Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Ones that got away: Only Connect Semi-Final Special!

Warning: the following contains spoilers for Series 8, episode 11 of Only Connect, first broadcast on BBC4 last Monday (9th 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!

We have to stop meeting like this. Another Monday, another date with the Board Gamers (Hywel Carver, Michael Wallace and Jamie Karran), this time playing for a place in the Only Connect grand final. Standing in their way: the Oenophiles. Formidable on paper, they came into the match undefeated with an aggregate score of 55-25. Even if you discounted our loss to the Lasletts our analogous record of 47-33 did not compare too favourably. What's more (although unbeknownst to us until after the show) the winos are heavyweights of the quiz world, comprising two Quizzing Grand Masters and a Master. Yes, I didn't know this was a thing either, although in any case being a Quiz Sage sounds way cooler.

Yet again, I'll be going into an alarming level of detail on how the game panned out from our perspective, as well as our thoughts on some of the mildly controversial elements. (And I'm pretty sure 'mild' is about as controversial as BBC 4 quiz shows can get, so hold onto your hats, folks.)

Almost as exciting a prospect, however, is some delicious preamble to this latest Only Connect adventure.

Before the show

The real conspiracy was 'little
Aloysius' under the desk
After our loss to the Lasletts and victory over the Science Editors, we were slightly surprised to learn we'd be going straight back in to record our third consecutive show of the day. By this point I was running exclusively on tea and adrenaline, although the team on the whole was fairly relaxed. All we'd heard of the Oenophiles was from our previous opponents (who'd lost to them 28-10 in their opening match); I now understand the accompanying thousand-yard stare.

Our concerns were compounded when we first set eyes on the team. There's a certain 'look' to an Only Connect team, and these guys certainly fit the bill. Still, we knew our strengths; avoid disaster in the opening round and (especially) the wall, and we might have a chance at another missing vowels turnaround. With a final pep talk from mascot Aloysius Ursinus (pictured), we took the (now rather familiar) journey to the studio floor once again.

Round 1: What's the connection?

The questions
1) Music: 10cc's The Dean and I; Pachelbel's Canon; The Smiths' Vicar in a Tutu; Handel's Zadok the Priest
2) The Laytons in India: 1942; Hollywood in the Depression; Plot to assassinate De Gaulle; Carnivorous walking plants
3) Pictures: Ireland on a blue shirt; Romania on a green shirt; Italy on a black shirt; Germany on a brown shirt
4) H1N1; Leeloo: the Fifth element; LSD; Frankenstein's monster
5) De Bono's thinking manager; England Test cricketer; UN Peacekeeper; Noddy
6) Japanese tradition of hanami; Lester Burnham dreams; Beauty and the Beast; British Legion Festival of Remembrance

The answers

The excuses
1) Wanting to go first on the wall we put the Oenophiles in to bat, and they picked up the question that (usually) no-one wants. While we had no idea about 10cc, we immediately recognized Pachelbel's Canon and Jamie whispered the answer to me a second later. The benefits of a classical (music) education, I suppose. The Oenophiles, meanwhile, seemed to be struggling and didn't reach the final clue - Zadok the Priest - which I assume would have given it to them. A nice start for us (although the twinge of frustration at a missed opportunity).
2) We were obviously lost until the final clue, from which we retrospectively twigged Day of the Jackal for the penultimate one.
3) Like the Oenophiles, we got this once it reached the rather more familiar territory of the Blackshirts, but no sooner.
4) Watching this back, Jamie had to admit to some bad captaining as his doctor brain was rather taken with the idea that the link would be influenza. While he almost redeemed himself with a pretty inspired answer, we left ourselves far too little time to regroup with the remaining clues. Fortunately the Oenophiles couldn't spot it either, and even without the flu fixation I don't think we would have either. A hard, but lovely, question I think.
5) Buzzing in with over 20 seconds left, I assumed the Oenophiles had got this one while I had no idea. As soon as they said 'caps', though, I realized it was specifically blue ones Victoria wanted, and I have a very distinct memory of time standing still as they were given another go. They hadn't got the specific link, however, and the last two clues made it trivial (indeed, UN Peacekeeper is more than enough).
6) Jamie's Japanese got a bit muddled as he toyed with flower arranging (Ikebana - via 'hana' for flower) and fireworks (Hanabi, which is an excellent game, by the way). The last two clues gave us flowers (roses and poppies, specifically) which was eventually (albeit generously) accepted. This proved to be the first of several controversial moments of the show, although I sympathize with the difficulties this particular question posed the production team.

