Only Connect 15: Question Editor’s Thoughts

So there goes another series of ‘Only Connect’. Series 15.

I hope people have enjoyed it. Hearty congratulations to the 007s, who, I think you’ll agree, were extremely worthy of their crown. They went unbeaten throughout the series and showed an incredible breadth of knowledge and calm under pressure. One of the enjoyable things about this series was the number of teams we felt, from the start, were in with a shout – there were several strong contenders, and the line-up of the later rounds was never a foregone conclusion.

This has been the third series on which Mr Waley-Cohen (if he exists) and I have been the question editors and it took us past the 100-episode mark in charge (having been writers on the show for four series before that, and, separately, contestants earlier on). It was a joy to make at every stage, from the writing to the editing to the filming.

I wrote a blog about being question editor in the middle of our first series at the helm, and thought it might be a nice time to revisit. My intention is to focus less on the actual process of question editing and more on how the show is received. Inevitably, though, there’ll be a bit of both.

I tend to follow each episode when it’s being transmitted via the #onlyconnect hashtag on twitter, either live or retrospectively, and also check in on any comments on Facebook’s Quiz Discussion Group.

Though there’s a danger of being a glutton for punishment, and it’s also important to avoid getting into any kind of disagreement, tempting as it sometimes is, I’ve found it, on balance, a pretty reasonable way to judge how a show is going down, what questions worked well, what less well.

If people refer to the questions and the question setters at all, it is usually in the context of us being evil geniuses, setting out to bamboozle the teams and make the viewers at home feel stupid with the weight of our intricacies and obscurities. Of course, the show plays up to that a bit and it is all part of the fun and, in most cases, affectionately meant.

But, as it happens, my perspective as both a question setter and a question editor is different, in fact it’s almost the exact opposite.

First of all, I’m not a genius, nor am I unambiguously evil. Other question setters may well be, I can only speak for myself. I’m not a puzzler, a crossworder, a world-class quizzer. I’m a question writer by profession and have been for a long time.

Along with the writing, I ran a lot of quizzes for a long time, and one of my main aims when I ran quizzes was to leave no participant behind, to make sure the team finishing last had (almost) as much fun as the team finishing first, and to try to pitch the quiz so that the top score was not too high and the bottom score was not too low.

Mr Waley-Cohen and I bring the same approach to Only Connect. An occasional complaint I see is along the lines of “what’s the point in asking questions which no one can get?”. And I couldn’t agree more.

Which is why, in Only Connect, we try to have questions that teams do get (yes, yes, I know, this week’s final may not be the best example of that, but, come on, it was the final!)

 A quick look at the average scores over the 15 series bears this out. We hope that the average for each episode, over the course of a series, will be steady, at around 40 points, and that’s pretty much exactly where it is (currently 40.1) – some series, it’s more like 38-39, some 41-42, but generally 40 is a good mark. That’s 20 per team, which, when you think about it, is plenty – a point for each of your R1 and R2 questions, full marks on the wall, 4 points on the vowels – it might break down like that.

Teams are generally getting questions right, and we want them to. If two questions in a row go past without either time scoring a point, we feel a bit sad.

So, why does it sometimes look/feel like the quiz is really hard? I simply think that’s built into the format – at home and in the studio, you do spend a lot of time being at a loss, before suddenly the answer is worked out.

I suppose that the complaint that we’re evil geniuses trying to bamboozle the teams is a bit like complaining that detective fiction writers spend too long concealing the identity of the killer, and why can’t they just cut to the chase and make it explicit whodunnit a bit earlier (not that Columbo isn’t one of the greatest shows of all time, but you get my point …)

 Also, for those watching, the fact is, you’re at home, perhaps on your own, perhaps you’ve had a glass of wine, while the teams are with two other people, both almost certainly sober, and the value of their each throwing in ideas is incalculable. If you’re a step behind them, no wonder.

They’re also all very good at it, they’re not there by chance, they’ve passed auditions and (usually) been practising for ages.

And, most importantly and simply, we aim the questions at the teams, not the audience. It is a miraculous joy that so many viewers join the teams on the journey to each answer, but for us, as writers and editors, if we started worrying unduly about how people at home were doing, the show would fall apart.

