My Celebrity Life

Only Connect: How BBC’s impossible quiz show became more popular than EastEnders

My Celebrity Life –
Victoria Coren-Mitchell has hosted the series since 2008 (Picture: BBC)

Earlier this month, Only Connect overtook EastEnders in the Monday night ratings for the first time, toppling Danny Dyer and co. to become the most-watched show in its time spot.

A whopping 2.79 million tuned in to have their quizzing acumen tested and watch Victoria Coren-Mitchell test out two more plucky teams – and it shows just how far the programme has come.

The fiendishly difficult quiz show has gone from curiosity piece to bonafide institution in the 13 years since it first aired on BBC Four.

It’s become event TV for the nation’s quiz geeks after moving to BBC Two in 2014, and the Monday line-up alongside University Challenge and MasterMind is just about the best thing on the box right now.

Speaking to, the show’s co-creator Chris Stuart looked back at the show’s earliest days, and recounted how the format first came together.

‘​​I ran a small production company in Cardiff and we were always looking for ideas. One of our employees came to me one morning with an idea for a quiz based around sequences,’ he said. ‘I think he called it Four Star. They had four clues, but basically, you had to guess what the fourth clue was. So effectively, it’s round two of the show as we know it today.’

My Celebrity Life –
The show has become a TV institution (Picture: BBC/Parasol Media Limited/Rory Lindsay)

‘My feeling was that there was something in it, but that it would run out of questions fairly quickly. So we turned it into a quiz about connections. I’d always had a feeling that something based on missing vowels was good too. And when we began to try things out, that seemed to work very well.’

It took a while to get the ball rolling, but things really changed when Chris’s friend Victoria stepped in to host the pilot – with no idea it would become the hit it is today.

‘We pitched it to the BBC and it took a long time to get it commissioned,’ Chris said. ‘We made a couple of pilots with Victoria. She was a friend of ours because [production company Presentable] made late night poker for Channel 4. And Victoria is, of course, a very accomplished poker player.

‘She came down really almost as a favour because she liked what we were doing with the poker coverage, and agreed to front this pilot for a quiz program. She took a liking to it straight away, she enjoys sort of puzzles and brain teasers and that kind of thing. She attached herself to it.’

My Celebrity Life –
The host was always the front-runner for the show (Picture: BBC/Parasol Media/RDF Television/Patrick Olner)

While Victoria was always firmly in the minds of the production staff, the BBC had a few other names in mind ahead of the first series.

‘I think for us, it was always going to be Victoria,’ Chris said. ‘She absolutely owns it. As far as I’m concerned, I can’t think of anyone else who could do it… She can handle all that stuff really competently, with a light touch and authority. And I think that’s unique. The BBC initially wanted to talk about who was going to present it. And there were one or two other names that floated around. But we consistently advocated for Victoria.’

The show’s reputation for being the most challenging quiz on telly is well deserved – but it turns out that writing the questions can be even tougher than answering them.

‘It’s difficult to write Only Connect questions. It’s not like, “Here’s the question, here’s the answer.” It’s almost like writing a script,’ Chris said. ‘We spend a lot of time fine tuning questions… We’ve got question writers contributing from all over Britain. We went through a spell where we were a little uncertain as to whether we could go on finding new questions that were sufficiently interesting, but as time has gone on, they keep coming.’

The person in charge of putting together the questions on the box is Jack Whaley-Cohen, who has experienced the programme from both sides of the camera.

My Celebrity Life –
The questions are some of the toughest on any quiz show (Picture: BBC)

‘I was a contestant on the first ever episode of the show,’ Jack told us. ‘I was one of the first people ever to audition for the show. I enjoyed playing enormously and enjoyed the application form and doing the audition. We got to the final in the first series.’

He added: ‘I’ve always been involved in the quiz world and writing quiz questions and hosting quiz nights. And my company that did that was starting to get into writing questions for TV shows… It was in 2016 that we took over for series 13.’

Jack is the one in charge of whittling down around 2000 question ideas to 400 ahead of every series. Victoria is heavily involved with the production of the show too – and even spikes the odd question if she’s not 100% happy with it.

‘Occasionally she’ll just say, “I don’t [want to ask that],”‘ Jack said. ‘I see it like writing jokes for a comedian – if they don’t quite fancy delivering it or selling it, there’s no point in doing it. There’ll be a handful of times where she’ll say, “I just, I can’t quite see this working.” Sometimes we’ll feel strongly enough about a question that will make the case and persuade her.’

It’s a ratings hit 13 years in the making, but what’s next for Only Connect? Co-creator Chris is keen to try the show’s format out on a very different audience.

‘We were really attracted by the notion of a children’s version. I think that could work very well,’ he said. ‘It has that sort of potential if there were any interest. Absolutely.’

Until then, we’ve got plenty more episodes of the toughest show on TV to look forward to. Good quizzing, everyone.

Only Connect airs on Monday nights at 8pm on BBC Two.


Credit: Original article published here.

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