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Meet ‘Only Connect,’ Your Favorite ‘Jeopardy!’ Contestant’s (Other) Favorite Quiz Show

Widely regarded as the hardest quiz show on either side of the Atlantic, BBC Two’s sleeper hit has attracted a fan club of American trivia greats

BBC/Ringer illustration

One hundred years ago this week, the company that would become known as the British Broadcasting Corporation was founded in London. Transmitting news and entertainment across radio and television, the BBC would go on to have a far-reaching impact on not only the United Kingdom, but also audiences worldwide. To mark the anniversary, The Ringer is celebrating one of the BBC’s chief exports to the United States: British TV. From Masterpiece Theatre to Love Island, join us as we look back on some of the iconic shows that have crossed the pond in the past century.

One of the odd things, it turns out, about being the winningest Jeopardy! contestant of all time is that you sometimes find yourself in unusual company.

And so it was that several years ago, Ken Jennings found himself at an event where he was seated, he says, “next to a pretty respected literary novelist and a former poet laureate of the United States.” But his esteemed seatmates didn’t break the ice with the now-host of Jeopardy! by asking questions about books, or poetry, or even Alex Trebek.

“‘Have you seen this British show?’” Jennings remembers one of them asking. “All they wanted to do was talk about Only Connect.”

Jennings, it turns out, had indeed seen the BBC Two quiz show. Not long after Only Connect’s 2008 premiere, he says, “I started to hear rumblings from other game show fans and quiz bowl people: ‘Have you seen the new hardest show ever? You will not believe how hard this show is.’ I heard the name and I said, ‘Wait, it’s named for an E.M. Forster reference?’ And I knew I had to see it.”

In the years since, Only Connect has sealed its reputation as TV’s hardest quiz show on either side of the Atlantic. Pitting two teams of three against each other, the series asks players to identify patterns in intentionally obscure trivia incorporating classical education, pop culture, current events, and everything in between. It’s a lateral thinking challenge that makes Jeopardy! look like a pop-up word search in the back of a taxi.

“When I was a kid watching Jeopardy!, the thing that fascinated me was Where do they find these people who can do this?—you know, because I was 10 years old,” Jennings says. “Now that I’m acclimated to Jeopardy!, Only Connect gives me the same feeling—I guess the answer is, I don’t know, Oxford and Cambridge?”

While the series remains mostly obscure stateside, it has gained a dedicated following among a brainy sort of American trivia obsessive—particularly those who, like Jennings, have made names for themselves on shows like Jeopardy! A popular group on Facebook in which members take turns devising their own Only Connect–style puzzles boasts more than 30,000 members. While the membership includes many Britons, many others appear with profile pictures posed against a telltale blue backdrop, that ubiquitous social media tell of a Jeopardy! alum. Still more converge in the Connections Online Quiz League (COQL), a fan-run tournament styled after Only Connect in which players compete in three-month seasons with weekly games written by fellow Only Connect devotees.

Jeopardy! clues ask you to connect two or three things and synthesize them into the response the writers are looking for,” says Buzzy Cohen, host of the 2021 Tournament of Champions and winner of the 2017 edition. A case in point: During one of this week’s Second Chance Tournament games, a clue asked, “‘If we loved again, I swear I’d love you right,’ sang Taylor Swift in this hit in which she mentally revisits a certain month.” Perhaps you know the lyrics cold—or maybe you’ll find a leg up in the hint that “Back to December” refers to a month.

Only Connect is sort of a distilled-down version of that. It’s using a lot of the same muscles that good Jeopardy! players use,” Cohen says.

“It’s not just trivia—it’s satisfying,” Pam Mueller, winner of the 2000 Jeopardy! College Championship and now a COQL writer, says of the show. “Sometimes when you hear the answer, even if you’re like, ‘I never would have gotten there,’ you’re also like, ‘Oh, that makes perfect sense.’ Which is a hallmark of a good trivia question.”

