John Walker's Electronic House

Television: University Challenge, Only Connect, Eggheads

by on Jul.29, 2009, under Television, The Rest

I’ve recently seen a few episodes of a BBC quiz show called Eggheads. Not being a watcher of daytime TV, it’s a programme that’s passed me by for the six years it’s been on air. But via the magic of iPlayer I discovered it as one of the suggested alternative programmes after my weekly watching of University Challenge and Only Connect.

Obviously there’s not much to say about University Challenge that hasn’t been said ten thousand times before. Perhaps the most interesting aspect for me has been the change from a programme where I stare in amazement at how much the contestants know, to worrying for the future of our planet by how little they know. I should stress I still know far less than they do, but my expectations for what a university’s four chosen representative students should know has gone up. I also have some quite strict rules I would bring in to prevent 60 year old contestants currently studying for their ninth PhD from appearing. It’s flat-out cheating. Having forty extra years, 200% more life, than most contenders is completely imbalanced. Logic would suggest you just have a team of aged professors currently studying for extra qualifications. So to prevent this, when I’m in charge I’ll either institute an age cap of 30 (thus discriminating against myself as much as anyone else), or a maximum combined age for a team that would force them to have children on the team if they picked an old fogey.

Only Connect is more intriguing. It’s astonishingly difficult, with teams whose brains make me stare open-mouthed in amazement. It’s presented by Victoria Coren and her 1970s hair dryer advert hair – someone I find equally likeable and irritating, such that I get very confused. She has a tough job, presenting an intensely hard quiz show with a light-hearted attitude to an empty studio. Lacking an appreciative audience certainly gives it a BBC 4 atmosphere, but also makes for some extremely awkward gaps after she delivers a crappy joke with an over-confident air. However, what makes it quite so engrossing is that not only are the questions mind-bogglingly tough, but the teams mostly get the answers correct. These are people with vast chasms filled with knowledge in their heads, and the ability to apply it laterally. A typical question. What do the following have in common?

Epistle To The Ephesians, De Profundis

Need a third clue? You’ll lose a point.

Don Quixote

A fourth? You’re down to one point now.

Pilgrim’s Progress

As you may have worked out, they were all written while the author was in prison.

Or how about this one?

All equal pi. And I'm in love with Ruth Carling.

This team of mathematicians got it at this point. I did not. Alt text for the answer!

Oh, go on, one more. What’s the fourth in this sequence?

Rickets, of course! Conditions brought on by lack of Vitamins from A to D.

In this week’s episode I not only managed to get a round 2 question correct with just the first two clues (not the above one, I should stress, which is from last week), but also one neither team got. I immediately promoted myself to World’s Most Handsome Genius. Then regained perspective as I sat staring in confusion for the rest of the episode, drool hanging from my lower lip. Well, not the whole episode: the final round in which names or phrases have their vowels removed, and then the remaining consonants awkwardly spaced – I can do that bit. Someone should have me on their team for that bit.

And Only Connect brings us to Eggheads. It is the perfect yang to Only Connect’s yin. It’s the most peculiarly broken quiz show of all time.

The contrast with Only Connect (only made possible by the wonders of watching TV via the iPlayer) is startling. This is a programme in which five of the stupidest people in the universe attempt to out-general knowledge five of the most competent quiz show contestants of all time, being asked questions that oscillate wildly between being so embarrassingly easy as to be contemptuous, and requiring specific precision knowledge about a specialist subject. Although it leans by a stretch toward the former.

It works like this: A team of five take it in turns to answer questions in a given category, competing against one of the “Eggheads” – people who spent the ’90s hoovering up money from every televised quiz show until they were contracted to this. So say the subject is “Politics”, the five will choose which of them is best suited (read: least unsuited) for the topic, and then pick which Egghead they believe to be poorest in that area. They then take it in turns to answer three multiple choice questions, with the person who gets most right qualifying for the final round. Should both get all three right, it’s sudden death questions without multiple choices. There’s four rounds like this, in order to ensure there’s at least one member of the contenders in the final, where the process is repeated, this time as a team game, in the subject of “general knowledge”.

I’ve watched maybe ten episodes. In most of them the team had just one contestant left to compete against the five knowledge-engorged quiz experts. It’s laughable.

It’s beyond laughable. It’s almost cruel. Of course, television quizzes have abandoned cruelty as a theme in the last few years (with the exception of their Queen, Weakest Link, somehow still going). Perhaps watching people be mocked and bullied isn’t as appealing during a financial downturn. (See Dragons’ Den for the most startling change here – season 1 was a gallery of shit-stained peasants being brought in front of the cruel Kings and Queens to beg for their money, season 7 is reasonably smart people presenting almost-decent ideas to a kindly crowd of avuncular investors.) But Eggheads has no intention of being mean. It’s so cup-of-tea-and-a-jumper that it could be Whitely-era Countdown.

Bumbling idiot presenter Dermot Murnaghan desperately struggles to suggest that the players stand a chance in hell. “Ooh, so close there Samantha! If only you’d known how to speak without hitting yourself in the face you could have squeezed out a victory there.” He then attempts to make a joke, which comes out wrong, and then Alan Partridges himself deeper into a hole until he tails off mumbling incoherently. The Eggheads go on to win.

I never saw it in its early years, the BBC having been repeating 2007 episodes until this week, but I wonder if the wretched smugness from the Eggheads when answering questions is a vestige of the programme being conceived in 2003, at the height of quiz cruelty. But smug they are as they not only give the answer to their question, but the surrounding events and other related facts. Clearly contestants are asked to do the same, or at least to show their working as they throw an imaginary dart into one of the three answers, or the programme would be about seven minutes long. “Well Dermot, I know it’s not ‘maths’ because I’ve never heard of that. It could be ‘onion’ – I know I’ve seen those on television. No, no. I’m going to say ‘Westminster Abbey’. Westminster Abbey is a root vegetable commonly eaten with cheese in sandwiches.”

