Thursday, 26 December 2013

Ones that got away: Only Connect Final Special!

Warning: the following contains spoilers for the Only Connect Series 8 grand final, first broadcast on BBC4 last Monday (23rd December). I'd be surprised if anyone reading this both cares about the result, and yet hasn't seen the show, but if that's you look away now!

So this was it. To the surprise of many (including, admittedly, ourselves) the Board Gamers (Hywel Carver, Michael Wallace and Jamie Karran) had made it to the grand final of Only Connect. After a day recording three shows back-to-back we had emerged victorious, leaving just one last hurdle between us and the title of 'Series Champions'. Before that, though, we had an even more challenging mission: Hywel needed some new clothes.

Before the show
After our victory over the Oenophiles at the end of a marathon day of quizzing we were fairly keen to get out of the studio environment (where the second semi-final was about to take place). Unfortunately, getting to the final meant that Hywel (who had been waging a one-man war against the show's dress code) needed another shirt to wear. Hywel likes check shirts, you see, and anyone who has been on TV shows knows that cameras very much don't like check shirts. We therefore had to take a detour via a nearby Marks and Spencer where, after some umming and aahing (while Jamie and I attempted to find - and wear - the silliest hat) he eventually found something for the final. The more observant of you will realize that this was yet another check shirt, but they were quite big checks, so it was fine. (Or at least, that's what Hywel told a very unimpressed but spectacularly patient member of the production team the next morning.)

Jamie (quite literally) letting his hair down
Then followed another fun fun evening in the super fancy Only Connect hotel with some obligatory wall practice (we felt we probably needed it) and a little bit of booze (we felt we definitely needed it). Soon enough it was time to try and get some sleep. Unfortunately, despite having slept for about two hours the previous night and the sort of medication you only get if your husband is a doctor, this was not forthcoming.

Eventually I managed about four hours and the next morning, while Jamie went through his favourite quiz show routine (hotel breakfast), I was limited to trying to make my beans look like a smiley face. "Oh well," I remarked, "at least this should only really affect my reactions for missing vowels, and Hywel's the main guy for those", at which point Hywel arrived, telling us he also felt awful - he'd been up since 4am thanks to a (apparently deaf) guest's TV watching in the room next door. Uh-oh.

We noticed the Lasletts were also at breakfast, and while I was feeling far too unwell to try and say hello (thus probably seeming horrendously rude in the process), Jamie bumped into Jake who was predictably circumspect about whether they were our opponents in the final. Taking this to imply they would be, my expectations were lowered further: they were the only team we'd met who'd matched us on missing vowels, which remained our 'get out of jail free' card should we court disaster in the earlier rounds.

Far too soon it was time to head to the studio where I noticed a 'Bakers' dressing room sign. Still assuming we were playing the Lasletts I figured they must have simply forgotten to take it down yesterday, so it came as a surprise when we found out they were our opponents after all. Knowing nothing about them other than that they'd a) also lost a game, and b) beaten the Lasletts, we didn't really know what to think, but I was nevertheless slightly excited by the prospect of an unseen enemy.

Most of the run-up to the final was, however, dominated by my feeling utterly awful. The combined forces of not enough sleep, very little breakfast, and the impending grand final of my favourite TV show wreaked havoc on my mind and body, even with the lovely Victoria Coren Mitchell (henceforth simply VCM) trying to reassure me that I was being utterly silly.

With the pre-show routine of going through our introductions, make-up, and painkillers complete, we headed to the green room to get our microphones. This was the first time we'd (knowingly) set eyes on our opponents, who I'd expected to be a trio of middle-aged quiz nerds, but turned out to be a trio of comparably young and altogether charming quiz nerds instead. Pre-show conversation with your opponents is, understandably, a bit awkward, although I was surprised to learn this was the Bakers' first TV appearance - my opening gambit of discussing other quiz shows we'd been on inadvertently came across as a Machiavellian attempt at mind games! I was almost glad when the call to studio came, although by now my stomach was doing cartwheels. Walking in we saw the trophy for the first time and Jamie, worried he'd never be so close to it again, snapped a sneaky shot of it on his phone. The way I was feeling at the time, meanwhile, left me no brain space to consider that in less than an hour it could be ours.