It is a fine balance – in my head, when writing my own and when looking at other people’s questions, I’m always thinking that there shouldn’t be (with very very few exceptions) enough in Clue 1 to confidently guess (though it is lovely when teams can look back and work out in hindsight how Clue 1 fits in), and there never should be too little by Clue 4 (or Clue 3 in Round 2).

So we have to plot the journey very carefully in each question. It’s not always exactly the same, it couldn’t be – some questions get easier more quickly and some stay pretty hard all the way to the end. There are different types of question, and some are more “high-risk” than others.

There are some questions which we’re entirely confident fall into the sphere of General Knowledge, and the answer will pretty much have presented itself to any alert team by the end. Some, particularly sequences, are more specific – good examples in Series 15 were, if you recall, the ‘Panic’ maps sequence, and the ‘Inside Number 9’ series opening episode locations. The risk is that these questions fall completely flat, that no one on either team gets the cultural reference, and you end up looking like you’re dealing in wanton obscurity.

So as writer/editor, you are staking something on the kind of things people who go on Only Connect might know, and hoping for the best. These kind of questions are important to the show, whether they’re about cult TV shows or the small details of everyday life.

 If I may wax a little philosophical … I feel like everyone closely involved with the show sees it as a little more than just a quiz show – we really hope it lives up to its title. It has to be a show about absolutely everything, where everything feels connected, and that is a big part of mine and Jack’s job (a part that he is particularly good at), making sure that as many topics as possible are covered.

Think of it this way; there are quizzing sweet spots – Beatles, Popes, Scrabble, Snooker, 80s films etc – they lend themselves well to Only Connect and to quizzing in general.

But it’s our duty as question editors to veer away from the sweet spots, to take risks, to have questions about everything and everything else (sometimes all within one question, sometimes not). The unique structure allows us to cover everything from spark plugs to Sparks, Ludacris to Lucretius, Iris Murdoch to Unsolved murders, Cat’s Eyes to catfish, Dora Maar to Moons of Mars (you can tell I’m quite enjoying this, but I’ll stop now …) and, most importantly, we can be obscure without being off-putting, because the obscurity can go early in a question, and the clarity can come later.

That’s why I take mild exception to the suggestion that Only Connect is forbidding or highbrow. In some ways, it’s anything but highbrow. Yes, there is the odd question in a hundred that asks you to know about Leonhard Euler or Latin conjugations, but there are plenty more on the likes of Back to the Future or Beyoncé. Nothing is too popular or populist. Nothing is off limits.

Our duty is to make it varied, fun, accurate and most of all, fair. I think we manage this pretty well – for the first two rounds, of course, some pot luck comes into it – sometimes teams just don’t get the run of the questions, but usually it evens itself out over the two rounds.

With Round 4 (Missing Vowels), it’s on the buzzer, so the only way that can look unfair is that there is a very specific topic on something one player on one team happens to be an expert in. That’s rare, but can happen.

The greatest focus on fairness is, of course, with Round 3, the walls. Two unmatched walls can make a fair difference. Again, I think we do a pretty good job, we look at the subject matters and the mechanisms, and the numbers of red herrings, and match them closely. Viewers’ perceptions are heavily influenced by how the teams do – I know there was one pair of walls this series, in particular, where a few people online were suggesting one was harder than the other, but actually, they had the same mechanisms, balance of wordplay and knowledge, it just happened that one team identified a (for some) tricky knowledge group early and that unlocked their wall, whereas that didn’t quite happen for the other team.

Funnily enough, when I myself was on Only Connect, many years ago, we blew a commanding position after R2 by floundering on a tricky wall. The other team scored 10 on their wall, and I was quite convinced we’d had a rough bit of luck. It was only looking back at the episode several years later, I examined the opposition’s wall and thought “you know, that was pretty tough too, I’m not sure we’d have done any better with that”.

Anyway, I hope that’s provided some insight. It’s such a joy to work on the show and it’s amazing that so many people have found their way to enjoying it. I hope it comes across what a kind and good-natured atmosphere there is on set, that the contestants are mainly having a great time, and I hope you’ll carry on watching.

