Monday, 6 September 2010

Only Connect

For those of you not in the know, or not from the UK, Only Connect is a brilliantly entertaining quiz show on BBC Four which I was introduced to when I moved home to live with my parents for a while. Teams of three have to guess the connections between apparently unconnected things, and it requires a basic level of general knowledge (i.e., unlike University Challenge or Mastermind, I can actually answer some of the questions - even the non-Classical ones!) and a bit of lateral thinking.

Each round in Only Connect features a selection of questions, up until now named after Greek letters - so teams had to choose a letter a random from alpha-zeta until all questions had been answered. However, the new series began tonight, and it turns out a lot of people have complained about the Greek letters. Apparently (and bear in mind I'm typing this from memory after the show so I'm not quoting exactly) the Greek letters are too elitist and pretentious, and downright silly, or words to that effect.

Of course, as host Victoria Coren read this, I was all up in arms. It's not elitist! (or pretentious, or whatever the exact word was) I was all ready to cry in hurt consternation to my parents. There's nothing wrong with Greek letters - and they're a bit more interesting than ordinary numbers or A-F! Of course, this is all tied up with attitudes to Classics and Classical education in this country, which I've posted about before, and the problem of Classics being viewed as elitist and not accessible, available or interesting to the majority of the population. As a person whose first secondary school taught no Classics at all, while it was not complusory in the second by the time I got there, and who studied Ancient History at an excellent but non-Oxbridge university, I tend to feel extremely frustrated and even, at times, a wee bit hurt by this assumption, but there we have it.

Then Victoria Coren revealed her solution (which, judging from her comments on Twitter, was actually hers) - instead of Greek letters, to acknowledge the complaints, this series will use Egyptian hieroglyphs instead!

Well, my parents and I all fell about laughing and absolutely loved it. An out-of-date, incomprehensible system has been replaced with an even more out-of-date and incomprehensible system, and those who complained about Greek letters as being too prententious now have an even deader and more obscure language to contend with. We were happy bunnies indeed.

However, I wonder if Egyptian heieroglyphs will seem more appealing and garner fewer complaints anyway. Unlike Greek and Latin, Ancient Egyptian is not associated with an elitist, old-boys'-club, upper class word not accessible to others in our (British) culture - rather, Ancient Egyptian is so obscure that very few people know it at all. Whereas Greek letters are familiar to mathematicians, scientists and people with a Classical education, Egyptian hieroglyphs are familiar only to Egyptologists - so, rather than leaving out those who did not have access to a posh education, these leave out more or less everybody. Then there's the fact that hieroglyphs are rather more fun than Greek letters. Whereas the words 'alpha', 'beta' and so on don't mean much to anyone except mathematicians, when a team asks for the 'horned viper' or 'eye of Ra' they're choosing something rather more exciting - I wonder if it's actually easier to choose from these options, since you can choose a snake because you're feeling dangerous, or two reeds because you feel in a literary mood, rather then the meaningless Greek lettes. Then there's the fact that, thanks to The Mummy, Stargate, Death on the Nile and countless others, Egyptology is simply cooler than the study of ancient Greece (which has yielded such gems as Clash of the Titans and the better but kid-dy Hercules).

The programme makers were asking for trouble when they included the phrase 'Jump the Shark' as a clue in a later round - one of the contestents, bravely but predictably, suggested that 'suddenly including Egyptian hieroglyphs' might be an example of a point where a programme jumped the shark. However, I have a suspicion that the hieroglyphs may prove genuinely popular - they are, if nothing else, unique, whereas Greek letters do occasinally appear in other highbrow-leaning programmes. Even if they do generate complaints, I hope that the programme will not have been thought to have jumped the shark, and just maybe everyone will eventually welcome the slightly simpler Greek letters back with open arms!


  1. I missed all but the last round of last night's programme, but this is a terrific idea! I love Only Connect, especially when there are young relatives around who I can impress with my ability at obscure panel games.

    One thing that always intrigued me about the Greek letters was that no-one ever started with alpha and went through the letters in, well, alphabetical order. Everyone picked a letter from the middle of the sequence. I would have gone for alpha first. I suppose hieroglyphs must have come in a standard order, but have no idea what it was.

  2. No, I have no idea either I'm afraid, I've never studied hierogplyphs - though I did notice that no-one went for the reeds, which were in the alpha position, until last - I wasn't sure if it was because they were in the first position, or because no one liked the two reeds drawing very much!

  3. I haven't seen yesterday's episode yet, but now I'm really looking forward to it. I absolutely love Only Connect -- and not just because I get to gaze upon Victoria Coren for half an hour at a stretch.

    And switching from Greek letters to hieroglyphs sounds exactly like something she'd do! Go, Victoria!

  4. Hi Juliette. Our question-setter David Bodycombe directed me to this blog post, which I absolutely love: it is like a mirror to one of my own emails to the executive producer when I was fighting the case for the hieroglyphs. I love the way you've not just got the joke but grasped pretty much everything else about it that I thought would be good about doing it.

    Over the course of filming, I didn't notice any particular patterns in the way contestants chose their hieroglyphs, BUT on the connecting wall they are now offered the choice of "lion" or "water", and I certainly did notice that lion was chosen significantly more than 50% of the time. By your logic, that would mean that the majority of teams were feeling powerful and ferocious.... quite right too.

    Best wishes,


  5. Hi Victoria! Thank you so much for reading and commenting - I am now even more keen to see the rest of the series, as I want to see how ferocious the teams seem to be, and whether anyone ever picks the reeds first!

  6. Erika and I were very impressed by the use of heiroglyphs. Our suggestions was a different dead language each week and adding a rule whereby contestants lose a point if they don't know what the symbol is.

  7. I think if something like Sumerian was thrown in there they'd deserve a point for recognising the language, never mind the symbol!

  8. I do not know the programme, but it sounds like a televisual version of Round Britain Quiz, in which teams of three had to make connections between several objects, and marks were awarded for the quality of their answers.

    The marking scheme was impenetrable. Six was the maximum, and little slips would reduce the mark to five, bigger ones to four. Perhaps the presenters were silently grading answers as alpha, beta or gamma, and then adding +, -, ++ or --. Or perhaps not.

  9. I should listen to the wireless more. I see that Round Britain Quiz is still running:

  10. I can just imagine them doing that ;) Must listen to Round Britain Quiz online, it would be fun to put on while working. Thankfully, the marking scheme for Only Connect is much simpler - answer correctly, get a point! The third round is a bit more complicated, but nothing too dire!


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