Only Connect

Monday, September 15, 2008 by

BBC4Victoria Coren looks incongruous sitting behind a desk presenting BBC4′s new panel game, Only Connect. That’s because, with the exception of Balderdash and Piffle, all of her other television work is either playing or presenting poker games.

Maybe it just seems odd because she’s holding big question cards instead of the usual slightly smaller playing cards, or I’m too used to seeing her flouncing around searching for or justifying word definitions. Either way, she’s a more genial and forgiving questioner than Jeremy Paxman in the most intellectually stimulating half hour quiz show since University Challenge.

Nice logo!

Nice logo!

Victoria Coren at the desk

Victoria Coren at the desk

Actually, the closer touchstone is probably the impossibly difficult questions found in the 1970s heyday of this sort of thing in Top of the Form or Ask The Family. The format is fairly simple. Two teams take it in turns to try and work what links four words, pictures or pieces of music before the time runs out. The twist is the answers require some lateral thinking; in one round you’d need to know the pilots of the first three Thunderbirds and in which order so that you could name the fourth one, or what Bertrand Russell looks like and that he unsuccessfully ran for parliament.

BBC4 have been experimenting with this kind of programme for years, their equivalent of Radio 4′s Round Britain Quiz. But unlike Never Mind the Full Stops (too smug) and The Book Quiz (too exclusive), Only Connect enlists shlobs like us rather than celebrities, and there is a genuine competition with a title at the end. The teams are collected together through some shared interest – in the opening episode that was knitting or, um, not being psychologists. Each is asked to introduce themselves at the opening, and fans of nervous banter were well served by a moment in which Vicky asked one of the contestants if the jumper she was wearing was homemade, only to be told that it’s not called that any more.

Perhaps my brain’s gone soft after years of watching quizzes based on multiple choice questions, but much of the time the answer was hidden in the dark recesses of my brain, but only seemed to surface at just the moment after it had been given on screen. I did know Shakespeare’s seven ages of man, but floundered when faced with the final round in which the names of series of mathematicians were flashed up, sans vowels and with the spaces messed up. In other words, imagine A Question of Sport if the contestants were being asked about Ayn Rand rather than Ronaldo. And instead of a numbers board they had to choose from letters of the Greek alphabet. That last bit’s not a joke, by the way, in this quiz you really did need to know your alphas from your zetas before even being given a chance to ponder anything.

Which is probably why I enjoyed it so much. It requires a modicum of intelligence, not just from the viewer but the contestants themselves. Beat that In it to Win It.


5 Responses to “Only Connect”

  1. Jack Kibble-White on September 16th, 2008 11:05 pm

    I watched this and I thought it was perhaps the best of BBC4′s attempt of this kind of thing so far (although I had a soft spot for the lateral thinking one of a year or so ago). I actually thought the Greek letters was an affectation too far though, and I am not sure if Coren is the right person for the job either. On the plus side, the questions were very interesting and the concept of the programme good (although I thought the first round went on a shade too long). I noticed the name “David J Bodycombe” in the credits – always a mark of quality in my book see –

  2. David J. Bodycombe on September 17th, 2008 1:03 am

    I thought it was ace.

    Seriously though, the Greek letters are used to make sure that there’s no confusion with people asking for “Question A” or “Game 1″ and then being given A or 1 as their first clue. And on the contestants’ off-screen monitors, they’re shown as “Alpha”, “Beta”, “Gamma”… so you can just shout out a name.

  3. Rob Williams on September 17th, 2008 12:09 pm

    Good intelligent show and hats off to it, though Ms Coren needs a bit more humour. At least Robert Robinson made Ask The Family work by having a self-deprocating sense of humour over the style of the show.

  4. Nigel Fishwick on September 17th, 2008 4:22 pm

    Just caught the first episode on iPlayer and thoroughly enjoyed it. It had a pleasantly highbrow, middle-class feel to it (though I’m not really either of those things to be honest) which reminded me of watching the aforementioned Ask the Family as a kid just after Nationwide or Sixty Minutes had gone off.

    It’s one of those shows which sparks an interest in things that you might not have known before and which, in these enlightened times, you can sate with a quick trip to Wikipedia, rather than an after-school trip to the library, or by rooting through the ancient leather-bound, pre-war encyclopaedia that was at my grandparent’s house.

  5. Graham Kibble-White on September 17th, 2008 11:17 pm

    Amen to Nigel’s comment. Spurred on by the remarks here – and Stu’s review – I’ve been watching this on iPlayer and, yes, I Wikipedia’d the quark answer. I did get the prison slang connection, though. And my missus got the fictional captains.