Here you can see Ali struggling with the Literature question: What was the name of the dog in the Famous Five books. This, like so many of the questions, seems as if it belongs on a CBBC quiz, where the audience of 9 and 10 year olds would scream out the answer. However, Ali doesn’t know. Nothing can do this more justice than a transcript:

Dermot: What is the name of George’s dog in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five adventures? Is it Timmy, Billy or Freddy?
Ali: Well, I’m not really sure. But something’s drawing me to Freddy. I think it does sound like quite a doggy sort of name, so I’m going to go with Freddy.
Dermot: Did you ever read them?
Ali: Um, no I didn’t. I think my mum tried to get me to read them but I never did.
Dermot: It’s Timmy. It’s Timmy, and I bet you would have got that Pride & Prejudice one.
Ali: I know I woulda! Cos I’ve seen the film.

The most mystifying thing about the programme is the belief that there’s any tactic in going first or second to start receiving the alternating questions in each round. Here it seems to stray into the dream-like insanity of Deal Or No Deal, with the presenter reinforcing the idea that there’s in some way a risk to be taken by going second.

Each contestant has three questions. Getting more than the other means you win. Going first or second simply decides which three questions you’ll be asked. And yet that previous exchange continues:

Dermot: It’s a bit of a gamble. I mean, it can pay real dividends if the Egghead slips up. Don’t let me put any of you off going second coming up later, but this time if you get your first one wrong the Egghead has the advantage, and CJ’s really taken full advantage there.

NO THEY DON’T! Argh! This idiocy arises because if the Egghead goes first, he can eliminate the player before they get to their third question. Should the Egghead get his first two correct, and the player get one of the first two correct, then when the Egghead answers his third question correctly the round is over. If the player goes first, gets one right and one wrong, they then get their third question to attempt to draw level, before the Egghead goes on to beat them anyway. Going first, the player has an opportunity to draw level, with the possibility that the Egghead gets it wrong. Going second, there’s the possibility that the Egghead gets it wrong, creating the opportunity for the player to draw level. No advantage is gained or lost. The lack of necessity to ask the player the third question is simply an unknown when the player goes first.

Okay, right, I know – no one else cares.

But Eggheads remains this giant peculiarity. Deliberately pitting the stupid against the smart, and then acting surprised when the stupid lose. The £1000 prize rolls over every time a team loses, and to emphasise quite how daft the whole thing is, in the series 7 episodes being shown, the Eggheads had won the previous 58 episodes in a row. Which makes the decision to then suddenly leap to showing episode 45 of series 10 a little odd. Did they lose the remaining series 7 episodes in a fire? Did no one ever win, and the programme curl up into a weird twisted ball and become unbroadcastable? For some stupid reason I need to know!

In conclusion, watch Only Connect. It’s great.

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9 Comments for this entry

  • Ian

    I think I could like The Weakest Link if it wasn’t for Anne Robinson.

    *player called Edna gets a literature question wrong*
    “WHAT do you do for a living?”
    “I work in a tea shop.”
    “OH…. And don’t they TEACH tea ladies about the works of Byron?”

    Never even heard of Only Connect though. Must find it and give it a bash.

  • Mike Arthur

    Eggheads sounds truly bizarre. Someone must be watching it or it wouldn’t keep running. I just can’t understand why anyone would go on it?

    Even the title is odd, it’s like an X-Factor approach to quiz shows, as if by some bizarre ability the person who has spent no effort could somehow beat the person who has spent huge amounts of effort.

    Strangely, I find the replacement for quiz shows to be stuff like . I realise I’m a programmer and therefore a bit odd for liking stuff like this but basically you get XBox Live style achievements and points for answering questions. The difference being this stuff actually helps people get their jobs done. It’s all pretty cool.

  • The_B

    Only Connect I do find watchable, but what for me is weirder about it is Victoria Coren. Whenever she’s commentating on Poker -which seems to be every terrestrial channel’s commentary team as for some reason they must think she’s the only British female poker player in the world – she’s almost unbearable while on Only Connect she’s actually not bad at all.

    Saying that, I despise most Poker commentators, they often say things either unnecessarily or over exaggerate things to the point of silliness.

  • mister k

    Apparently people do win eggheads, and I occasionally watch out of a bloody minded desire to see the smug bastards actually lose. Dermot is painfully awful as a host…

  • Ian

    Well I’m just watching my first episode of Only Connect (series 2, ep 3 on the iPlayer) and after sitting feeling mostly baffled I actually got an answer in the sound round.

    Unfortunately this means I know more than I thought of the “raindrops on roses and noses on kittens” song.

  • Ian

    Watched the full episode now, and I’m glad you wrote about this one ’cause it’s a very good show. I shall be iPlayering it in future, even if I’m unsure about the lady hosting it.

  • David J. Bodycombe

    Glad you like OC – keep spreading the word!

    Best wishes,

    David (Question Editor)

  • Garry

    I think one of the most appealing things about Only Connect is the wit brought to the show by the lovely Victoria Coren. Her contribution helps make it!

    Like most veiwers I get very few questions right, but I think that’s a major part of the appeal, you don’t want it to be too easy. A bit of a challenge is what is wanted.

  • Masho

    I half expect Murnaghan to try and start flogging me Waterford Crystal decanters or quartz egg-timers from Malaysia. I can only suppose that Eggheads has soldiered on so long because so few people want to watch the News on the other side. Legions of people band together on Facebook to demand the slow disembowelment of CJ de Mooi. Volunteer disembowellers are not in short supply.