Meanwhile, we’re waiting for Series 16 to be allowed out of isolation. Hope to see you all on the other side later in the year.

Top performers on UK broadcast quizzes

We’ve made a list of the most successful UK quizzers of all time, in terms of performance on the big five “serious” broadcast quizzes: Brain of Britain, Mastermind, Fifteen-to-One, University Challenge, Only Connect. To qualify for the list, a quizzer needs to have won more than one of these shows.

Top quizzers have occasionally struggled on some of these shows – sometimes it’s down to the nature of the format, sometimes it is down to not performing on the day, on what can be a one-off opportunity.

These shows all have a certain longevity and almost all top quizzers will have had the opportunity to compete in most of them at some point if they had wanted to. Only Connect is a bit of an outlier, being much more recent (only 11 years old…) with relatively few series (14 so far) vs the others, but we’ve included it because of a) its reputation as one of the toughest quiz shows overall; b) a number of very fine quizzers and champions in other formats have not won on Only Connect including several University Challenge champions (including e.g. Gail Trimble [or if we want to accept her disqualification then we can include Henry Pertinez], Jenny Harris, Oscar Powell). Also, we’re biased, as we are the question editors for Only Connect, but we think, objectively, it is ok to include it. And including it doesn’t stop Kevin Ashman from being top.

There are obviously many ways to measure quiz success, and we’re not going to pretend this is any way authoritative at the expense of other measures. But it’s fun to look at. We consider individual performances to outrank team performances. And we also consider “conversions” – i.e. winning a Champion of Champions type show – gives extra credit.

Please let us know of any omissions, factual errors etc. [thanks to those that have already provided updates]

  1. Kevin Ashman15-to-1 (1989), Mastermind (1995), Brain of Britain (1996). Plus 15-to-1 Millennium Quiz, Brain of Brains, Top Brain, Brain of Britain record score, Mastermind record scoreKevin hasn’t participated in University Challenge, but if he had, we don’t think there are many people (especially those of us who have seen him on top form in non-televised buzzer quiz contests of all varieties) who would doubt his ability to win it. It’s slightly harder to assess Kevin’s likely results on Only Connect, but you wouldn’t bet against him making a mockery of some of the 5 point clues.
  2. Ian BayleyOnly Connect (2008), Mastermind (2011), Brain of Britain (2010). Plus Only Connect Champion of Champions (and of Champions), Brain of Brains. It was a surprise to many that Ian didn’t win University Challenge: The second time he participated, in particular, he was without much argument the best student buzzer quizzer in the UK.
  3. Barbara ThompsonUniversity Challenge (1984), 15-to-1 (1992), Brain of Britain (1989). Barbara pips Mark to 3rd place by virtue of her triumphs in three different shows. Note that Barbara was unavailable (according to wiki) for Brain of Brains, and the person who came second in her series went on to win that cycle’s Brain of Brains.
  4. Mark GrantOnly Connect (2008), Brain of Britain (2014). Plus Only Connect Champion of Champions (and of Champions), Brain of Brains, Top Brain. [Surely only a matter of time before he adds Mastermind (he is a three times finalist) and/or 15-to-1]
  5. David Stainer. Only Connect (2008), Brain of Britain (2019). Plus Only Connect Champion of Champions (and of Champions), Brain of BrainsDavid pips Roger by virtue of “converting” his wins (helped by having had the opportunity to do so) in two different shows, and also having been a runner-up on University Challenge and 15-to-1. 
  6. Roger Pritchard. Mastermind (1976), Brain of Britain (1974). Plus Brain of Brains, Top Brain.

[Note: all three members of the 2008 Only Connect Crossworders – David Stainer, Ian Bayley, Mark Grant – have won Brain of Britain and subsequently Brain of Brains since being on Only Connect, which makes for somewhat sobering reflection in hindsight for me, the author of this blog post: I was team captain of the Lapsed Psychologists who lost to the Crossworders in that Only Connect series 1 final!]

Nobody else has more than 3 wins (counting “conversions” as additional wins). Those with 3 wins are:

  • Pat GibsonMastermind (2005), Brain of Britain (2006). Plus Mastermind Champion of Champions
  • Chris Hughes. Mastermind (1983), Brain of Britain (2005). Plus International Mastermind.
  • Daphne Fowler. 15-to-1 (twice in 2001), Brain of Britain (1997).