We had managed to emerge from the round with a 4-2 lead, an encouraging start given our preference for the impending sequence round. As with our previous show, however, we knew how volatile these types of questions can be. An interesting aspect of playing in the studio is that you start to think of scoring in terms of how many questions your opponents have left to answer. They can only score one point at a time on any you miss yourself, so I was now thinking "right, they've got three questions left to score big".

Round 2: What comes fourth?

The questions
1) Passed on; No more; Ceased to be
2) 5 cards: City; 4 cards: Settlement; 3 cards: Development Card
3) Pictures: Commodore 64; 27 Dresses; An 8-track
4) (Digital numbers) 90210 -> 25; 25 -> 10; 10 -> 8
5) Triwizard tournament selector; Anti-Voldemort organisation; Severus Snape
6) B: Farming profits; C: Public annuities; D: Profits from trade or profession

The answers

The excuses
1) A fairly brutal question to start off with, I think. Both teams obviously knew the link (we've all heard it countless times), but remembering the correct line was the real challenge. I mentally chalked off another Oenophiles question; they were down to two.
2) By far the most controversial moment of the night as we got a question on the topic of our team name. A great deal has been said about this particular incident, and I've decided to address it specifically in a separate post, but suffice to say we were more than a little surprised. We'd mentioned Settlers on a couple of previous episodes this series as an example of a 'good' board game (as opposed to more 'traditional' games such as Monopoly or Cluedo). It's one of those 'gateway games' that anyone who has graduated into 'proper' board games will have encountered, so seemed the one least likely to alienate when we brought it up in our introductions. In reality none of us had played it for years, and so we needed two clues to work out the answer, with the remaining time spent convincing ourselves we weren't imagining things. I quite enjoy Hywel's disbelieving look to the board after I suggest the Settlers link after the second clue, with him able to provide the answer that both Jamie and I had forgotten.
3) Another tricky one, although it's perhaps as surprising that no-one in the studio could recognize both a Commodore 64 and an 8-track as it isn't surprising that no-one recognized rom-com 27 Dresses. (I tried to read Wikipedia's plot synopsis and got as far as "One night she is attending two weddings almost simultaneously..." before realizing my mistake.) While we suspected there was something numerical going on we only had the 64 to work with, missing that it was a cube and instead looking at a 'powers of 2' sequence (64, 32, 16, 8). However, with a five point lead and just one question for the Oenophiles to go, I was (just) starting to get hopeful.
4) Though we probably found this tougher than we should have, this is one of my proudest spots of the series given the pressure we were feeling. My mathematical background proved a double-edged sword as I wasted time trying to identify a numeric sequence before convincing myself it must be something more lateral. Watching this back I seem to get it with about three seconds left, and have a vivid memory of the clock showing '1' as I tried to describe my answer. Fun fact: the sequence itself has the fun property that all numbers will eventually terminate at 4, 5 or 6.
5) With a growing lead I knew that if the Oenophiles didn't get something here we'd be in with a shout regardless of how the walls went. However my heart sank after the first clue, as what appeared either a risky five pointer (taking a punt on whether the sequence was going up to book seven or down to book one) or an easy three pointer revealed itself. While the Oenophiles identified the correct book, to my surprise they couldn't narrow down what the Deathly Hallows actually were beyond "some sort of objects that...have magical connotations". We were able to steal the point with 'wand, cloak and ring', the last of these being accepted as it's the home of the more precise 'stone' for much of the series. It seems that this distinction, coupled with the view that the second biggest selling book series of all time is not worthy subject matter in a famously eclectic quiz, ratcheted up the controversy-meter another notch.
6) Knowing we knew little about farming profits or public annuities, and not needing to take any risks, we moved quickly to the third clue. This gave us plenty of time to move from a vague idea of 'tax' to the specific idea of income tax or, more specifically, salaries. Worried we might be starting to look a bit competent, Jamie suggested the link was " a letter" to retouch his carefully constructed veneer of idiocy.

We knew the round had gone well, but when the scores were announced the size of our lead still took us by surprise. Going first on the walls we didn't have much time to contemplate our position, but one thing was obvious: anything on our wall and we had a guaranteed lead going into missing vowels.

