Thursday, 4 March 2010

Andrew's Account of Only Connect Audition, Round 1and Quarter Final

As promised, I am delighted to present to you Andrew Bull's account of the Archers Admirers' audition and first round performance in Only Connect.

I’d watched most of the first series of Only Connect, and when I saw an invitation for applications online, started asking among other quiz fans I know if they’d also be interested in taking part. Paul and Min were both keen, so now we had to come up with our team connection - “quizzing” being a bit obvious. An early thought was “Snoopy Fans”, but Paul being more of a Calvin and Hobbes fan, this was ruled out. In the end, the fact that Paul and Min had met through being fans of “The Archers” made a more tangible link, and I had at least listened to the show quite a lot - so the “Archers Admirers” we were.

And so, we sent in our application form, and received a set of Only Connect style questions to attempt. We submitted our answers, and… didn’t hear back. Series 2 of Only Connect took place without us. And seeing two people I know in another team only made us more determined to try again.

So a few months later we re-applied for Series 3 (this time with Paul nominally as captain), and maybe we did rather better on the “quiz” element of the form - or we attached nicer photos - or standards were lower because they needed more teams - in any event, this time we were invited to audition. Hooray!

One painful drive across to Cardiff in mid-November saw us arriving in a state of mild panic about 2 seconds before we were due. We were guided to a rather bleak office room where Peter (producer) and Georgie (contestant wrangler) were far too charming to point out how fine we were cutting it. Brushing aside our apologies involving speed restrictions, Peter launched into a quite awesomely long spiel about the show. Paul and I had seen most episodes, Min had seen one *and* we’d explained it at length *and* we’d gone through the quiz on the form - but “to be fair to people who hadn’t seen the show”, he went through it again. My goodness, but he’s (quite rightly) proud of his show. His spiel did, to be fair, include some “behind the scenes” stuff that we didn’t know; for instance, the length of the final round can vary from 90 to 150 seconds, and is determined largely by the speed with which the earlier questions had been answered (and the amount - and quality - of banter). It also included a lot about the sort of connections the show includes, how it’s not all about knowing obscure facts - though that comes into it - but it’s spotting links that counts. He was very much preaching to the choir here... but eventually, we’d finished the teas and coffees that Georgie had brought us, and it was time to show just how good (or not) we were at the game...

But first, we had to show that we could cope with some brief banter about the Archers and maybe some of our other interests. Min and Paul could clearly chat about the show easily - I managed to say how I found it a good show to listen to during a Sunday morning lie-in, or walking home after a long day in the office. We all managed to talk while being filmed without panicking to Peter’s satisfaction, and the brainwork could begin.

Round 1, as we were by now very much aware, is about finding the connection between 4 items (and the fewer items you need to spot it, the better). Well, we were - not hopeless, but certainly not good. We managed to connect 3 of the 5 groups, but were being too tentative - except when we were being too keen to take more clues - or forgetting to. But it wasn’t a complete disaster, and we had three more rounds to redeem ourselves…

(Incidentally, Rounds 1, 2 and 4 were “played” on a lap-top, and I had the job of pressing a key each time we wanted another clue, or to move to the next question. Quite a nice touch, as it gives more of a feel for the show than having it all on paper).

Round 2 is similar, except you now have to work out what the 4th item is going to be from the first 3 (the items now forming a sequence) - again, it’s better not to use all the clues. This went rather better, though again we missed a couple of connections, but we were showing better teamwork, and Peter looked slightly happier.

Round 3 - The Wall - comprises 4 groups of 4 shuffled together at random, and you have to divide the 16 items back into those 4 groups - but there are red herrings, false links... you name it, they try to confuse you with it. (Unlike the other rounds, this was played in the low-tech way - 16 pieces of paper to rearrange… so not quite the same as on TV as you get no feedback about whether your attempts are right or wrong). This went OK, except for one group defeating us completely, but again we were co-operating quite well.

