For the dedicated armchair quizzer, watching University Challenge on a Monday evening is now merely a warm-up. As soon as Jeremy Paxman brays goodbye and the UC music starts tumbling from the TV speakers, our fingers are moving to the remote. Time to flip to BBC4. Time for Only Connect.
Only Connect may have seemed like an unlikely quiz hit when it began. Its concept – finding connections between apparently unrelated things – sounds sappingly dull.
But OC has flourished, because it’s the purest test of knowledge and brain power on TV. Not only do contestants need to turn up with facts seeping out of their nostrils; they need to employ that armoury with agility and guile. Quick and lateral thinking are rewarded. It’s an old-fashioned, rounded test of intelligence, like O Level Latin or captaining a cricket team.
This is down to a combination of the clever format, and the sly, wide-ranging questions. As groups of four clues are revealed one by one with the connection becoming (if you’re lucky) increasingly obvious, what you thought was a question about the pyramids might turn out to be about football, or proverbs, or films. You need to know everything, and be able to switch from one area of knowledge to another against the clock. In boring, ordinary quizzes, you either know it or you don’t.
And yet, sometimes you hardly need to know anything. Only Connect is made for the sort of sneaky people who can add a few points to their score in a pub quiz by marshalling scraps of knowledge and guessing where they fit. For instance, in the series five opener, keen students of Ant and Dec will be able to casually announce the answer to what looks like a horrid question.
The second phase – the legendary connecting wall, where four groups of four connected things are jumbled up and presented all together on a grid – ups the difficulty level and the entertainment by introducing the possibility that contestants will panic, the 16 squares swimming around uselessly in front of their eyes as you at home sagely sip a gin and observe that, while Cadillac is indeed a marque of car, it’s also a Bordeaux wine region and might thus go with Medoc, Pomerol and Sauternes.
If Only Connect is sounding a bit rigid and rarified, it isn’t really. The final, quickfire round where teams must identify re-spaced, de-vowelled phrases (eg the Rolling Stones album XLN MNST RT) changes the pace completely, not least because it’s easier than the other sections. And the show itself has its own oddball wit, as embodied by presenter Victoria Coren.
Coren has the perfect mix of authority and personality. She’s a twinkly young supply teacher, starting each lesson with a couple of gags and then encouraging the pupils but also taking the mickey wherever possible; almost their friend but not quite. She’s sexily firm and aloof in a way that, say, Jeff Stelling really isn’t. Only Connect’s the only televised test I’d ever want to take.