Then we have the people with two wins:

  • Dave McBryan. 15-to-1 (2014), Mastermind (2020).
  • Clive DunningMastermind (2014), Brain of Britain (2018)
  • Thomas Dyer. 15-to-1 (1991), Brain of Britain (1976)
  • Geoff  ThomasMastermind (2006), Brain of Britain (2009)
  • David Stedman15-to-1 (2003), Brain of Britain (2003)
  • David GoodUniversity Challenge (1999), 15-to-1 (1999)
  • Stephen FollowsUniversity Challenge (1987), Mastermind (2000)
  • Aubrey Lawrence. Brain of Britain (1972), University Challenge (1968)
  • Joey Goldman. Only Connect (2019), University Challenge (2017)
  • Sean BlanchflowerOnly Connect (2015), University Challenge (1995) [of note for longest time span between major wins]
  • Glen Binnie. 15-to-1 (1993), Brain of Brains (1989) [Glen had come second to Barbara Thompson in Brain of Britain in 1989, but Barbara was unavailable to take her place in Brain of Brains – Glen stood in and won] 

Sources: Wikipedia and Sean Blanchflower’s University Challenge site

What makes a quizzer?

I wrote a few months ago about the issue of gender bias in quizzes from a writer’s point of view. The question has reared its head again recently in a somewhat blunt and unhelpful way. I have little to add to what I wrote then, beyond saying there would be a few more things I might amend slightly, a few further issues I could take into consideration, but that the more valuable perspective at this stage is being expressed by women who are describing the particular treatment they receive when they go on quiz shows, and that the main responsibility as a writer and editor is to write and put together shows with interesting and entertaining questions which are fair to all participants. Quite simply there is value to the likes of me, as a male writer, putting conscious thought into whether we’ve got this right in the past and whether we can do more to make quizzes balanced going forward. That’s all really.

So what I’d like to write now is a little tangential, and more about the nature of what it takes to be a good quizzer generally. When people express the view that quizzing is a more “male” thing because men are more likely to make lists and remember facts, I think that shows a significant misunderstanding and underestimation (misunderestimation, as Dubya might say) of what it takes to be an all-round good quizzer.

The idea that doing well at quizzes is all about factual recall has always bothered me. There is so much more to it than that. Of course, there is a scale. As far as I can see, University Challenge and competitive quiz leagues (both of which, I should say, I have never participated in) do ask of people that they have excellent general knowledge and can recall what they know under competitive pressure and time pressure, but even within those settings, other skills are required. I think of that old joke about University Challenge: if you’re not a scientist, and a complex science or maths question comes up, you’ve got a pretty good shot if you buzz in and answer “Zero” or “One”. What would that require? Bravery? Chutzpah? Common sense?

I’ve run and written for a lot of corporate quizzes and pub quizzes. I’ve also written for a fair few TV shows. In all of these, there are a range of different assets which mean it is far from a given that the one who “knows” the most will always win.

A good pub quiz will demand of a winning team a combination of knowledge, lateral thinking, numerical ability, common sense, facial recognition, puzzle solving, humility (i.e. knowing when you’re not right and bowing to a team member talking sense), teamwork, strategy, and an often overlooked empathy with the quiz writer.

Of the shows I’ve written for, the one I had the most control of, and whose format I loved, was ‘The Code’. It required players to choose one of three answers as the correct one, while the other two answers were wrong. Without going into the nuances of the format, while knowledge was, of course, helpful, it was possible to win through a combination of luck and good judgement while actually knowing very few of the correct answers.

Furthermore, I pondered, as I watched the recordings in the studio, that it was possible for smart players to try to get inside my (the writer’s) head, to constantly ask themselves, “What are they trying to do here?” “How is this question structured?” “What is most likely from these options, based on the scraps of knowledge I have?”. I envisaged, as the show progressed, a real battle of wits between writers and participants.