So after 3 rounds of working as a team to spot groups of 4, round 4 is rather different - you’re given a phrase with all the vowels removed, with spaces inserted at random (so “Only Connect” could become “NL YCN NCT”), and just have to name that phrase! Finally, a triumph, as we managed to spot all 5 phrases, and Peter and Georgie were now beaming at us. We made a mental note to try to be quick in the earlier rounds and so make the final round longer - though to be honest, it’s probably difficult to influence this.

It’s always good to end on a high, and we were cautiously optimistic as Paul drove us back to Cheltenham. After all, they’d talked at some length about how to challenge a wrong answer during filming - they wouldn’t do that if we were hopeless, would they? (You wait until the end of the question - that way, if your challenge is wrong, it’s less of a break in the flow of filming and you aren’t giving the other team vital thinking time).

Anyway, a few days later, just as our optimism was starting to ebb, Min received the vital phone call - we were in! After a bit of haggling over our team name - “Archers Admirers” was a bit long, but “Archers Fans” is a bit bland and “Archers Addicts” is a genuine society of - well - Archers addicts - and the captaincy (it would look “more balanced” with Min as captain, Paul was told, so he graciously deferred), we were ready to go. We struggled our way through the practice papers, and were amused to get a practice DVD featuring the people I know. Don’t worry, we were told - with the extra round this year, the questions will be easier.

Having arrived (nearly) late for the audition, we were taking no chances for the programme itself, and stayed overnight in Cardiff - in a hotel which, ironically, showed every Freeview channel except BBC4 - so we were able to arrive at the studio bright(?) and fresh(?) for the 9:30 start. In fact, we got there about 20 minutes early, taking Georgie slightly by surprise. But we were shown into the “rubber room” - a large, slightly soulless room with a few chairs and sofas - for a cup of coffee while they waited for people to arrive. Soon we were shown to our changing room to have our outfits inspected (nothing white, or black, or stripy - well, that‘s 90% of my wardrobe excluded), and to have the rules explained to us again. Plus some specifics related to filming, like “no swearing” - so we exchanged our jolly tales about people swearing on camera under pressure... but it was really hard to edit out, so *please* don’t. (It dawned on us that you can’t simply stop and re-shoot that easily on Only Connect - you either give a team extra thinking time, or you plough on, then make them fake their “thinking aloud” in an unconvincing retake). Oh, and remember how the questions were to be easier this series? Well, don‘t expect them to be much easier. And as we were such a good team, they’d matched us up against another very strong team, so it’d make a good show. Gee, thanks… (In fact, later conversation suggests that teams are largely paired up by what days are most convenient for them to attend).

After being moisturised and powdered in make-up, we were soon judged to be presentable enough for the BBC4 viewing public. Then we were led off to be miked up - an awkward process in which a young man clips a microphone to your clothing, trying to conceal the wires, while you try to listen to what Georgie’s asking you about your introductory spiel. It was at this point that we met the other team - the “Music Lovers”, at least two of whom looked familiar from watching quizzes. OK - this wasn’t going to be the nice easy opening match I’d been hoping for...

The most familiar of them - Steve Kidd - was clearly a “bit of a character” who informed us that he’s planning to stand as an independent in the next election. (He’s also, we found out afterwards, won £250,000 on Millionaire... well, we’ve quizzed against Pat Gibson, who went two better! Admittedly, we *lost* to his team, but still…)

Into the studio! Paul and I had done this before (on Countdown, plus Paul has done 15-to-1 and Brainteaser), and the studio was in some ways very like the one in Leeds - the set looking impressive from the front, and apparently held together with sticky tape and propped up with cardboard from behind. Lots of curtains to hide the “behind the scenes” people, making it very hard to see anything when you were entering or leaving - especially when they helpfully put a black chair in a silly place. But, most importantly, there was the familiar Only Connect set complete with “Paul Peters - Min Lacey - Andrew Bull” displayed on the front. Cool!