Round 3: The connecting walls

Wall 398 on the Only Connect website, answers under the button.

The answers

Our reputation on the wall has come to precede us, and this proved to be another minor nightmare. As always though, there was method to our (apparent) madness. We quickly spotted the presence of anti-prizes, and I systematically ploughed through the three we were certain of (Golden Raspberry, Darwin and Ig Nobel) with everything else while we all carried on thinking. By the time I'd finished this we'd identified some 'El ____' names and so I started a similar line based on Cid, Greco and Salvador. After a quick visit to some possible ports via a half-hearted group of explorers, I got back to anti-prizes, this time replacing Darwin with Turnip and repeating a 'these three with everything' routine. Eventually Pigasus fell into place and we had our first group and a guaranteed lead in missing vowels. With our last 30 seconds we tested out a few of the ideas that had emerged, moving into more vague "these sound like names" as our more specific thoughts weren't bearing fruit.

After the answers were revealed it proved to be another wall where our general knowledge was always going to let us down. Most of the Gibbons were new to us, as were half of the Els. I anticipated some flak for missing the Falklands settlements, but it's always a tough area of trivia for our generation. Too recent to be taught to us in school, you have to rely on what you pick up from the occasional news stories or from your own reading, in contrast to the presumed knowledge of those who lived through it. While things like that headline or that interview are regularly referenced, identifying one location (let alone four) from a thirty year old conflict is obviously rather trickier. By some coincidence, filming took place the day Margaret Thatcher died, and I recall seeing the name 'Goose Green' crop up in some news footage on our hotel TV that very evening. So perhaps this was a worse miss than we realized.

In any case, we'd got ourselves three points and knew we'd be in a strong position heading into the final round. Anything short of a perfect ten for the Oenophiles and the lead would be at least six. Their wall is number 399 on the website.

The answers

Playing the wall from home shortly before the show aired, we managed to scrape together six, and it was interesting to compare our approach to the Oenophiles'. Like us, they immediately spotted the group of five servants (Butler, Footman, Valet, Nanny, Char). Unlike us, they spotted another group and didn't persevere with the five possible groups this set contains. If they had, I suspect they might have cracked it, as crucially it knocks out Char as a red herring for cups of tea. For us, this left Cuppa, Brew and Rosie, and while the 'three plus everything' approach would have worked, I picked out Stroupach first as it sounded the most plausible. Alas, while from here we suspected we were dealing with government reports and Gone With the Wind, we lost our three lives before we could unscramble them. (Although of course, there's no accounting for studio pressure, and I suspect the Oenophiles were watching our own wall with similarly wistful eyes.)

Round 4: Missing Vowels

As usual, we had no idea how the Oenophiles had got on, and after an excruciating wait we were eventually given the call back to studio. Pessimism setting in I was prepared for Victoria to announce that the Oenophiles were now on 12 points to our 15, so when I heard the number 'seven' I could barely believe it. We had about 10 seconds to realize that the final was virtually in sight before missing vowels kicked off.

The words 'Scandinavian television series' weren't the most welcome of sights to open the round. I know they're very popular, but I also have no idea who watches them. Luckily, it seems the Oenophiles were in a similar boat to us, and we pipped them to the buzzer on three of the four to all but see us home. (I'm pretty sure that most of us were thinking 'Matador' - the one unsolved clue - but part of the beauty of missing vowels is whether anyone is prepared to take the risk.)

The next group - 'Merged singer-songwriters' - is one of those Only Connect specials where half the challenge is working out what the category even means. I was able to get to grips with the first one (although I've only just realized I had no idea who James Taylor is) and from there we nicked another two before the Oenophiles spotted one to finish the set. Watching these again I was impressed with the range of musicians chosen; with a spread of at least five decades represented.

I can't deny that a missing vowels set on 'Concepts in mathematics' was a great way to round off the match. Admittedly, it completely eliminates Jamie from the team, but Hywel made up for it with a couple of nice spots (I would be more complimentary, but he was far too pleased to have beaten me to Newton-Raphson method). Mandelbrot Set, meanwhile, gives me an excuse to link to the excellent Jonathan Coulton song. The Oenophiles had time to take a good point from Luncheon on the Grass before time was up and we could finally relax.