A pretty good rule of thumb for writing pub quizzes, corporate quizzes and TV quizzes for the mass market (i.e. that won’t leave people feeling disinterested and excluded, and that aren’t intended as a pure test of who knows the most) is that the actual answers should be something that, when read out, they’ve heard of, and not something obscure or arcane. I mean, there is certainly a place for the obscure and the arcane, but, mostly, a great question might give people the feeling they’ve dredged up a bit of knowledge they didn’t know they had, or something that, though they didn’t get, they really might have if they’d thought a little more.

And, you know, that’s a massive part of ‘Only Connect’ too. Sometimes I hear people saying it’s meant to bamboozle people, and it’s really not, certainly not all the way through. It may be a forest, but it’s a forest with a clearing, and we (we being me, one of the ‘Only Connect’ Question Editors, along with everyone involved in the show) hope anyone can get to that clearing if they keep their wits about them.

We want people to get the answers. That means the people playing in the studio, and also people at home. We want people to feel clever, to have worked out something that seemed impenetrable to start with and then suddenly became apparent. That’s the essence of the show. We’re happy that the scores achieved by the teams nearly always reflect that. Teams score well.  They get most of the answers eventually, one way or another. And, on twitter, you can see the joy of people at home saying “I got that one” or “That one was easy, can’t believe the teams didn’t get that”. Sure, it’s a clever show, but we really do hope it’s inclusive, and doesn’t shut out people who don’t have massive general knowledge.

Overwhelmingly, my experience is that successful quizzers are not merely people who can learn, remember and recall (under pressure) lots of stuff, but all round clever people. Lots of people probably don’t think they’re good quizzers because they don’t know which battle took place in which year, but when it came to it, they’d be a far more valuable asset to a quiz team than they think.

So, relating it back to the gender issue, I’m not overly concerned with the hornet’s nest of whether men are “better” than women at knowing trivia and memorising stuff. I certainly don’t think so, for what it’s worth. But more importantly, for me, doing well at quizzes is about so much more than that, and is something that different kinds of brains can achieve. A good quiz team might well contain a memorizer, but it should also contain a puzzler, a calm head, a celeb spotter, a mathematician, a strategist, a newspaper reader, a twitter follower, an academic, a music fan, a psychologist –  a veritable breakfast club of talents and personality types.

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.

Only Connect Quiz Book

Only Connect: The Official Quiz Book has just been published. As you may know, Jack and David from QuizQuizQuiz are the Question Editors for Only Connect, and have put together the book, complete with brilliant introductions from Victoria Coren Mitchell.

It’s packed full of question from the show, and includes plenty of brand new material as well. There’s even a special Connecting Wall on the back cover so you don’t even have to open the book!

For every question that has been on the show, we tell you how the teams managed, so you can compare yourself to them.

There’s also a sample “audition quiz” in the book, with a website that you can visit to submit your answers and find out whether you have what it takes to be in the show.

You can buy the book from Amazon, and of course from all good book shops.


First Hand Experience of Question Difficulty

This is a follow-up to the last post – I want to expand on how the different aspects of our work fit together. (These two strands are hosted quiz nights and quiz question writing for TV shows, games, iPhone apps etc.)

Those have always been the two main areas of our business – over the years the hosted quizzes have taken the lead, certainly they’ve been more consistent. The question writing side obviously depends a little more on what comes along. I mean, we’re always writing questions, but we’re not always working on a major commission – more like bits and bobs here and there.

In the last couple of years, there’s been a lot of really good question writing work, so much so that there has been less time for our main question writers to run quizzes.

Yet, the experience of hosting quizzes is vital, I think, to our writing questions successfully.

I’ve run over 400 quizzes for people all over this country and occasionally overseas, for people of all ages, in different industries, for different purposes. I’ve asked questions on every topic that makes a good quiz question and a few that don’t.

And I get to see, first hand, how those questions go down. I get to see what people know and don’t know, what they’re proud to know and what they don’t care about knowing, what’s workoutable and what’s not.

And because our quizzes are for different clients, we get to re-use questions, so we know whether a response, positive or negative, is a one-off or not.

And that’s just me – between us, as a company, we’ve run over 3000 quizzes, and we ask our clients and our quiz masters to feed back on every event. So, we know very well if a question is a big hit or not.

