Thursday, 23 October 2008

Brain Games: Part 2 - Only Connect

It's fair to say that while most TV quizzes are pitched at a level that give the contestant or viewer a feeling of reasonable intelligence, there's also an extreme minority that are capable of inducing so much mental paralysis that you're left with the reputation of a half-witted moron or at best an audience member for The Jeremy Kyle Show.

One such example is BBC2's University Challenge which, as discussed yesterday, is aimed at the sharpest academics in the country and considers any interlopers with an IQ of less than 300 to be intellectual timewasters.

Another example has recently surfaced on BBC4 and, ironically, is broadcast the moment University Challenge ends on a Monday night. It's a new series called Only Connect and is already following hard in the footsteps of its predecessor.

While the show has a similar approach to testing your brain to its limits, elsewhere there are a number of noticeable contrasts. For a start, the show is fronted by Victoria Coren, the altogether more affable alternative to Jeremy Paxman whose wit has thankfully been passed down undiminished from her father, the late, great Alan Coren.

There's also no studio audience which makes for a curiously silent programme at times, but is no worse off for it as there's a frequent need to rack your brain for an answer to a question without any interruption.

Only Connect also relies heavily on computer-generated captions to show those questions on-screen, and here's where the premise of the quiz is laid bare for all to see. Two teams of three people with a similar interest or background (i.e. Scrabble players, Naturists, that kind of thing) are given a series of clues about a topic which connects them (hence the title of the show).

In Round 1, the task is to guess what that connection is while in the second round the contestants try to ascertain the last missing item in a sequence based on a similarly mysterious subject.

Here the programme is a little more generous in its ability to appeal to the viewer as the subjects can be anything from 'American Presidents' to 'Christmas Number 1 Hit Records'. No requirement for having a PhD in Nuclear Physics is required to play this quiz, but a brain that can think logically certainly is, especially in Round 3.

This is where each team is presented with a grid showing sixteen words or phrases that can be sorted equally into four subjects. The snag, however, is that some of the words or phrases potentially fit into more than one subject. Take the following example (click pic for a larger version):

A quick scan of the choices available quickly shows a few possible groupings. 'Bread', 'Lolly', 'Brass' and 'Readies' could all be ways of referring to money, but what about 'Dosh'? That would make a list of five, so which one belongs to another category?

Therein lies the rub. Without the aid of a pen and paper, the teams have only two and a half minutes to identify the unique solution to the puzzle. It looks very straight-forward, but it's deceptively tricky, and as Ms. Coren herself says, a good sense of general knowledge is not enough here.

The final round of the game has a different format but is no less tricky. The teams are given a category up front and are shown four items that fit it - except all the vowels have been taken out and the remaining consonants regrouped. Confused? Here's an example for you to try...

If the subject was 'Film Musicals' and the clue said 'SN GNNT HRN', what would the answer be?

If you said 'Singing In The Rain', you'd be right. In addition, if you watched Only Connect and thought it had all the hallmarks of a show that could run and run, you'd also be right. At least that's the popular belief among people leaving comments on TV-related internet forums at the moment, and I for one agree.

Only Connect is a great quiz programme which offers a fun way of exercising the brain and lets you down gently if you don't happen to know some of the answers. The puzzles are perfectly formed, the presenter is splendidly jocular - in fact there's little at all to dislike here.

And while we might take umbrage at the way the BBC seems intent on making us going to bed with migraines through all this mental activity on a Monday night, there isn't really a case to be had. The BBC deserves great credit for giving us two engaging and entertaining quiz programmes to start our week with, and I'm sure many of us are very grateful for that.

Just pray to God they don't move Mastermind to Monday nights too...


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