in June 2012, he even said that the BBC’s ‘monarchist propaganda’ made him sick.

Apologising for the remarks, he said: ‘I wrote things that were rude and immature and I look back on them now with real embarrassment, and ask myself what I was thinking, frankly. I would like to say sorry for any offence they caused then or now. I’m completely committed to impartiality and hope our recent programmes can be judged on their merits.’

Then, earlier this year he conducted an interview with the tennis player Novak Djokovic, boasting that it was a ‘mega global scoop’. But he was criticised for fawning over the star, who had refused to be vaccinated against Covid.

Senior BBC insiders also expressed anger about the way the interview had been arranged, with a PR agency central to brokering the exclusive chat.

Announcing his latest appointment Kate Phillips, BBC’s Director of Unscripted, said: ‘University Challenge is an incredibly important staple of our entertainment slate as it continues to entertain, challenge and educate audiences. We’re delighted that Amol has agreed to be the new host. Jeremy leaves a very big chair to fill but Amol’s experience, expertise and sense of humour makes him the perfect fit for one of Britain’s longest-running and toughest quiz shows. If future student contestants think they’ll get an easier ride with Amol taking over, they can think again!’

And, of course, one question no one can answer is how long the ever-ambitious Amol will occupy the famous quizmaster’s chair – before a better opportunity comes along.

Additional reporting by Katie Hind.  

Rajan was also a restaurant critic for The Independent on Sunday, leading to occasional guest appearances on BBC One cooking show MasterChef

Rajan was also a restaurant critic for The Independent on Sunday, leading to occasional guest appearances on BBC One cooking show MasterChef

Jeremy Paxman first became the face of the revived University Challenge when it returned after a hiatus

Jeremy Paxman first became the face of the revived University Challenge when it returned after a hiatus

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