Before launching into the show, we were to have a practice run. This is no bad thing - you get to see what things look like, where they will appear, and so forth, so you aren’t completely thrown by the real thing. For instance: you discover you actually look at a 2-by-2 block of clues on a screen, not a line of 4 as appears on TV; and the blue line to indicate the time running out is actually just a clock counting down in the middle of the screen. And the much criticised Greek letters are, in fact, written out as “Alpha, Beta” etc. We also discovered that Min was a bit low down on her chair, so was provided with a cushion to sit on. (Incidentally, the only thing on the narrow desk - apart from the buzzer - is a glass of water each, which I duly managed to spill most of. No pen and paper, so you have to discuss ideas out loud - and hope you aren’t giving clues to the other team!)

So Hywel, the friendly floor manager (honestly - everyone really was that friendly) inveigled producer Peter to stand in as question master. We went through our practice of rounds 1, 2 and 4, of which I remember very little, except for Peter’s mock complaints about this not being what he’d signed up for... and the other team were A Bit Good. And seemed to be better at picking easy questions. Or maybe we were just worse at answering them. And the Missing Vowels round, where we’d shone in the audition - pretty much a tie. Oh help...

Min won the toss, and we opted to let the Music Lovers go first. “Vicky’s not going to like that”, Hywel told us... for some reason, if the team on her right (us) wins the toss and opts to go second, she gets confused. So we’ve stumbled through the practice and now inadvertently annoyed the host…

Ms Coren duly arrived on set, greeting us all cheerfully while the finishing touches to her make-up were completed. On being informed of the result of the toss, we discovered that this hadn’t been a joke - she grumbled about how this was the one scenario that she always managed to get wrong. And before we knew it, we were filming... “Keep looking at Vicky!” we were told - like I needed telling...

You might expect the main problem when you’re a quiz show contestant is that you’ll freeze under the lights. That may be true for some people, but (in my very brief experience) I’ve tended to have the opposite problem - everyone’s so friendly and keen to put you at ease that I relax, and act as if I’m watching the show with friends. Which is all very well, until I have a sudden thought “Oh ****! This isn’t a relaxing watch at home - I’m on TV and I need to say something, or I’ll look like an idiot!”

And so the game began. As we struggled our way through round 1, we discovered that Georgie was quite right - the questions weren’t much easier. At least, not to us… We had a good start, picking up a bonus on their picture question - Min spotting that a picture was of Petra, so the link was Blue Peter pets. We followed this up with our first set: 2 complete non-entities plus Will Stutely could perhaps have led us to “Merry Men”. Playing it safe to start, we took the fourth clue - Much the Miller’s Son - and got the point; but the Music Lovers immediately caught us up by picking up 2 points on their next set, while we failed on ours. They then picked up 2 more points on their final set, leaving us the dreaded music question. We had at least had a nice moment here when Min had buzzed in to say “We don’t know”, meeting VC’s approval - but no points, and a bonus to our opponents, leaving us 5-2 down at the end of the round. They were looking annoyingly relaxed, while it began to dawn on us that we needed to pull our socks up or our stay in Cardiff would be disappointingly brief.

Oh well, we tend to do better in Round 2. And so it proved again, as we finally picked an easy(ish) question to start, followed this with an educated guess which paid off, and picked up a bonus to catch our opponents, finishing the round at 8-8. This wasn’t too bad given how we’d ended Round 1, and we were back in the game.

At this point, we had to do some retakes of the introductions - more entertaining than it sounds, because of VC’s tendency to change her questions each time - according to her blog, this is because she’s too short-sighted to read the autocue! She also had an entertaining habit of saying “why can I not speak? Why didn’t you get a professional?” whenever she messed up a line. Min coped admirably with answering questions again, and it was time for the next round.

Round 3 - The Wall - is a bit different, in that it’s filmed in a different part of the studio, with each team tackling their walls separately. As we’d gone second in the first two rounds, we would be going first here - which meant we had to do The Walk.

If you watch the show on TV, you may notice that only one team is shown approaching the board with VC (even this is a “blink and you’ll miss it” moment)... this is in fact filmed in a bare bit of studio, and made to look like an approach to the board by the magic of television. So we rehearsed walking 3 steps forward to exactly the right spot, without looking down too obviously, and (in my case) without being distracted by having VC walking towards me. (Or by our opponents, still on set, waving at us). Or indeed by VC being told that her bra-strap was showing, and reducing everyone to hysterics with the comment “These things don’t stay in place by themselves, you know...”

