Only Connect Series 13: a Question Editor’s Perspective

Having written Only Connect questions for a few years, my colleague Jack Waley-Cohen and I (I being David McGaughey) took over from Alan Connor as Question Editors in 2016. Halfway through the broadcast of our first series in the role (and as the show moves back to its natural home on Mondays), I thought it would be worthwhile to write a little about the experience, both in terms of the months of preparation and how it feels when the show is on TV.

Jack and I have always worked together on questions – the precise role each of us takes has varied on different shows, and on Only Connect, I am (for now at least) very much the Phil Neal to his Graham Taylor, the Jazzy Jeff to his Fresh Prince (I now think so often in sets of four that it’s tempting to extend to four glib analogies, but I’ll resist). He seemed to hit the ground running when it came to the job, whereas I feel I have been learning the finer details as we’ve gone along.

Writing questions for Only Connect has always been a joy, both in the process and in the satisfaction of seeing them on air, so you can imagine how much more fun being a Question Editor is. We take submissions from a team of around 20 writers, and gradually whittle the questions down to what is used on the show.

As a fan of the show myself, what a joy it is to pore through 100s and 100s of Only Connect questions, most of them of a very high standard. Many excellent questions don’t make the show, whether because they’re too similar to something else, because we’ve already got enough questions in that subject area, sometimes because we’re slightly unsure how it will go down, or even because we haven’t understood some nuance (in which case writers are welcome to resubmit for the next series, making their case for a question favourite more strongly).

It was quite an experience going through everyone else’s questions for the first time, often in wonder at the ingenuity, often thinking “aah, why didn’t I think of that?”, often with an incipient thrill at imagining how the question would go down on TV, in some cases well over a year later … There’s a question in the later rounds of this series which is my favourite OC question of all time, and I’m quite sure, so thoroughly does it fall within my interests, that friends of mine watching will think I’ve written it – but I didn’t, it’s better than anything I’ve ever written, but as Question Editor, I get just as much delight from it as anything I’ve written myself.

I think people would be fascinated by how much care goes into getting each Only Connect question to screen. One thing I realised in our first year as editors is that pretty much everyone who works on the show is an expert in it. It’s not just a job, they know every aspect of it inside out. So, the thing is, there are several people who might, at some stage, have a valuable suggestion for a question before its final version, from writer to editor to executive producer, series producer and director, question verifier, picture editor and graphics team, up to, and very much including, the show’s host.

Jack and I were glad to be welcomed into a finely tuned and close-knit team. The job of Question Editor has been done by one person in the past, but we have worked as a unit for over ten years, and our skills and knowledge bases complement each other’s – mine being pretty much Ovid, David Gower, Jay-Z, Scorsese, his being everything else (at least to some degree)… as well as a fine eye for the details and connections that usually fall between the cracks.

A great thing about Only Connect is that every question can potentially be an “event”, and every single detail matters. Presentation can matter as much as content – we debate clue order, punctuation, font size and colour, each precise word and image, how you see it, where you see it, when you see it.

We try really hard to get it right. One of the experiences of watching our first series in charge, however, is that handful of occasions where we maybe didn’t get it right – we made a question too simple or too complicated, we put it in the wrong place or the wrong order. It is even more frustrating when we recognise that, at some point, the question went through an iteration that would have worked better. It’s going to happen, it’s rather a fine art, and a matter of judgements. Hopefully, the more we do the job, the less it will happen.

We usually know long before broadcast if we didn’t get a question quite right – because it falls flat in studio, or something doesn’t play out in a particularly satisfying way –  though sometimes social media will let us know of things we missed at recording time. It’s an odd but useful experience trying to gauge reaction to each show by following what people are saying online.

Overwhelmingly (as I’ll get to in more detail) it’s about the contestants, as it should be. People love the contestants on Only Connect. Every week or two you seem to get people saying that these latest contestants are more attractive and charismatic than the usual Only Connect contestants, which rather makes you think that it’s time people changed their perception of the kind of people that go on Only Connect!

