Have you noticed the amazing burns by Victoria Coren Mitchell during Only Connect? And the eccentric contestant biographies? Scott Bryan investigates...
Celebrating the quirky joy of the BBC2 quiz show...
If you think University Challenge is the quiz show that best reflects Britain, you would be wrong. There is, of course, nothing wrong with University Challenge (apart from the lack of gender equality and the fact that the only thing I regularly get right, the popular music round, is often shafted for classical music).
No, the show that best reflects our country is the show that directly precedes (but used to follow) it, the pattern puzzle quiz Only Connect, fronted by Victoria Coren Mitchell.
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Have you seen this show? It is so quirky. SO quirky. Nothing reflects our country’s eccentric and rather daft personality more. Take the contestant biographies mentioned at the top of the show for instance (all of these are real):
“Mark Oxley, a physiotherapist who was once asked to play Patrick Swayze’s stunt double, but declined the opportunity.”
“Michael Cannon, a French and History graduate who once hosted Angela Lansbury’s 90th birthday party, which was not attended by Angela Lansbury.”
“Tom West, a solicitor who recently spent the entire day on a train, in order to attend a meeting at which only he was present.”
“Tom Mead, a mortgage consultant who was nearly run over by Janet Street-Porter when he was at Leeds Bradford Airport and she had her leg in plaster.”
“Anne Miller, a politics and sociology graduate who ran the tango society at the University of Edinburgh, and knows more about puffins than anyone else.”
“Sarah Lister, a fund administrator who once prepared escape routes from her home in case of a zombie attack.”
“Chris Pendleton, an artist and picture framer who is commissioned annually to paint a picture of a pig for Britain’s leading sausage manufacturer.”
“Colin Daffern, a sociology and women’s studies graduate, who played the part of a cooked roast turkey in his school Christmas play.”
“Andy Davis, a keen marathon runner who chatted to Sally Gunnell when his flight was delayed from Geneva.”
“Mickey Alexander, a medical student with an interest in Victorian literature, who has seen Bruce Springsteen perform 16 times and has touched him once.”
“Andrew Burford, a Black Country ombudsman who once ate his own height in sandwiches.”
“Simon Williams, a law graduate, who at the age of 18 took the complete works of Oscar Wilde on a holiday to Aiya Napa.”
“Richard Arthur, a Geology enthusiast who enjoys holidays visiting burial stones.”
“John Wilson, a former IT professional who has visited 2000 pubs, sampled 4200 ales and documented them all in a spreadsheet.”
And finally… “captain Jonathan Elliott, a scout leader who while wearing his uniform, was once mistaken for a member of the Hitler Youth.”
Then there’s the game itself. Everything about it is exceptionally odd. The fact that each round starts with someone choosing an Egyptian hieroglyph (“twisted flax please”). The fact that the missing vowels round looks as if someone in the production gallery just spilt coffee all over the caption keyboard.
(Note: In case you were wondering, and I know you were, the answer to this question is: New Taiwan Dollar and Old Taiwan Dollar).
Then there’s host Victoria Coren Mitchell. Without her, this show would be nothing. She ignores the usual repetitive script that comes with quiz shows like these and opens with something so left-field you feel as if someone from BBC2 management is going to “have a word” with her about toning it down at any moment.
Here’s one such opening: “Welcome to Only Connect, where it is the end of the road for one of teams. Not now obviously, that would be a weird programme.”
It was only whilst researching for this piece (can you tell that I’ve done a lot) that I realised something wonderful happens with many of these openings. In a lot of the episodes, whilst introducing the increasingly eccentric contestants, Coren Mitchell delivers burns to both teams competing that week.
I’ve shoved some of these together into a little montage:
Here’s some of the best, just from the past three series:
The Moriarty Burn:
“Welcome to Only Connect, a quiz so diabolical that Professor Moriarty himself was too scared to apply, because he couldn’t find two other supervillains to join him. I don’t know why. The world is full of brilliant, inspired yet malevolent creatures that rarely venture out in daylight.
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 13, Episode 20)
The Catwalk Burn:
“If knowledge is fashionable then this is the ultimate catwalk, in the sense that backstage there’s nothing to eat and everyone is throwing up.
“But knowledge isn’t fashionable, as we’ll find out in a moment.
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 11, Episode 17)
The Edinburgh Fringe Burn:
“Every year every festival time I go up to Scotland…I really enjoy the quirkiness of the Edinburgh Fringe.
“What can I tell you? I just love oddness and spectacles.
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 12, Episode 9)
Tom Hanks Burn:
“Last week we were talking about great beach movies: Point Break, Whisky Galore, Weekend at Bernies. My favourite is Castaway, where Tom Hanks is stranded for years on a desert island with no human company, his only friend a face he’s painted on a volleyball.
“It’s hard to imagine such lonely isolation.
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 14, Episode 4)
The ‘This Is Hell’ Burn:
“A team can lose a match and still not be knocked out of the competition. Why do people come back for more of this hell? Surely anyone normal can just go home.
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 11, Episode 19)
The School Sports Day Burn:
“Asthma inhalers at the ready! It’s the Only Connect Sports Special! We’ve invited back two favourite teams from previous series to play this match, chosen specifically for their sporting prowess.
“When it came to games at school these quizzers were always first to be picked.
“As the scorer. Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 14, Specials 2)
The Christmas Carol Burn:
“The ghosts of past, present and future visited me again last night. I’ve begged them to leave me alone, but they just keep coming. They are always there, around this time of year.
“It feels like I’m constantly staring into the hollowed eyes of a weird, chilling, mismatched trio.
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 13, Episode 19)
The Battersea Dogs Home Burn:
“I’d like to start by mentioning Battersea Dogs Home, which I visited recently. You can’t help but fall in love with them. Their eager little faces, their panting enthusiasm, their obvious intelligence, sadly many of them with a traumatised look, all thin with strange bald patches….
“Let’s meet the teams.” (Series 14, Episode 25)
My favourite opening, though, was this:
“Hello and welcome to Only Connect, where I have asked everyone to speak quietly because I’ve got a bit of a headache.
“Last night someone plied me with triple vodka after triple vodka.
“I’m hazy in thinking who it was, but I think it was me.”
Only Connect: The Final is on Monday 29th April at 8:30pm on BBC2