Indeed, Only Connect prides itself on knotty riddles. A recent episode saw host Victoria Coren Mitchell ask players to find the connection between author and MP Jeffrey Archer, writer Percy Shelley, King William III, and Joseph in the Bible; the fourth item in a list beginning Cabo Verde, Czechia, and Eswatini; and to place missing vowels in the intentionally misspaced letters “BN ZRS CR GN DSC RG MCD CK” to find a literary character and that character’s cartoon equivalent.

(Your answers: All were married to a Mary; North Macedonia—the very most recent of these four most recent countries to change their names; Ebenezer Scrooge and Scrooge McDuck.)

Only Connect originally debuted on BBC Four, where the broadcaster typically places programming for niche audiences, and the show’s budget matched its modest ambitions. “We only got one trophy because they didn’t have the budget to give us a trophy each,” says Mark Labbett, whose team was crowned the show’s Season 2 champions.

The trio—Labbett, Gary Dermody, and Richard Parnell—taped their episodes months before the show’s debut. By the time they aired, Labbett, widely known in quizzing circles by the nickname “The Beast,” had been hired as one of popular ITV quiz show The Chase’s in-house trivia experts. Even still, the victory didn’t cause much of a stir.

“We joked it was like winning the Olympics back in the prewar days,” Labbett says. “You won it and nobody knew you’d done it.”

Yet Only Connect soon found an audience. In 2014, it moved to the more mainstream BBC Two; last year, the show surpassed beloved soap EastEnders in ratings. (It remains harder to find in the U.S.; episodes abound on platforms like YouTube.)

British television is awash in quiz shows, many of which pride themselves on ruthless difficulty. There’s University Challenge, a long-running showdown between teams of university and graduate students. There’s Mastermind, on which contestants are placed under a spotlight and interrogated first on a self-selected subject at which they consider themselves to be an expert and then a round of general trivia; its creator, a World War II veteran once held as a prisoner of war by Germany, modeled the program after his Gestapo interrogation.

The programs offer little to winners apart from bragging rights: Contrary to the sometimes enormous jackpots offered on American game shows, contestants on British programs rarely receive cash prizes. Mastermind’s champion, for example, receives an engraved glass bowl. Regardless, audiences—and aspiring quizzers—turn out in droves: On Monday nights, BBC Two now features a 90-minute block of Mastermind, Only Connect, and University Challenge, a triple-header that has drawn legions of fans. Together with the BBC radio show Brain of Britain, the programs are known as the Big Four—the dream of many an ambitious quizzer.

Brandon Blackwell grew up loving quiz shows. After some early forays into American offerings, he felt that he had run out of shows and turned his sights across the pond to the Big Four. “Nobody’s ever won all four,” Blackwell, who grew up in Queens, says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, this seems sort of like the Infinity Stones with Thanos.’ It’s like whoever can do that can become king of the quizzes. It’s legendary.”

Blackwell quickly discovered the catch: To compete on any, you must be a British resident. “I’m like, OK, well, either I become Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, which seems messy, or I get a student visa.”

So in 2017, having completed an undergraduate degree in computer science, he enrolled in a master’s program in artificial intelligence at Imperial College London—one selected for two reasons: First, he could repeat some courses he’d already taken in undergrad and so turn up only for the final and ace it, and second, he would qualify for Imperial College’s University Challenge team. The gambit worked: In 2020, his University Challenge team emerged victorious (and challenged a few stiff upper lips scandalized to find a Yankee in the midst of their quizzing institution).

Before moving to London, Blackwell had faced the plight of many an American trivia fiend: Why does the U.K. have an embarrassment of ultra-tough quiz show riches, while in the U.S. only Jeopardy! reliably offers a comparable amount—61 clues per episode—of challenging trivia? Even then, the comparison goes only so far: Even a Jeopardy! diehard will concede that the material on America’s Favorite Quiz Show is nowhere near as tough as that of the upper echelon of British programming.