Round 1: What's the connection?

The questions
1) Ex-royal winner getting A1 returns (8); Posh convict, or Ian, confined (8); Plum sponge? (8); Presenter of OC trivia, confusingly! (8)
2) Music: Arthur Sullivan's The Lost Chord; Natasha Bedingfield's These Words; Elton John's Your Song; Barry Manilow's I Write the Songs
3) Sir Walter Scott: Chivalry; Marie Curie: Radium; Carl Sagan: Life; Harry Houdini: Conjuring
4) Sweat bee; Separate hard lumps; Light air; Talc
5) Pictures: Weeping Willow; Maple Leaf; Wall Street; The Entertainer
6) Windows Freecell Game #11982; WOPR's Global Thermonuclear War; Kobayashi Maru; Pac-Man level #256

The answers

The excuses

1) A painful start for us, as Hywel and I (both being big crossword fans) saw a possible five-pointer go begging. I suspect the Bakers could have had this for five themselves (and I found the third clue the hardest of the lot) but better safe than sorry, especially with the first question of the show.
2) Despite no-one liking to get the music question, overall they've been fairly kind to us this series. This was the fourth (of a possible five) that we scored on during our run, albeit via Jamie picking the answer out of pretty much nowhere at the last second. On retrospect we had everything we needed after the third clue, having recognized Your Song and These Words; Barry Manilow, as is so often the case in life, didn't help us.
3) The first really brutal question, I thought, passing both the teams by. Our more than optimistic suggestion that they had been killed by these things was admittedly only really hanging on Marie Curie and radium.
4) A frustrating miss, as we again committed the sin of getting caught up in a wrong answer that left us little time to regroup. Talc was a bit of a giveaway, but 'light air' made us think of dephlogisticated air - an old name for nitrogen - and after mulling over this we reached the final clue too late. The bonus was duly hoovered up by the Bakers who impressively knew three of the four clues, leaving Dr Karran to finally spot the Bristol stool chart.
5) After giving up a bonus point it was a great relief to get one back. We only had the Maple Leaf Rag to go on (the penny didn't drop on 'The Entertianer' until after we answered), but it seemed plausible enough.
6) Probably our favourite question of the series. We had no idea on the Freecell clue (we briefly wondered if it could be that all the cards were in order, but that didn't seem too likely), but WOPR's Global Thermonuclear War sealed it. It's an excellent film, and the line 'the only winning move is not to play' is one of those phrases that a certain level of geek will reference fairly regularly. Unwinnable scenarios made a lot of sense for a specific game of Freecell, so we went for it. Jamie then took great pleasure in explaining the final two clues in what was a geek's paradise of a question. (He wanted to go into even more detail about how the ghosts move in Pac-Man, but thought better of it.)

I'd not kept a particularly good track of the scores in this round, but knew those three points were big. A 5-3 lead was a more than healthy start - particularly in a final - and with our usually strong sequence round to come I was a tiny bit excited that we were in the driving seat.

Round 2: What comes fourth?