We now left the studio so that the other team could practise playing The Wall. My memory is pretty vague about this bit, but I think we told each other that at least we hadn’t embarrassed ourselves, and had got back into the game.

Soon we were back in the studio for our go at practising playing The Wall... we discovered that, when choosing from Wall Alpha and Wall Beta, you are actually looking at a blank screen! I can’t remember too much about the practice round except that I was the first to say anything after an awkward pause, and that we got the four groups out, though we didn’t identify one of them (Stone, Milestone, Ford and Lean - all Oscar winning film directors) - but VC assured us that no-one got that one.

Time for the real thing... it’s amazing how blank your mind can go when faced with a random-looking set of 16 things, and 150 seconds to make something of them. Again, no-one was saying anything so I felt I had to - “some of them are comics”. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the set of four. We also spotted some “things you could cut” - Gordian knot, ribbon and mustard (a good spot from Min) - but couldn’t find the fourth. Still no groups of four, and a minute had passed. This round could be a disaster... Min spotted a fifth comic, and Paul started trying out all the options, and eventually this paid off. Up and running, one minute left... While we were trying a few options for the fourth thing you could cut, we suddenly noticed that “deck” had been staring us in the face… Relief - 30 seconds to go - could we find one more group and complete the board? Suddenly, with fewer options, we realised that an idea we’d vaguely mentioned earlier - lunar modules - was right, and we found the quartet. But the logic behind the final set was still a mystery at this stage...

We now had to identify the links: “comics” was easy enough, as was “things you can cut”, and “lunar modules” was right as well. And the last set... at the last second, Min had a flash of inspiration and realised they were “nicknames of famous people”. Phew!

We were led out as the Music Lovers were brought back and, as instructed, we kept quiet about how we’d done until we were safely out of earshot. We now knew we’d be at worst all square for the final round, and (as we kept assuring each other) it would be good TV. All too soon, we were taken back into the studio... it was slightly surprising that we still weren’t told how Round 3 had gone, but by signalling at the other team, we established that we were indeed all square. Then we were told that we’d have the full two-and-a-half minutes for this round. At this point, I began to panic... we’d kept in the game by the skin of our teeth thanks to some flashes of inspiration - largely from Min - but this was, in theory, my chance to shine - for some reason, I’m usually good at the missing vowels round. But the practice hadn’t been a triumph... I started to babble to my team-mates about how I’d freeze, or keep buzzing in too fast (which is very much a mistake, as you lose a point and the question goes to the other team). I’m not sure if this was just an attempt to psyche myself up, or to apologise in advance. At any rate, it seemed to work, as for the first set - French phrases - I managed to get the first answer. And the second. The third one was pretty tough, but just as VC said “have to hurry you”, I spotted it. Then the fourth answer - hang on, haven’t we had that already - yes, because it’s D JV - déjà vu - very good! So I completed a full set, while some of the others hadn’t seen the joke and their protests had to be shouted down by VC.

The next set was another full set for us, and I began to relax a little - surely they couldn’t peg back an 8 point lead? They began to buzz in now, and at times began to make a comeback, but we managed to maintain our lead pretty well, finally ending up with a “comfortable” win, 35-24. Hooray! Congratulations from VC for our storming last round, and quarter-finals here we come!

So we headed off the set feeling pretty pleased, and Georgie and co couldn’t wait to tell us how well we’d done - all very gratifying. As we headed off to lunch, Min and VC both took the opportunity for a fag break, and Min took the opportunity to tell VC what a huge fan she was of her father Alan (the late, much beloved journalist). The canteen happened to be serving Christmas lunch, so it all felt very festive as we discussed how we’d done, eyed up the contestants who’d arrived for the next heat, and shared congratulations and commiserations as appropriate with the other team. After we’d finished the meal, Min and I had a pep talk from Steve Kidd, whose attitude was clearly that if he couldn’t win, he wanted to lose to the champions…