“American shows have more game and less quiz to some extent,” says Mueller, the COQL writer.

Part of the reason for this might be the United States’ comparative lack of quizzing infrastructure. A trivially inclined American can enroll in quiz bowl in high school and college, traveling with school teams to tournaments with notoriously demanding material and a plethora of high-level opponents. But after graduation, there’s not much in the way of a trivia circuit. Not so abroad.

“Britain has this quiz circuit, this scene of people who spend untold hours a year playing different kinds of quiz games, boning up on their skills,” says Jennings. “There’s not really an analog in America, and so when you see these people who just seem to know everything in every subject, whether it’s rugby or the War of the Roses—they probably drilled that recently. They probably had questions three weeks ago in one of their tournaments or last night down at the pub.”

Blackwell’s road to University Challenge is a case in point. Aware that moving to a new country would bring with it a new canon of unfamiliar cultural fodder, Blackwell dove wholeheartedly into quizzing. Across the U.K., the first Saturday of every month is the Grand Prix, where a 240-question test over six categories allows quizzers to gradually improve their ranking, as in chess. Most British cities also offer municipal quiz leagues with varying levels of prestige; Blackwell joined the Quiz League of London, with challenges every Tuesday and a secondary, invitational competition called the President’s Cup every other Sunday. During the summer, he joined what he calls a traveling “syndicate” of pub quizzers who kept tabs on jackpots at pubs around the country in order to swoop in en masse and split the proceeds. And on most nights early in his time there, he would find a pub with a quiz, settle in with something non-alcoholic—“I don’t really drink, especially when I’m quote-unquote at work,” he jokes—and furiously take notes throughout, finding a new establishment each night.

“It got kind of hectic during the term, because I’d be at university from 7 till 12, and then I’d go home and I’d study from 12 to 11, basically,” Blackwell says. “I did more quizzing in that two and a half years than pretty much anybody else in Britain does over a 10-year period, because that was all I was doing.” If Blackwell was an extreme case, it also points to a structure that barely exists in American competitive trivia. (For now, his Big Four plans are on hold while he serves as one of the resident Chasers on the American edition of The Chase.)

For the American quizzer fond of connection games—what Mueller describes as a Venn diagram of “the crossword people and the trivia people and the other puzzle people”—the COQL offers the next best thing. Today, the COQL, which was founded in the midst of the pandemic, boasts about 120 teams, one-third of which are American. Games largely follow Only Connect’s model with small, IP-minded tweaks: While Only Connect players select early puzzle categories by selecting one of six hieroglyphs, COQL contenders choose among six emoji.

Only Connect is the rare game show where playing with people makes for a far more enjoyable experience, because the perfect Only Connect question is one where you have to bounce ideas off of each other to work toward the correct answer,” says Keith Williams, the 2003 collegiate Jeopardy! champion, who is widely regarded as the patron saint of wagering strategy. “I like to say my favorite sound in trivia is the head smack after an elusive answer is revealed and everything falls into place in hindsight; Only Connect has a lot of those.”

Williams is an alum of two seasons of the COQL—one played with teammates Jacob Baskin and Elliot Yates, who made it to the 2015 Tournament of Champions, and another with Yates and Roger Craig, a four-time Jeopardy! contestant who long held the record for single-day winnings.

With so much pop culture mixed into questions in the COQL, American players usually play games written by American question writers, while Brits play Brits’ puzzles. This flips in what is dubbed the world championship, in which the top British team plays the top Americans, with questions written by writers on both sides. The victor would be awarded a highly coveted grand prize: the right to choose one of the emoji in the next COQL season.

The Americans—Blackwell, Andy Kravis, and Joon Pahk, decorated game show champions all—won. Their emoji—the trans pride flag; Kravis’s suggestion, to which Blackwell says he and Pahk heartily agreed—graces every game this season.

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