The questions
1) Croesus; Benjamin Franklin's alter ego; Lazarus at the rich man's gate
2) 2x3; 6x2; 12x
3) China and Mongolia; Argentina and Chile; Kazakhstan and Russia
4) IV: Sailor; III: Billy; II: Rufus
5) Pictures: Gale; Peel; King
6) Load the toaster; Open and shut the cupboards; Break and whisk the eggs

The answers

The excuses
1) Another brutal one, where I think really you need to know of Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack to stand a good chance of spotting it. I've no idea where Jamie's (inspired) attempt of "not wearing any clothes" for the bonus point came from but there's a lovely moment where he just catches the (usually unflappable) Victoria Coren Mitchell off-guard. "What?!".
2) A lovely question for us, we considered differentiation almost immediately but thought it was too risky as '12' didn't seem quite neat enough for the end of a sequence. Still, three points in the bag meant I knew we were five ahead, and the Bakers only had two of their own questions to go...
3) you can probably imagine how I felt when 'China and Mongolia' popped up for the Bakers. Hywel and I immediately leaned over to each other and said "USA and Canada" and my heart sank as I was near-certain the Bakers would have it as well. After what felt like an eternity (but was really just seconds) my fears were confirmed, and we were back to all square.
4) Watching this back, none of us could actually remember the correct answer, so I was a little surprised to see my televisual self lean over without much time left and suggest kings, which triggered the correct answer for the team. A few people noticed Jamie's snigger as VCM said 'colon conqueror'. Yes, he really is that childish.
5) Our record on TV questions this series has been predictably terrible, and like the Bakers this was one that was rather before our time (as evidenced by everyone's blank expressions even after being told the connection!).
6) TV again, and no real surprise we didn't have it (it sounded a bit Rube Goldberg which put us vaguely in mind of The Wrong Trousers). Watching the sketch brought back the very faintest of memories, so I can only assume I'd seen it at some point, but at the time the answer made as much sense to us as the Avengers one before it. A good bonus from the Bakers brought the scores almost level.

The five-pointer had hurt us, but with a lead (albeit a slender one) going into the walls, we knew all we had to do was avoid catastrophe to at least have a shot in missing vowels. I was relieved we were going first (something we'd always planned to pick if we ever won the toss) so that the nervous wait could come after, rather than before, our turn.

Round 3: The connecting walls

Wall 408 on the Only Connect website, answers under the button.

The answers

As VCM observed, we haven't had the best run of form on the walls this series. As I've mentioned before, this is at least in part due to our team being slightly weaker on raw general knowledge than some, and that this is a round where that can be a particularly big limitation. However, we also knew that our wall performance on the show had been significantly worse than in practice, so were a bit miffed that we'd still not solved a wall. Unfortunately, we'd left things until the final to do so, so weren't too optimistic of breaking our duck here.

It was a huge relief to see the sporting terms almost as soon as the wall started, and a huge (audible) surprise that our first attempt yielded a group. We were slightly lucky, however, as we dodged the red herring 'Garryowen' (from rugby), therby saving us a bit of time trying out permutations. "Two points in the bag", I thought, and with Tintern strongly suggesting abbeys we were on at least three. We first tried cycling through the five of Tintern, Glastonbury, Battle, Angelus and Garryowen, knowing the first two and hypothesizing that the other three sounded plausible.

After a bit of half-hearted work on "Requiescat is the first bit of R.I.P." I spotted that Garryowen was two concatenated names, and as a team we quickly found the other three. With two groups, two connections, and a strong suspicion of abbeys for a third, we were on at least five points and things were just starting to look encouraging. After a bit more thought, Hywel made the final breakthrough, realizing that Collect is a prayer. From here the final two groups fell out easily, and we suddenly realized we might have finally got a perfect wall.

Giving our answers, there's a moment I'd forgotten where I tell Jamie I'm not letting him try and give our answer to the sports question, before a description of each shot and a suggestion from Hywel just about got us the point for the answer. The rest went smoothly enough and all of a sudden we not only had a perfect wall, but also a guaranteed lead going into missing vowels. Now came the dreaded wait as the Bakers would try to emulate our feat: wall 409 on the website. (We tackled this ourselves in the run-up to our Grand Final party and, to my considerable relief, also scored ten.)