This gives us a vital edge when it comes to question writing for TV, we think. To us, calibration, alongside entertainment, is more than guesswork. We have evidence to back up the fact that we know how to set quizzes, to write questions that people want to participate in and puzzle over.

It’s not just the hosted quizzes, either. There’s also the Friday Quiz, which started in 2008 and now goes out to thousands of people a week. Every week, I look at how people have done, how many people have bothered trying to answer each question, how many have got it right. This is vital information to understanding what people do and don’t know.

Anyone can reasonably think they’re an expert in quizzes, anyone who writes questions, participates in a lot, watches a lot, but we think our combined experience puts us in a privileged position. You’re left with egg on your face if you think you always know exactly how a question is going to be answered, but the numbers work themselves out.

We see hundreds, if not thousands, of people answering our questions. Most question writers only ever see one or two people answering questions they write, so they get very skewed calibration feedback.

We tell our quiz masters, when they run quizzes, that the right level involves the worst team not slipping much below 50% and the best team not getting above 90% – an ideal spread is between about 60% and 85%. And that’s what happens. Almost every time.

It’s not a naturally easy thing – the first round I ever set, which I was terribly proud of, the scores ranged between 6 and 11 out of 20. It was a disaster. The questions, in and of themselves, were mainly interesting enough, but they were all at the harder end of the scale, some of them weren’t possible to work out. Despite my love for quizzes and my concern for getting it right, I didn’t yet have the first-hand experience of getting the overall level right.

So, this is what we do. We host quizzes and we write questions. They feed into each other. Every question I’ve ever written and every question I’ve ever asked and seen answered feeds into how I write now.

Questions about Ed Balls

When a blog falls silent, it’s usually either a good or bad sign. Thankfully, in this case, it’s the former. We’ve been BusyBusyBusy rather than QuietQuietQuiet (sorry, that’s terrible …).

I’ve been writing, rather than hosting, a lot – almost exclusively. in fact. This blog has had three main purposes since it began – 1. (being honest) to help bring traffic to our website 2. to provide specific information on our quiz nights for our clients and 3. to just be informative and a bit of fun while being a bit of an authority on all things quiz.

A lot of my posts over the last few years have been about the joys and pitfalls of running quiz nights, and, as I say, they’ve served as places to point a client about the way our quizzes work. Until last week, though, I hadn’t run a quiz for about 9 months, so I just didn’t feel inspired to be writing all that much about quiz nights (as well as the fact I’ve written over 100 previous posts and I’d run the risk of repeating myself).

The writing work has been good – interesting, creative, exactly the kind of work we want to be doing. For me, it’s also often quite solitary, and a world away from the quiz nights. The atmosphere at quiz nights varies, but they do very often turn into loud and raucous mass participation events, which appear to be barely on the edge of control (though in reality we are always in control!). The best ones do, anyway.

For the last year, though, I’ve more often been in my special sound-proof QuizQuizQuiz shed trying to construct quiz questions/rounds/shows as if they’re haikus hewn from the very core of language and knowledge. Who knows, maybe sometimes they are …

Anyway, what’s my point? (I’m out of practice at writing blogs with a point.) Just that it’s a big quiz world and getting bigger. Gosh, some of those quizzers are turning into rock stars, as this rather good  documentary claimed. Even our own director, Jack, has been on the radio talking about the whole quiz thing (among other things) on ‘The Museum of Curiosity‘. It’s a broad church.

For me, as a quiz writer, the essence is now boiled down to knowing what people know. I’m good at that now. Whichever people, in whatever setting, whether online, on a TV show, in a room, in a pub, that’s a skill I’ve got. It’s far from faultless, though. There’s as much joy in someone unexpectedly knowing something you thought would stump them, as there is despair in people using neither knowledge nor knowhow, and failing miserably when you least expect it.

Quizzes should always reward knowledge and knowhow – it’s a bit of a shame when people apply good reasoning to a question and still get it wrong. That applies to any quiz situation.

For some reason, this year, I’ve written a lot of questions, often in completely different contexts, about Ed Balls. Currently no man alive lends themselves better to slightly comical quiz questions. Thank you Ed Balls. And as my own little tribute to Ed Balls Day … Ed Balls.

