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We went through all the questions again, looking for anything that might have gone out of date, or might jar with the new reality.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