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Reflections on Only Connect Series 16

So ends Only Connect Series 16 – quite an unusual series, but none the worse for it.

We were initially due to film in March and April 2020, but, like everyone else, had to put everything on hold at the last minute.

For Jack and I, the question editors, this left a bit of an empty feeling, as all the work we’d been doing for several months to prepare the series faced an uncertain future.

So then everyone stayed in their house eating chocolate for a few months or whatever else helped them get by. And we – and our team of magnificent question writers – started on the questions for Series 17 for want of anything else to do.

Eventually, a new filming schedule was arranged, which was both a great relief and, naturally, a little nerve-wracking.

We went through all the questions again, looking for anything that might have gone out of date, or might jar with the new reality.

I can think of two interesting changes we made. The first was a Wall group of Zoom, Skype, BlueJeans and Hangouts (with Zoom a red herring for an ice cream van group of Solero, Twister, Magnum Calippo). By October, this was now the wrong way around. Video conferencing systems had become too easy, and ice-cream vans…who could remember those. So we changed it to Chime, Webex, BlueJeans, Hangouts (and Zoom became part of the ice cream van group). And then we had a sequence of things happening in 1717, 1818, 1919, 2020. The original example answer we had was “Tokyo Olympics”. But by October 2020 they had not happened, and far more significant things had taken place, so we changed it to “Ed Davey becomes Lib Dem leader”.

Anyway, back to the story. When it came time to film, it felt a little strange to be using questions and shows that had originally been written, reviewed, edited, compiled and completely ready more than half a year beforehand.

Meanwhile, there had been sterling work taking place behind the scenes to make sure the studio, contestants and workforce were ready.

When we all arrived in Cardiff, it was clear that most of us were emerging, blinking, into the sunlight for the first time in months. Literally. We usually film in the charmingly changeable Cardiff spring, but here we were in an August heatwave, and there were tents, there were masks and thermometers, there were hand gels, arrows on the floor and, most noticeably, screens, both in the gallery and on the set.

And everyone was wearing shorts! Only Connect? In shorts? Preposterous …

For us, as question editors, we have the same nagging worry at the start of every series – have we got the level right? Will these contestants, about whom we know very little, be able to play this game that we’ve set for them?

The worry was multiplied this time around. How will it work with screens and earpieces? Will these contestants, locked down for so long, still be able to think and communicate in the way the show requires? Only Connect is hard, it has to be hard to be the show people know, love and shout furiously at. We had to hope the circumstances weren’t going to make it too hard.

Mixed in with that was the awareness, more than ever, that we were working on something people love to watch, and that there was value to our being there. We were, without overstating the case, providing something that many people who’d had a tough year would be looking forward to. So perhaps we were a little more conscious of that responsibility than usual.

And so the games began … with one block of filming in August, two in October (just, thankfully, completed before Wales went into lockdown) …

A wonderful thing we immediately noticed was that the teams were evidently very happy to be there, indeed happy to be anywhere. Because of various restrictions, they couldn’t have the full ‘Only Connect’ experience, but everyone seemed so delighted to be participating, it was quite moving.

And very quickly, I remembered how much I love watching Only Connect myself. It is quite a thrilling thing to see, in real time, people taking on the challenge you’ve spent months setting for them …

The satisfaction of a question going just as you’d planned is balanced with the occasional disappointment of a question falling slightly flat, perhaps knowing you could have set it a slightly different way.

Thankfully, it was clear very quickly that the game was, basically, still the same. There were a few subtle, barely perceptible shifts in how the teams had to play, to communicate with Victoria and with each other, but, essentially, all was good. There were lightbulb moments, there was teamwork, there was chat, there was humour, there was bafflement, there was everything Only Connect is always associated with. There was also the unusual aspect that many teams got to see themselves on telly before they had finished their run of recordings, and had time to dwell on their experience – and it felt like teams grew into their experience on the show even more than usual as they moved through the labyrinth of the tournament structure.

It’s always lovely, as a series progresses, when you see moments you know fans of the show will be talking about in months to come. Mitch Benn’s vowel run, Alan Flanagan’s “Is it a protestant thing?”, the Puzzle Hunters’ wordsearch question. Jessica Southworth asking her husband “Are you mental?”. Equally, as question editors, we accumulate a few moments of worry and mild regret. Will that look fair? Did we make the right judgement there? Should we have laid out that question differently?

Consequently, over the years that Jack and I have been in the role, I’ve taken a slightly different approach to watching the show when it airs. Basically, I don’t. I used to watch every episode live while checking twitter, which can certainly be fun, but was ultimately just a little too close to the bone, and provided a little too much temptation to respond to each “that wall was harder” tweet with a “well, actually” tweet … which is all just a bit pointless.

I still have a quick look at twitter every week, but, by and large, knowing that lots of people love the show and that it will play out well and fairly, is enough.

Gratifyingly, for this strangest, most testing of series, the viewing figures have been excellent, and the level of enjoyment and engagement from fans and participants seemed higher than ever.

Furthermore, we knew, best of all, that we had a fabulous final in store, between the Dungeon Masters and the Puzzle Hunters. It’s not for me to say if this was the best episode of Only Connect ever (the final is one episode I did watch in real time), but it was certainly up there for those in our time as question editors.

Two great teams who’d built up their skill and confidence throughout the series brought their absolute best to the contest. The level of play was magnificent. Each of the six participants, in turn, pulled answers out of thin air that we knew would dazzle viewers at home. It was Hearns-Hagler, it was the 2005 Ashes, it was Girls Aloud vs One True Voice, it was … in fact, more gripping and nail-biting than any other dated cultural references I can conjure up.

