Only Connect: Exclusive interview with question setter Jack Waley-Cohen

Many of my extensive, shuddering fanbase will have an inkling or two that I have a mild fascination with trivia and, therefore, quiz shows. This evening sees the welcome return of BBC4 hit Only Connect, in its snug new home on BBC2.

With 9 series under its belt already, the show is moving to a new home where it can be discovered by a whole host of new Victoriaviewers, eager to be bamboozled by its notorious difficulty. For those of you who have yet to come across it, Only Connect is a show in which teams participate in a trivia contest and work together to combine a set of seemingly unrelated clues together to come up with what is often an obscure, but always intelligent, link.

As series ten gets underway under the expert eye of presenter of Victoria Coren (incidentally one of my favourite guest panellists from Have I Got News For You) on BBC 2 at 8:30pm, I got the chance to chat to one of the senior question setters of the show, Jack Waley-Cohen. Jack, who takes quizzing all over the country with the successful QuizQuizQuiz company, has penned many of the brain-taxing conundrums on Only Connect since Series 9, and tells me how a fiendishly difficult and/or intriguing set of clues are developed from the birth of simple ideas.   

“Sometimes a question is just there and it’s already perfectly formed, but this doesn’t often happen,” he admits. “Typically, we will notice something, sometimes very small, but enough to spark a thought process. A recent example is that I was reading The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night Time and, as the chapters are all prime numbers, it got me thinking about links between prime numbers and books.” It is clear that it can take a while for the perfect question to come to fruition as Jack goes on to tell me that this is a question idea that is very much in its infancy: he explains that many ideas don’t get any further than that!

“I tend to jot down up to six possible clues and then we have to work out what the best order for them is,” Jack explains. “The fourth has to be the easiest or, if you like, the almost giveaway clue, but you can’t always tell what people will find to be the most obscure clue. We have to try and get into the contestant’s mindset.”

Handy then, that Jack was a contestant on the very first series of Only Connect and agrees that this experience has stood him in good stead for his current role as question setter. And it’s clear that he is very fond of the show he works on.

“There’s a real pleasure in life of finding connections in things. People like coincidences and this show really captures that. It covers such a wide range of topics from Pokemon and Teletubbies right through to Wagner and particle physics, so it’s a unique format,” Jack says, before confirming the widespread notion that Only Connect is, well, bloody hard.

“It’s unashamedly difficult; each question is tough. But the viewers playing at home can get a real sense of pleasure from getting an answer correct, because they are so difficult,” Jack shares. “The show rejoices in intelligence. It can be intimidating to watch at first but it’s like watching a new boxset; you have to give it a chance. The more you watch and realise how much you can play along, the more fun it gets. Everyone has their own stories of when they have gotten Only Connect questions right that the contestants missed!”

I can smugly agree with that and, although it doesn’t happen as often as I’d like, there is something quite addictive about the difficulty of Only Connect and also the information that you can pick up by watching it. And Jack has high hopes for the upcoming series.

“From the recordings I have attended and from what I have heard from the team who make the show, the standards are high so it should make a fitting debut for BBC2,” he says. “I love watching my questions and seeing how the contestants perform on them. I always want them to get them right, but not too easily and never through complete guesswork. So we try our best to leave clues and indicators in the questions to help the teams along, but they take real thought processes to figure out.”

Jack, who admits that if he had to pick another favourite quiz show, he’d choose Pointless due to his love of obscure knowledge (and that the ingenious format of Pointless rewards both obscure and more everyday knowledge) confirms that the change to BBC2 won’t affect the Only Connect that long term viewers know and love but does hint at a tantalising small tweak…

“They told us not to change the difficulty of our questions for BBC 2 so we aren’t modifying it to fit a different audience,” he confirms. “However, as always with Only Connect, there are plenty of new ideas throughout the series, and I’m sure regular viewers will enjoy spotting them!”

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Written By Our Man In The North

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