And, as a writer, you’re not always going to get much feedback from social media responses. Usually, a question just doing its job, just being answered how you hoped it would be, is the reward in itself. I had a question on a couple of weeks ago which I was very pleased with, which took a tried and trusted subject (kings and queens) and used the fact that someone had come to the throne in 1100, 1901, 1702, 1603 to make a nice little sequence. It couldn’t have gone better. I came up with the idea, it had a small but pertinent change suggested by the host during her review to make it more accessible, and the team, without total certainty, were pleased with themselves to get the right answer for 1 point. It could have played out in several different ways – but this felt close to perfect.

But you don’t then tend to see a flood of “what a delightfully constructed question!” tweets. That would take OC fandom a little far. The questions I’ve written which have created a little stir have usually been on pop culture, whether snippets of songs, musical husbands of Patsy Kensit, or the lyrical habits of the likes of Craig David and Shaggy. Only Connect is a broad church.

Not every question can be about Shabba Ranks, though, at least not until the BBC commissions its long-promised quiz show ‘The Peccadilloes of the Turn-of-the-Century Pop Lotharios”. We can take pride in Only Connect not being straightforwardly “highbrow” but it is just as important that it is not weighted too heavily towards pop culture and sport, that there is plenty of the heavy stuff, plenty of everyday life, and, most importantly, lots of questions that contain a bit of everything.

Likewise, there needs to be a wide variety of styles – wordplays and numbers, straightforward and obscure. Our host is funny, our contestants are funny, the questions can be funny, but we cannot be a show of constant megalolz. It’s a very delicate balance in the questions, which has been superbly honed down the years by the previous Question Editors David Bodycombe and Alan Connor. Jack and I are very conscious that we’ve been entrusted with something that is precious to a lot of people.

Over the 13 series, Only Connect has, we think, become an extremely effective marriage of question and contestant. In compiling the questions for our first series in charge, we had to trust that the casting team would do the great job they’d done in the past and that the teams who appeared would be right for Only Connect, right for our questions. What could be worse than getting the sense that teams were thinking “This is not what we signed up for. What the hell have we got ourselves into?” Well, we think the contestants in Series 13 are marvellous, and in almost every case, they couldn’t have served the questions better, and we hope the questions have served them. That’s what it’s all about.

That can mean different things. On Round 1 and Round 2, the show is at its best with a decent balance of 1-pointers 2-pointers, 3-pointers and the very occasional 5-pointer (if so, we hope that it is a real feat of knowledge and daring … a 5-pointer should never be a gimme). Fairness is of the utmost importance – but it would be impossible to make the “rhythm” of every R1 and R2 question the same – some will give a tiny bit more away in the first couple of clues than others – we just hope that each team gets a fair crack of the whip.

Likewise, getting an equally balanced pair of walls is such an important task – an awful lot of discussion goes into it, not to mention the expertise of master wall-builder Mike Turner. My understanding of walls has improved hugely in the last year, and I think I’ll be even more aware of how we can get that right for next series.

I know from when I first watched it, that Only Connect has that magical thing where a viewer might initially think “gosh, what is this madness” then “these people are so clever, how on earth do they get these answers” then suddenly “I know that one!”. There has to be something for everyone, every player, every viewer.

If quiz shows can be broadly divided into ones where you have to know a lot and ones where you have to think well (though, in practice, all the best shows, from University Challenge to Pointless, need a large dose of both), Only Connect, I think, is further towards “thinking well”. A lot of the questions require only a modicum of general knowledge, a lot of logic, and good technique. Team dynamics are also very important, perhaps more important than viewers realise. It’s fascinating seeing teams that don’t start all that impressively (and scrape through to Round 2) who then gradually pull together into a fearsome unit over the course of the series.

The players are everything. Our role is to help them show off how clever they are while enjoying themselves in the process. Jack has done several statistical breakdowns on average scores, gaps between teams and what kind of questions teams do well on (we’ll publish some of these stats over time in some form). Over the series there will be whuppings and nailbiters, but we do hope everyone feels they’ve been treated fairly.

This series is out of our hands now – let it play out, and we hope you enjoy it. There are  great contests, great questions and phenomenal individual and team performances still to be seen. We’re well on our way with preparing the next series, learning from what’s gone right and what’s not been quite right. As well as Series 13, Jack and I also had the privilege in our first year of compiling The (first?) Official Only Connect Quiz Book, most of whose questions were assembled from the first 10 series. If we ever needed reminding of the daunting standard we have been charged with maintaining, that was it.

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