The answers

As always, the Bakers took on their wall while we sat in the green room with no knowledge of how they were getting on. Well, Jamie and Hywel sat, I paced around nervously while one of the lovely production people tried to persuade me of the (clearly ridiculous) notion that it was just a quiz show and I had nothing to worry about. Still, we knew we had a guaranteed lead, and I remember thinking "it's the final, surely they'll at least miss one connection - that would mean a four point advantage at a minimum". After what seemed like an eternity ("ooh, I wonder if that means they were struggling?") we were called back into the studio for the last time.

Round 4: Missing Vowels

I have a very distinct memory of studying the Bakers' faces as we were waiting for the final round of filming to begin, desperately searching for some clue that they'd failed miserably (or, heaven forbid, done brilliantly). At the time, I thought that their captain (Peter Steggle) looked particularly glum, and briefly got my hopes up for a somewhat more comfortable lead, so was a touch surprised to hear they had also had a perfect wall (I asked him about this later and he attributed his grim demeanour to having heard we were good at missing vowels!). With little time to think, though, the final round was afoot.

British Isles did not seem like a good start for us; we once had a pub quizmaster who, after becoming bored of us winning a little too often, started deliberately putting in questions about UK geography to scupper us. Nevertheless, we managed to reach the buzzer first for Alderney, and a missignal from the Bakers coupled with a good answer from Hywel put us four up very quickly. A cracking spot of South Uist pulled one back for the Bakers before Jamie hit back with Isle of Wight, continuing his run of being surprisingly good at missing vowels (we all expected him to be rubbish).

Porn parody titles came next, in what proved to be a good (and ultimately decisive) category for us. Like a lot of nerds I have a mild obsession with terrible puns, and once American Booty clarified the sort of thing we were looking for I was able to hoover up Pulp Friction and Flesh Gordon to give us a near-unassailable lead. (I recall pressing the buzzer instinctively having seen 'Flash Gordon', only to then think "oh hang on" and spot Flesh Gordon in time.) Some noticed my very particular way of giving these answers - as you can imagine I was trying incredibly hard to make sure I didn't misspeak! The Bakers took the last to leave us five points ahead, at which point I was thinking one more should just about do it.

The final group - UK postcode district and equivalent US state - was a welcome sight. This sort of thing plays right into Hywel's and (I thought) my hands, and Hywel duly took the first two to virtually see us home. While the Bakers pulled one back I was just starting to realize we'd done it, when Jamie (to my continued surprise) popped up to take the last clue, and our last point of the series.

The wrap-up

I'd just about kept score on my fingers during the round, so knew we'd won before VCM read out the scores, but was nevertheless surprised by the margin (the two point swing for the Bakers' wrong answer does exaggerate it slightly). What followed, we were told, was deliberately 'the most awkward trophy presentation ceremony on television', during which we had to pretend to talk to VCM while she talked about the fact we were all pretending to talk.

After the presentation (which we had to do twice for TV reasons I still don't understand) we had an actual chat with Victoria and the Bakers, before being shooed out of the studio as they prepared to record a couple of celebrity specials (one of which is yet to air, so I'll have to be vague on details). We were amused to discover we'd been kicked out of our dressing room so some guy called Clive Anderson could have it. Don't they know who we are(?!) etc. etc.

Whose wine is it anyway?
We ended up having a rather surreal experience chatting with a few of the celebrities who had shown up for the specials. Obviously there's always a slight weirdness to talk to people you've only seen on TV, but this was then completely distorted by the fact a few of them had just watched the final and so were talking to us in almost reverential tones(!). Eventually we decided the production team were probably worried about us weirding out the famous people so dropped off the trophy in the make-up room and grabbed some lunch. I remarked how this was the first time I'd been able to enjoy eating anything at the studio in four days, as I could finally stop worrying about making a tit of myself on national television. Not that making a tit of myself was entirely off the cards, though, as a chap briefly joined us to chat whom we discovered only afterwards was one of the 'celebrities' there for the recording. I don't think he noticed we had no idea who he was, at least (although having subsequently found out I shan't name names).

