Bobby Seagull

Maths teacher, author and TV broadcaster

Did the celebrated 2017 series of University Challenge, which pitted you against rival team captain Eric Monkman, change your life?
No doubt. A combination of my enthusiasm for knowledge, my memorable name and rivalry with Monkman propelled me into the public limelight. Louis Theroux, Stephen Fry and even CBBC character Hacker the Dog were tweeting about our match!

Is your friendship with Monkman competitive?
At Cambridge I organised many of the practice quiz matches between colleges that had qualified for University Challenge. So I developed a healthy rivalry with Monkman. When he stayed with my family we did The Times daily quiz together!

What lured you to a life of quizzes?
Before University Challenge, I never took quizzing seriously (not that I’m too serious about it now). But my Dad used to take me and my brothers every Saturday afternoon to read at East Ham library. So, I’ve always prided myself on knowledge. Quizzing just happened to be an outlet.

Why do you think quiz obsessives are often blokes?
I wonder if men are more comfortable with facts than feelings, so might resort to the certainty of recalling lists of top goal scorers, tallest buildings and fastest cars.

You won a sixth-form scholarship to Eton from a London state school. Was it a culture shock?
As a sixteen-year-old boy who liked football, chart music and ice cream, I fitted straight in. I had an incredible experience, so much so that two of my younger brothers successfully applied for Eton sixth-form scholarships too.

What did Eton give you that you’d most like to see in state schools?
The breadth of cultural experiences, such as helping out in boarding-house plays, the chance to hear external top-class guest speakers, and weekly Oxbridge-style discussions with a small tutor group.

Why do boys so often underperform in school?
Elements of a macho-style culture where some boys revel in not wanting to be seen to put effort in. Any success has to seem effortless, hence no one likes to admit they put in the graft.

Who has been the greatest influence in your life?
My family, 100 per cent. My father for inspiring me educationally, my mother for always being there to pick me up and my three brothers for the laughs along the way.

You have chosen to teach maths in the underpaid state sector? Why?
Education changed my life. I grew up on an east London council estate and think I can make a genuine, tangible impact on the lives of inner-city children I teach.

You were briefly at Lehman Brothers/Nomura just as the company folded – what did you learn from that?
A well-regulated and healthy banking system is important for modern economies. But unfettered access to large amounts of money can lead to excessive greed and consequences for wider society.

What does your work as an ambassador for National Numeracy involve?
Helping raise awareness about the importance of numeracy, not just to schoolchildren but to working-age adults. Fellow ambassadors include Money Saving Expert Martin Lewis and Countdown’s Rachel Riley.

What inspired you to write The Life-changing Magic of Numbers?
It shows how my passion for maths has helped me to understand my place in the world. I wanted to demonstrate how maths can be part of everyday life. Maths in music, in sport, in baking and even in my dating life!

Who is your political hero?
Nelson Mandela. In primary school, our teacher was a Scottish lady Mrs Lang who grew up in Africa. So, when Mandela became President of South Africa in 1994, we watched the whole inauguration ceremony and learned to sing the words to their new national anthem.

And your political villain?
Neville Chamberlain waving his piece of paper in 1938 declaring “peace for our time” shows what happens when we don’t stand up to aggressors.

If you could enact one political policy?
Giving every child starting primary school a collection of ten books. So many children grow up without books in their home.

What was it like to appear on Netflix’s Indian Matchmaking and how’s your dating life?
Going on a dating show that’s a global smash hit was definitely out of my comfort zone. It’s been fun engaging with new fans from across the world. I’m still single, but having a partner/team mate would make my life even more enjoyable than it is now.

You competed in Channel 4’s The Real Dirty Dancing. Could Strictly be next?
I adore the 1987 film, so the chance to recreate some of the scenes/dance moves was special. “Nobody puts Bobby in the corner” (or right angle of a quadrilateral). My mum and I always watch Strictly together, so I can only imagine how excited she would be to see me don sequins and glitter on the dance floor…

You’re a big West Ham fan, what’s your favourite moment from the terraces?
I do miss the intimacy of the old Upton Park stadium. However, we’ve now embraced the new London Stadium. As a club education ambassador, I celebrated with the first team players on the balcony of Stratford Old Town Hall after our European trophy. A true pinch-me moment.

How does your Catholic faith influence you?
My parents are from Kerala in south India, a state with a sizeable Catholic population, and moved to the UK in the mid-’70s. Our Catholicism and going to mass is something that keeps a tight family bond.

What are your unfulfilled ambitions?
Gosh, so many, especially in the world of TV and entertainment. I’d love to host my own gameshow and one day even do some onscreen acting (Doctor Who cameo please!)

What’s your motto?
Good enough is good enough. Aiming for perfection can stop us from ever starting.

Bobby Seagull presents the podcast “Maths Appeal”. Follow him on @Bobby_Seagull

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August / September 2023, Q&A

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