The wrap-up

Hywel does not share my enthusiasm :(
What we'd expected to be a defeat had turned into a win by a hugely unanticipated margin. After the credits rolled the Oenophiles came over to have a chat, and it's to their credit how well they seemed to take the result. There's no doubt that they were unfortunate with a number of their questions, and could easily have beaten us on another day, but we were of course more than happy with our performance.

After a day I'll never forget, we were finally able to relax, get our stuff together, and head back to the hotel as Only Connect finalists. We passed the Lasletts on our way out, and were reminded of the defeat to them that morning that now seemed an age away. What we got up to that evening (spoilers: more connecting walls) and how well you sleep before an Only Connect final (spoilers: you don't) must wait for another post, so for now I'll leave you with a picture of me at a Tesco near the hotel, my day absolutely made by finding a magnetic trolley conveyor.


  1. I have a distinct memory of the Chessmen (back in series two, I think?) getting a question on old-fashioned chess notation and being completely stumped, so this is hardly the first time this sort of thing has happened. I was also sitting there going "aha, this must be Settlers! ... now what's the answer" so I'm glad you got that. :P

    As for the Harry Potter question, were people really upset it came up as a topic? I mean, this is a quiz that's had "Mario Kart weapons" as a link.

  2. Also, I noticed that the tops of the 2 and 7 were visible in the bit of the poster they showed. That's the only reason I got that question, and it seems slightly sloppy.

    1. Wow, well done on that front, I'm impressed. And you're right about the Chessmen (Series 2 Episode 6; David B dug it out during a discussion on Facebook).

      The Harry Potter reaction I think was a combination of some people being a bit snobbish about the series, and others feeling the Oenophiles were hard done by in not having their answer accepted. I suspect people would have been similarly outrage had something to do with computer games had come up for us :p

    2. I've just had a look through said facebook discussion. Frankly I'm not terrible impressed with most of the people in it, and the level of indignation is totally out of proportion with the fact that the Oenophiles themselves seem perfectly content with the result. Speaking of, I'm pretty sure that if you reversed all of the "unfair" decisions you guys would still have won. So there is that.

      Also, glad to see you mention Hanabi! I have very fond memories of playing it in the contestant hotel the night before our first UC quarter final. It was just the thing to quell nerves. :D

    3. Yeah, it's a bit weird, but as has been pointed out a lot of the people commenting there are personal friends of the Oenophiles so I can totally understand them wanting to 'defend' them (such as they are). Of course, another issue is that no-one really knows anything about us, so it's only natural to want to look for an explanation of how a bunch of unknowns knocked Man United out of the FA Cup.

      And yes, Hanabi is amazing. I really enjoy those sorts of games where you have to try and keep an ever-expanding list of logical information in your head while also needing to piece it all together (in a similar way to Mao, I suppose).

    4. On the subject of board games, what DO you like? I think so far you've only mentioned things you don't like. :P (Or, rather, haven't played in some time - which seems a common fate with Settlers. Either you don't like it and never play it again or you do like it but move on to brighter pastures relatively quickly...)

    5. Whenever we visit Board Game Friends we tend to wind up playing something new for the sake of variety, so we don't have many real favourites since we often only play things once or twice :p That said, we got quite into Dominion (but had to sell all of our sets before moving to Canada, which was sad), and have played quite a lot of Seven Wonders (which is a bit random-y but means you seldom play the same game twice). I tend to like co-op games more though, so Pandemic is good (or the fire-y alternative Flash Point: Fire Rescue), and while I've only played it a couple of times I super enjoyed Hanabi :)

    6. I love 7 Wonders because it's one of relatively few games I've played where alternate strategies are actually possible (you can win by playing around basically any of the major colours, or by combining them in various ways). And the expansions are actually worth having, which is a nice change.

      That said a friend of mine got massively into Dominion a while ago and bought all of it, so I've played a great deal of that.

      I find co-operative games a nice change of pace, though I prefer the sort of almost co-operative games where one person plays against the rest. Have you played Betrayal at House on the Hill? It's kind of terribly balanced but lots of fun. :D

    7. Oh, we played that once, and I remember it being utterly mental (and fun). Although my main memory of it was having to go and hide in the bathroom to read what my role was going to be :p

    8. The one and only time I have been the traitor I convinced everyone else I was very trustworthy (it being a hidden traitor scenario) and deserved all of their excellent items. It went badly. (For them).

  3. Don't forget that you missed out on a board games question on one of the walls in one of the earlier rounds.