Pushing our luck, we asked the production team if there was any chance we could sit in on the first celebrity special being recorded, and to our surprise they said yes. Seeing the show from behind the camera was super interesting (and loads of fun after the stresses of the past few days) although at least one of the contestants complained about us sitting in their line of sight, remarking "they're just going to laugh at us!". As you'll have probably seen on the Children in Need special, however, they acquitted themselves well, although after the show Clive Anderson made the mistake of asking Jamie for his honest opinion of their missing vowels technique...

Having more than outstayed our welcome we didn't think it fair to stick around for the next recording, so said our goodbyes and headed to the station. It felt very strange returning to the bustle (and normality) of London, with the trophy - and a secret we needed to keep for the next eight months - hidden away. Our journey home, however, proved amusingly well-timed. After collapsing on the sofa I checked my watch.

"Oh, shall we go to the pub? It's Tuesday - we're just in time for the quiz..."


  1. Well done, so very much! I had the oddest hunch you'd end up winning, right from the very first time you appeared (which, for me, was complete with the requisite "hey! it's that guy off of University Challenge!" moment. Naturally, it has since become obvious where the brains of the operation lie). It was very pleasing seeing I was right. It was an ideal situation, really: you guys walk away with the trophy while the Lasletts (my second favourite team this year) can bask in the knowledge that they beat the champions. :D

    Your blog has been delightful to follow, too. It's a shame there are no more matches to summarise, really. Have they discontinued the champion-of-champions match? :(

    Anyway, I'll stop now. Well done again and thank you for setting an important precedent for the kind of team that wins Only Connect. :D

    1. Glad you've enjoyed reading my ramblings here :) We've not heard anything about a champion-of-champions match (although I suspect if I had I wouldn't be able to say anything about it, so maybe I'm just saying that?!). I might try and do shorter reviews of episodes from the next series, since I can now hopefully offer a different insight having been through the process myself, but knowing me I'll probably wind up not finding the time.

      Funny you should mention the Lasletts, as there's a fun symmetry for Jamie and Hywel. Their UCL team of course beat the eventual champions Manchester in their series of University Challenge, so it's nice to be on the other side of that!

    2. That would be fun. :D There can never be enough Only Connect discussion, surely. Though I hope you intend to continue getting pub quiz questions wrong as well. ;)

      Beating the champions and losing is almost as good as winning. It's like hipster winning. Who actually wants to win these days?

      And one last thing - I empathise so, so much on the lack of sleep. I got at most about four or five hours ahead of any of our UC matches, never mind the final of Only Connect. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was, and it's all to your credit that you did brilliantly anyway. (I find in these situations I always assume the other team are fearless and confident. Probably it helps to remember that they're in the same boat. Unless they aren't.)

  2. Congratulations. Not only did your team win convincingly, but you were also by far the most entertaining to watch. An encouragement to me to get into quizzing. Some of the questions in this episode were dreadful (especially the TV ones, TV questions in OC are always dreadful). Karran's explication of the unwinnable games question was memorable.

    1. Thanks :) I'd certainly encourage anyone with a vague interest to get into quizzing, as experiences like Only Connect are brilliant.

  3. Congratulations, Michael and the other Board Gamers. Your team reminded me a lot of the high school and college quizbowl teams I was on a decade ago that knew when to be serious, and when to be strategically funny. Watching your style of play was really refreshing, since it seems that everyone else takes competitive quizzing way too seriously these days. I see from some of your other blog posts that you moved to Canada, and so if you want to try to get on a quiz show in another country, the online registration window for Jeopardy! is open right now for all adult residents of the US and Canada.

    1. Thanks very much - it's nice to hear from someone else who doesn't think quizzing should be taken *too* seriously :)

      Thanks also for the Jeopardy! tip - shall have to see whether getting to an audition location is practical, but we'll certainly have to give it a go at least given how rare quiz shows seem to be out here.