I ran a quiz last week – a big old quiz for 200 people in a bar in London – an old routine I’d fallen out of but thankfully fell back into pretty quickly. My joy for the last year has been applying a fair bit of science and a little bit of art to question writing, initially on my own, then in close, limited collaboration. However, last week I remembered the joy of playing ‘Sound of da Police’ at high volume to a room full of tipsy but fiercely competitive business-folk, and, of course, I remembered the age-old rush of saying “And the year when they were all Number 1 is Nineteen …. ninety ……………. nine”


Creativity – perhaps as overused and meaningless a term these days as “interactive”, “passionate” or “110%”. I remember, for one of the first big question-writing projects I worked on for QuizQuizQuiz, shuffling with my colleague into the imposing offices of a large multinational firm who was our client, and being introduced to the various serious and important people there as “the creative” … I’m the creative, am I? If only I’d known …

It can vary how much creativity this job involves. If I read in the news that Leicester City have won the Premier League (I know, a ridiculous thought, but just as an example …), and then write the question “Who won the English Premier League in 2015-16?”, I accept that is not the very height of creative endeavour. Plenty of question writing is like that. You see simple facts and you package them into questions. In particular, this is the case with high-volume multiple choice, multi-level question writing, against a deadline.

We’ve had to write 20,000 Multiple Choice questions from scratch in a couple of months, with a very tight word limit on each question. There is not much room for anything but the barest form of creativity. But it’s still possible to get some satisfaction and show a little flair, usually in wrong answer options on easy questions. I think my favourite was “What follows this line in the Meredith Brooks song ‘Bitch?’ – “I’m a bitch, I’m a lover …”? to which one of the options was “My name’s Mitch, I’m your brother” … Well, you get your fun where you can.

Thus a lot of writing feels just as much reactive as creative. You take something that already exists and just reshape it. I try very hard not to use other people’s quiz questions. I’ve written before about how I get a certain bittersweet tang from seeing a really fine quiz question, knowing that it is not something that I will have the opportunity to think of myself. Indeed, I can’t use it. But I think it is acceptable to bank the facts in the question, and reshape it, a little while later, into something a bit different. If you couldn’t create quiz material from the same sources that other people create it  from, well, we’d all be done for.

We’ve been doing quite a lot of writing for TV in the last few years, and that certainly has plenty of scope for a satisfying creative process, be it trying to put together Hives for Hive Minds,  Only Connect sequences and connections (after 11 series, I sometimes think it’s amazing that we and the other writers are still able to come up with new material and, believe me, this requires digging deep into the well of resourcefulness and creativity) or, on The Code, nice sets of 3 answer/questions. We threw a few Easter eggs into The Code, little rhyming sequences or phrases, I spent a lot of time coming up with little nuggets of joy which only a few people spotted, but that’s part of the fun of it.

A huge amount of work can go into things which are still, at the end of the day, only quiz questions or quiz rounds. They’re not going to win any awards. But there is sometimes, dare I say it, a little of the rigour and discipline of poetry in writing a quiz round.

At our pub quiz, we used to have a round called Follow On (where each answer has one letter more than the previous) and another round called Blitz (30 quickfire questions, some of which were themed). For Christmas, we decided to write a Christmas-themed 30 question round where each answer was one letter longer than the previous answer, from 1 to 30. Frankly, I still consider it my finest hour … well, not hour, actually, but a week of writing … and five minutes of participation.

So, creativity, yes, I suppose this is a creative job. There have been many times down the years when we’ve had the opportunity to use a bit of imagination in our work. Anyone writing or running a quiz can mix it up, try new formats, be clever without being confusing. It should never become boring or a chore. We’re passionate about giving 110% to interactive, creative quizzery …

The Code – Trailer

Earlier this year we worked on the questions for ‘The Code’, a new BBC1 quiz show hosted by Matt Allwright, along with our own Lesley-Anne Brewis as the resident quiz expert. It starts on Monday 18th April, and is on every weekday at 2:15pm (and of course on iPlayer) until May 20th. We’ll post links to iPlayer on the blog once the series is underway. We hope you enjoy the show!