To outsiders, Only Connect can be a punchline. They see it as the impossible quiz show – tough, smug and incomprehensible to anybody whose photo wasn’t in the local paper for passing A-level maths aged nine. Its host makes weird jokes, its questions may as well be in another language, and its contestants are nerds who probably cut their own hair. A line in an episode of Sky comedy Breeders typifies the stance when a parent tells their child that no, they can’t be home-schooled because then they’d end up on Only Connect.
Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Not about the host’s weird jokes, the esoteric questions – which often are in another language, especially if it boasts its own computer keyboard configuration or shares homophones with English words depictable in cartoon form. Nor are they wrong about the gloriously nerdy contestants, that’s all clearly true. (During lockdown, by the way, we all cut our own hair and it only went to prove that this country is very much not sick of experts.) No, what’s false is the idea that Only Connect is designed to exclude people.
Only Connect is a club. It gives its members a warm sense of familial belonging and fun competitive challenge. It has its own traditions (groaning at the music questions despite the data showing that teams perform slightly worse on average on the pictures; Victoria Coren Mitchell leading the least enthusiastic singalongs since school morning assembly) and in-jokes (the fake viewer letters, binning the Greek alphabet in response to accusations of highbrow pretentiousness and then replacing it with… Egyptian hieroglyphs, the persistent doubt cast over the existence of Question Editor Jack Waley-Cohen).
Like most clubs, Only Connect wants new subs and seeks them out with every season. Also like most clubs, joining requires initiation. Just as you can’t sign up for rugby without knowing the rules of the game, to become an Only Connect viewer, you need to tune into a slightly different frequency. Not one intended to expose ignorance, just one that finds it cool that the initials of the four world capitals that start with unique letters can be arranged to spell out the word QUIZ.
Only Connect gathers up the stuff of life – pig Latin, Scrabble tile values, Morecambe and Wise sketches, the life cycle of massive stars, the husbands of Patsy Kensit, the fates of those condemned to the nine circles of hell, the eye mask colours and Renaissance inspirations of the Ninja Turtles, and arranges it all into neat groups. It doesn’t seek to show off, it seeks to delight. That much is clear from the extreme care and obvious joy taken by its question writers and editors, as seen in the examples below.
The Deceptively Easy Ones
Series 14’s first match between the Hotpots and the Poptimists asked the connection between: Beethoven’s 7th / Centre of Gravity / 3rd of November / Very beginning. The answer was staring the team in the face, and had nothing to do with arcane knowledge: it was the letter V (as in the 7th letter in the word Beethoven, the middle letter in the word Gravity, and so on.) Victoria Coren Mitchell named this as one of her favourite ever questions, remarking “Isn’t it sort of annoying in a beautiful way?! Welcome to the show!” Exactly.
The same goes for Series 13, Episode 12’s match between the Detectives and the Theatricals, which featured perhaps the simplest first clue ever in a connections round: Newborn babies. That was followed by Winner of the Indy 500, then Alex and his Droogs, then Someone who wants to play for a team better than Accrington Stanley. What connects them? Milk-drinkers, the lot of them!
The Fun, Lowbrow Ones
In Series 11, Episode 2 (Polyglots vs Yorkers), the sequences round asked what comes fourth in the following sequence: Monday: met / Tuesday: went for a drink / Wednesday: made love / ? Anybody tuned to Capital FM in the year 2000 would know that the correct answer was of course Thursday: made love, as in the sequence of events from Craig David bop ‘7 Days’.
Pop knowledge was also required in the Series 7, Episode 3 match between the Francophiles and Festival Fans for the following sequence: Donaghy, Buena, Buchanan / Buena, Buchanan, Range / Buchanan, Range, Berrebah / ? Obviously, you’re looking for the answer: Range, Berrabah, Ewen, aka the next successive line-up of the Sugababes. It’s not all periodic table of elements, you know.
The Obscure Knowledge Ones
Sometimes, it’s not about accessibility, but about gasping at the minds of quizzers who are the Muhammad Ali of their discipline. Whenever Only Connect questions rely on extremely obscure knowledge, somebody on a team always seems to know it, or at the very least comes close. That happened in the Series 13, Episode 7 match between the Escapologists and Belgophiles, when the connections round served up this list of four: The temperature in Chopok, Slovakia / Esquivalience / Columbo’s first name, Philip / Agloe, New York State.
