Jack Waley-Cohen and David McGaughey have been question editors on cult BBC Two show Only Connect since 2017. Over the years, they have also written questions for the fiendishly tricky quiz – and appeared, with some success, as contestants.
What does the job involve?
You need to know how to put together good quiz rounds, balancing easier and harder questions. And, literally, you need to edit questions – rewording, reframing or even flipping them. You then have to get questions and answers verified. You also need a deep understanding of the show, so you can bring its character out in the questions.
How did you become question editors?
We did a lot of question writing in the quiz world and put on quizzes through our company, QuizQuizQuiz, and made connections.
What’s your advice for someone wanting to become a question setter?
Learn how to write good, gettable questions – that’s the hardest skill.
What makes a good question?
Writing a question that makes people realise they know something they didn’t think they knew – they grab something within themselves and find the answer. Only Connect is almost that by definition – you start with something in the first clue that they have no idea about and, by the end, they’ve cleared the forest and can see the answer.
On Only Connect, there is more potential ambiguity and creativity in the answers; on other, more straightforward, quiz shows, if we are writing questions with lots of potential answers, we’re not doing our job properly.
Can questions fall flat?
Occasionally, questions can totally miss the comfort zones of the contestants. They don’t know something you could have reasonably expected at least one of the six quizzers on Only Connect to know. It is worse when a question is too hard and also boring, so, not only can they not get the answer, they also don’t care. That’s dreadful when that happens, although, thankfully, it is very rare. A question can also fall flat by being too easy.
Which question are you most proud of?
In round one, teams are given up to four clues, one by one, and have to find the connection between them.
1 Claudius and Seneca’s Apocolocyntosis;
2 Tomato and an 1893 US Supreme Court declaration;
3 Graham Taylor and a Sun front page on 24 November 1993;
4 Carriage at midnight and Cinderella.
[The answer is at the bottom of the page]
It’s a nice example of bringing things in from everywhere: it’s got classics, history, football and fairy tales. We were really pleased with it because it seemed to sum up how, with Only Connect, you can bring so many things together.
Are there any subjects best avoided?
It’s better to look at it the other way around: no matter how obscure a subject, it can be fashioned into a good question.
What’s the secret to a good quiz?
Finding the right balance between luck and skill. Any topic can come up, from pop music to particle physics, which is where luck comes in, but the very best teams will always rise to the top because of their skill. You need people who can play; otherwise, a quiz won’t work. “Play-along-ability” at home is also hugely important.
How important is the host?
A lot of the character of Only Connect is down to Victoria [Coren Mitchell]. She loves the show and puts a huge amount of preparatory work into it, which isn’t the case for every host. A lot of them turn up on the day and read the questions – and that’s fine, they’re not meant to see the questions beforehand. But Victoria is an important part of the process of putting the show together before filming.
How would you two fare as contestants on Only Connect?
We were both contestants in the show. [Jack:] I was in the first-ever episode of series 1 in 2008 and my team reached – but lost – in the final. [David:] I was in series 5 but we had a bit of a nightmare on the wall and vowel rounds, as can happen to the best of teams. We lost, but it wasn’t embarrassing. I would do better now.
Question editors Jack Waley-Cohen and David McGaughey were interviewed by Matthew Bell.
The answer: Each of the examples, surprisingly, becomes some kind of edible vegetable. The explanation:
1 Apocolocyntosis is a vicious satire in which the former Emperor Claudius is turned into a pumpkin on his death (Apocolocyntosis means ‘pumpkinification’).
2 The court declared that, for customs purposes, the tomato was a vegetable, not a fruit.
3 The headline ‘That’s yer allotment’ was accompanied by an image of Taylor as a turnip after he resigned as England manager.
4 Cinderella’s carriage turns back into a pumpkin at midnight.