It felt, still feels now, in various ways, like a particularly emotional series, one that will always be prominent in our memories.

The show goes on, off course. As soon as filming of Series 16 ceased, Jack and I were working hard again at Series 17, which has already started filming …

The good news is, people can still play the game …

6 replies
  1. Sam Hayfield
    Sam Hayfield says:

    Hi!

    Firstly, I want to say thank you, once again, for what would have been a highlight of any year, but this last year was such an amazing thing to focus on, and look forward to. The questions are such a huge part of what makes the show what it is, and as we revised old series we realised that they’ve only gotten better, more unique and more playful over time.

    For me and my fellow Dungeon Masters as long-time fans of the show, for the whole process to be as welcoming as it was made a huge difference. It could have been nerve-wracking enough merely being out of the house, but I think how relaxed we ended up being really came through on screen, and that’s testament to everyone who works on the show.

    As far as that final goes, it was lovely to leave on such a high note. Even as runners-up, we felt that was easily the best we’d played, and we’ve been excited for months knowing it was such a close match and would make for great TV. We chatted to the Puzzle Hunters after broadcast and it was mentioned that neither team was made up of traditional quizzers, and again, that’s down to how the questions have evolved over time, and the subtle changes in which style of question is used in each round of the game.

    I’ve been a bit despondent the last week partly because the end of the series feels like our OC experience coming to a proper end, but to have met so many amazing people along the way is a great consolation. Looking forward to being able to attend a reunion somewhere down the line, and also somewhat looking forward to watching the next series as a fan, with nothing at stake but my own ego!

    Sam (Dungeon Masters)

    Reply
  2. Lindsay Baumeister
    Lindsay Baumeister says:

    Firstly thanks to the cancelled filming I ended up with my amazing dog, so every cloud and all that. Daisy is also grateful (I assume as she cannot talk)
    It was funny hearing people talk about the “full only connect experience” because as contestants we hadn’t been in before, so for us, this was exactly that. And it was amazing.
    I felt completely safe and very valued and well looked after (Charlotte makes a cracking cup of tea that would be welcomed across Yorkshire) and met some amazing, funny and smart people. Particularly my Alans (who I intend to hug a lot when I see them again outside of restrictions). I fulfilled my dream of making the QF and getting to sing…but then it got even better with getting to the SF and singing a solo! Would I have like to have won, of course, but watching the final on the edge of my seat I think I actually got the better deal with TPPO!
    The best experience of my life, one I wish I could do every year.

    Reply
  3. Selina Conroy
    Selina Conroy says:

    I can only echo what Sam and Lindsay have so eloquently said – it was honestly one of the best experiences of my life! David, Jess and I were so thrilled to have got a chance in the first place, that to do so in such a unique set of circumstances in a way made it even more special. One of the great takeaways is the fellow quizzers we got to meet and a deeper understanding of how fiercely OC is loved. That level of devotion from viewers I think can be traced back to the care and attention of all the crew in making it and, as Sam mentioned, how welcome the teams are made to feel – I know by the time we got to the TPPO, I felt so comfortable I forgot we were actually being filmed and it would be broadcast. I think that came across really well in both that game and the final – which, I have to add, was one of the best 30 minutes or so of quizzing I have ever seen.

    The joy in getting a question right was incredible and the near-misses were delicious in how annoyed I was afterwards! Particularly with the CBeebies question which I don’t think my children will ever forgive me for. And do I still have the image of Max Bygraves haunting my dreams? Perhaps but what a way to get that to happen!

    Reply
  4. Grace Bonamico
    Grace Bonamico says:

    I can only just say how amazing of a series it was, this was wholeheartedly the highlight of my week every week the teams were all so amazing and the questions were fantastic as always! I have the upmost respect for you, Mr. Waley-Cohen, Victoria and everyone who has worked on the show or has been a team. Really thank you so much for this amazing show it has truly helped me during some different times.

    Reply
  5. Ali Lloyd
    Ali Lloyd says:

    Thanks for sharing this insight, it’s a great read. We were indeed incredibly happy to be there and it’s a testament to crew and the standard of preparation that things felt safe and we didn’t have any qualms about it. It was our first TV quizzing experience and for me at least, the first time doing anything remotely like it, and any nervousness was quickly dispelled thanks to the friendliness and demeanour of everyone involved.

    I can only speak for me, but your observation about the teams growing into the experience, and us having built up our skill and confidence throughout rings so true – every episode was a step up and we were always surprised that we were able to remain competitive. This isn’t just a fact about the teams, it’s also a reflection of how incredibly well-judged and balanced the question sets are – credit to the writers for coming up with such an interesting and varied pool of questions and to the editors for pitching the sets for each episode and stage of the competition perfectly.

    It was such a privilege to have been part of that almost comically evenly matched final. The whole experience exceeded all my expectations, which were incredibly high in the first place.

    Reply
  6. Benjamin Benoit
    Benjamin Benoit says:

    Hey, it’s that french bloke who discovered a whole Only Connect community across the Channel by hosting weekly viewing parties !

    A few hours before the new series begins, I wanted to thank you again for your hard work during these trying times. You truly brought us joy, and I’m sure you will for many years. The contestants are stellar, and It’s been a pleasure to scramble all thoses concepts, OC is probably the most satisfying show I’ll ever know. Since last year, I’m morbidly obsessed with it. Even when there’s your inevitable Cbeebies or snooker question ! I hope you’ll be glad to know you also have an international audience.

    I’m eager to know what you came up with for this new series. Thanks again, and see you !

    Reply

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