What connects them all? Mountweazels! Aka copyright traps, or deliberately false information inserted into reference material to guard against plagiarism. Even if you’d never get it in a million years, isn’t it wonderful that somebody can, and there’s a quiz show that’s up to their level?
Only Connect never talks down to its players. See the Series 15, Episode 28 missing vowels round that asked for these items of food and their approximate shape: GGN DVD / RNGD GHN TND TRS / P RNG LND HYPR BL CP RB LD / D RT NDSS CLS TRNG L. (Answers: Egg and ovoid / Ring Doughnut and Torus / Pringle and hyperbolic paraboloid / Dorito and Isosceles triangle, if that wasn’t already obvious.)
The Bloody Genius Ones
What about the most elegant of sequence rounds that asked what comes fourth in the following: O = 10% / ONE H = 40% / ONE HUND = 70% / ?
The sequence was showing a growing percentage of letters equal to the accompanying percentage from the phrase “One Hundred”, making the correct answer ONE HUNDRED = 100%. Elegant. The same goes for the connecting walls in the first ever season final between the Crossworders and the Lapsed Psychologists, which consisted of 3-letter initialisms, and… numbers. Genius.
The Self-Referential Ones
Anagrams of the Egyptian hieroglyphs used to designate the questions in rounds one and two have featured on the missing vowels round, as has the round itself. In Series 15, Episode 5, the final round listed things that were ‘Happening right now’ and included: MS SN GV WL SR ND alongside clues leading to the Cenozoic Era, the Twenty-First Century and Climate Change.
The Funny Ones
The missing vowels round in Series 12, episode 30 (Beekeepers v Oscar Men) had the category clue “They avoid the Sun”. The first answer? V M PRS. Standard. Next? G RM LNS. Observably true. Third, for Lord of the Rings fans, THN ZGL and finally? LV RP DL NS. Excellent stuff.
In the same round of Series 8, Episode 13 (Board Gamers v Bakers), the category clue was “X-rated parodies of famous films” ending with what else but SH VN GRY NSP R VTS. Bit of below-the-belt fun there.
The Completely Impossible Ones
Series 15, Episode 8 (007s v Suits) gave the following connections round: Group prepared firm series / Make perfect replica mannequin/ Ban pub except counter / Ignite trivial match fair. Nonsense? Absolutely, but also quadruple simultaneous definitions of the four words: set, model, bar and light.
Similarly challenging to mere mortals was the Series 12, Episode 37 (Verbivores v Cosmopolitans) missing vowels round with the category “Five words in alphabetical order”. The clues? BGB GBGB GBG / PTTN GPTT NGPT TNGPT TNGP TTNG / MSS SMS SSM SS SMS SSM SSS and LS TL ST LST LS TL ST. The answers? BAG BEG BIG BOG BUG / PATTING PETTING PITTING POTTING PUTTING / MASSES MESSES MISSES MOSSES MUSSES and LAST LEST LIST LOST LUST. Easy really.
The Ones Even Victoria Coren Mitchell Thinks Too Hard
Two questions in recent seasons have made even Only Connect’s host recoil and tut, both related to music. A Series 17 sequence round asked the Jukeboxers to identify representations of 20 acres, followed by 43 acres, followed by a picture of a combine harvester, and then to provide the correct answer: a key. All were taken from lyrics to The Wurzels song ‘I’ve Got a Brand New Combine Harvester’, a sequence Coren Mitchell called “ungettable” and her least favourite in the whole series.
In Series 15, Episode 20, a sequence was similarly unpopular with Coren Mitchell, who called it “the most difficult question we’ve ever had.” The team were shown arrows pointing at various geographical destinations they had to identify as Carlisle, Dublin and Dundee. The fourth in the sequence? An arrow pointed at Hull, or Humberside, as in the next place mentioned in the lyrics to The Smiths song ‘Panic’. “I’ve lost a large bet that anyone would get this,” said Coren Mitchell when the Turophiles did what Only Connect teams do and nailed it. Applause all round.
With many thanks to the Only Connect Database. Only Connect Series 19 is currently airing on Mondays at 8pm on BBC Two.