We now had a fairly lengthy wait - mostly sat in the dressing room - as we wound down from the excitement of filming, while the second heat of the day took place. Paul spotted one of the teams - the Exeter Alumni, a young all-male team - during their opponents’ Wall round, but was deftly shooed away by Jenny, the other contestant wrangler. We chatted about various things, including how we’d done, and Georgie popped in now and then to check we were still there. We asked her how the contestants had been that series, and she said that most of them were quite friendly, although she’d been disappointed not to get a hug from them the day before - so we now knew what our duty was at the end of the day! Eventually, Georgie returned to tell us we’d be getting ready for the quarter-final in a few minutes. I started to worry that I’d lost focus completely, and that our opponents, fresh from their victory, would thrash us.

Back on set, we found we were competing against the Exeter Alumni, who we gathered had won their heat fairly narrowly. No practice this time - we were all ready to launch into the quiz (this time sitting on VC’s left) - but again we’d be going second, as the Alumni had opted to go first. So VC was pleased, as were we, going second being our preferred strategy. After about six attempts for the sound people to be happy with the positioning of my microphone, we were ready to kick off.

This times both teams struggled somewhat with Round 1, and again we got the unwanted Music question but this time Paul, our classical music buff, knew the first two tunes, giving us 3 useful points. The Alumni also managed one of their questions, and a bonus each meant we’d come through a tricky round with a 4-3 lead. We then had a break in filming as apparently someone had referred to the Queen in the picture question as “The Queen Mother”. VC denied it was her, and took the opportunity to tell us that you should never bet on the Queen wearing a yellow hat. It transpired that Min had said “Queen Mother”, but was happy for the faux pas to be left in, so we continued.
Round 2 was, again, more successful, as we picked what were perhaps some of the more straightforward questions. These together with a lucky guess for a bonus (cancelling out an unlucky one), took us to a satisfying 11-3 lead. Showing how much more relaxed we were by this stage, we had a minor argument amongst ourselves over out last question, drawing an amused comment from VC (sadly not on camera!)

As before, we had to do “The Walk” for Round 3, and then we went into the real thing - no rehearsal this time. It was suggested that Min should stand on a box to make us more even in height - but this resulted in her towering over us, so the idea was quietly dropped. Again, we were slightly slow to get started, but this time, once we got into our stride, things went much better and we managed to get the full 10 points much more easily. This time we could relax a bit while the other team were filming, as we couldn’t have less than an 8 point lead… in fact, it turned out that we were going into Round 4 with a 14 point lead, as they’d struggled with a nasty Wall. I was a bit concerned that the monitor was now reflecting too much light for me to read it, until VC overheard our concerns, and asked Hywel to adjust it for us. That sorted, we were much more relaxed this time in the Missing Vowels, and it again went well for us as we completed a 33-9 win, so the day ended in triumph. Commiserations with our unlucky opponents, Paul gallantly initiated hugs all round from Georgie, and we made our way home through the miserable weather, ready to fight another day.

So, how was our experience of the day overall? Well, obviously it helped that we won both our games... but I’d say it was a truly fantastic day. Everyone at the studio is going out of their way to make sure you enjoy yourself - they want happy, relaxed contestants having a good time and doing their best on the show - and they did a wonderful job of it. I know that it’s left me wanting to go in for more quizzes, and Min has already applied to go on Mastermind...


Londinius said...

Many thanks to Weaver's Week for plugging this in this week's review of Only Connect, and welcome to anyone who's followed the link and is new to LAM.


Andrew B. said...

My thanks to Dave for publishing this, and to Weaver's Week for plugging it!

Unknown said...

Great to see Min again! 8-) Last time was at a quiz at Oxford Uni. We're rooting for you!

Best wishes, Sue (ex-OU in UC '99)

Steve Kidd said...

What an excellent blog - I only think you are far too modest. We felt really cheesed off that we had come up against you and your freakish word skills. All in all it is a great day out and I thoroughly reccomend people go for it. It was great to meet you. PS I never did stand, but that is another story.

Steve Kidd