Reconnecting: Why Only Connect Is The Best Quiz Show Ever
Originally published on my personal blog on the 12th of May 2013.
At 8:30pm on Monday the 13th of May, the seventh series of Only Connect will begin on BBC Four. It's a quiz show where contestants must find the connection between different words, phrases, pictures, or pieces of music. The blog which follows is a tribute to one of the best quiz formats of the 21st Century. Just for fun, I've interspersed a puzzle in the style of the first round of the programme – four pictures with a single link between them. How quickly can you identify the connection?
A recent article in The Sun proclaimed that Wednesday was the best day of the week for going out on the pull. In 2011, statistics released by the FBI revealed that Americans were most likely to witness a bank robbery on a Friday. And as we all know, Saturday nights are alright for fighting. But for fans of all things quizzical, Monday is the best day of the week – and not just because of the quiz night at Savannah in Haywards Heath. Until a couple of weeks ago, Monday served up lashings of University Challenge, and tomorrow it will see the return of the gloriously tricky Only Connect.
Airing at 8:30pm on BBC Four, opposite the leviathan of Corrie elsewhere in the schedules, Only Connect remains something of a hidden jewel in the BBC's crown. Yet far from detracting from the show, Only Connect revels in catering for a loyal audience of eggheads. It is a quiz which exudes exclusivity from the very first note of its string section theme tune, and is unapologetically clever. Word of mouth (and word of Twitter) has seen it punch well above its weight, with episodes in the sixth series regularly pulling in more than a million viewers. The question is: why?
Each episode of Only Connect features two teams of three contestants, introduced by presenter Victoria Coren via the common link between the three. For instance, the first episode of the seventh series will pit three Oxford graduates who attended Corpus Christi College—the “Corpuscles”—against a trio of feline pet owners—the “Cat Lovers”.
The format of Only Connect straddles four rounds. In the first, the teams take turns choosing from six possible questions, and for each question must identify the connection between four clues. These are usually words or phrases, but one set of picture clues and one set of audio clues are thrown in for good measure. At the start of each question, the team is given forty seconds and one clue to try and work out the link. Solving after one clue is very rare and earns the team five points. If they're stumped, the teams can ask for another clue to make the connection easier to find. This reduces the question's value, falling to three points for two clues, two points for three clues, and just one point if all four clues are required.
Round two is very similar, except that the teams don't score any points for merely identifying the link between the four clues. Instead, the first three clues form a sequence, and must work out the fourth item in the sequence. To borrow an example from the first ever episode, if the first three clues are “Scott”, “Virgil” and “Alan”, knowing that they are the pilots of Thunderbirds 1, 2 and 3 is of no use if you don't know who piloted Thunderbird 4. (The answer's “Gordon”.)
The third round is called “the connecting wall”, and takes things to a whole new level. Just in case finding one connection was a little too easy, each team now has two-and-a-half minutes to find four connections between a grid of 16 jumbled clues. Even when they work out the connections, they'll discover that some clues can fit into more than one pile—a wall featuring colours alongside former Prime Ministers could contain the clue “Brown”. Only one combination of clues will completely solve each wall. Brilliantly, you can tackle practice walls on the Only Connect website, and even play the same walls as the contestants in time with the programme.
This round tends to offer some of the programme's funniest moments, particularly with walls that intertwine high and low culture. Connections have ranged from Puccini operas to Pokémon.
Only Connect concludes with “the missing vowels round”, where both teams face off on the buzzer. In stark contrast to the rest of the show, the contestants are told the connections in this round before being asked any questions. They are then shown clues which fit that link, but with all vowels removed and spaces added and subtracted at will. For instance, given the connection “Characters in EastEnders”, a typical clue might be “PH LMTC HLL”. A correct answer (“Phil Mitchell”) is worth one point, but an incorrect answer both loses one point and throws the question to the opposing team for a possible one point bonus. The consequent rapid changes to the scoreline ensure even a struggling team can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Whilst Only Connect gives the impression of being very complicated, the question at its core is simple – “what is the link?” Furthermore, the connections themselves are usually straightforward, perfectly pitched to make you kick yourself when the answers are revealed.
But a handful of times per episode, even the layman viewer (of which I am one) can work out the connection. As question editor David J. Bodycombe wrote in the Guardian, with many questions “your perception of the possible answer changes as each new clue is revealed”. So if a lucky stab in the dark after the first clue is reinforced by the second, you'll vociferously shout at the screen (or boast on Twitter). Even if you arrive at the right answer after four clues, when the question is only worth one point, you still find yourself feeling utterly smug. It's a far greater sense of achievement than getting a question right whilst watching Tipping Point, say.
Only Connect recaptures a feeling that I haven't had whilst watching a game show since the glory days of Countdown, when Richard Whiteley and Carol Vorderman entertained 3–4 million viewers every afternoon. It was cult viewing; you felt like a member of an exclusive club. Only Connect certainly isn't as familial as Countdown was – on the contrary, Victoria Coren is a hard-edged hostess, and the show's eschewing of question numbers in favour of hieroglyphics is deliberately elitist. But it's a programme that knows and cherishes its audience, and isn't afraid to serve them. Long may it continue.
Still struggling with the picture question? Or do you think you've solved it? Scroll down for the answer…
That's a Martian from the classic advert for Smash instant mashed potato, plus a hammer, a plaster and a bladder. Add the suffix ‘-ed’ and you get “smashed”, “hammered”, “plastered” and “bladdered” – all of which are slang terms for “drunk”. Well done if you got that one at home.