This interview was first published in the Mensa member newsletter on 16 September. We interviewed John Clarke before the team’s second appearance had been aired. Keep reading to find out how they got on…
Are you a keen follower of the BBC 2 quiz show Only Connect with Victoria Coren Mitchell at the helm? Ever wondered how well you’d do under the glare of the studio lights? We caught up with Mensa member John Clarke, who has been competing with fellow Mensans Jane Kendrick and Jezz Sterling under the team name ‘A Drop of Red’. Their first round was aired in July and their second show will be broadcast on Monday 18 September. Spoiler alert: no spoilers will be given in this exclusive interview with John Clarke!
Why did you decide to take part in Only Connect?
I’ve watched it for years and one night I thought, “I can do that!” Jane and Jezz eagerly agreed to join my team. Jane was SIG Sec for the Mensa Quiz SIG (I’ve since taken on that position) and Jezz is SIG Sec for the Crossword SIG.
I have previously appeared on a number of TV quiz shows, most notably on series 11 of Countdown way back in 1987, which I was fortunate enough to win. I have also featured, less successfully, on Fifteen to One and Mastermind.
Jane made a triumphant appearance on The Chase in 2020, where she and two other contestants managed to outrun the Chaser Paul Sinha to win, between them, £24,000. She has also reached the final of Britain’s Brainiest Teacher, and made two Fifteen to One appearances, winning both times.
Jezz was on a show called Fun and Games in 1989, on which he and his partner succeeded in dividing a field of “sheep” using three poles!
What strengths (other than an impressive track record) did each of you bring to the team?
In terms of typical quiz topics, we cover a pretty wide range between us. Our respective main strengths are:
John – sport, music, geography
Jane – science, history, literature
Jezz – travel, lateral thinking, useless trivia!
I think all of us managed to keep calm under pressure, and we all had our moments of the sort of creative thinking that is required on this show.
What was your route to the televised shows?
It was a case of third time lucky for us as we failed our first two auditions for the show. The auditions were held on Zoom, so no-one had to leave their home. In fact, it is worth mentioning that, although the three of us knew each other “virtually” really well, through numerous email exchanges and Zoom chats, we had never physically met until we arrived in Cardiff to record our shows in March.
The auditions consisted of all four rounds from the show, as closely as they could be approximated under the conditions. We had to solve the puzzles within the time limits under the watchful eye of three members of the production team. They were mainly looking, I think, for how we gelled as a team – not easy when you’re not physically together. A crucial moment came when we managed to solve the fiendish ‘Connecting Wall’ (see below) just in the nick of time.
So what would you need to do in order to win Only Connect?
You have to outscore your opponents over four rounds. Round 1 is ‘Connections’. You see a maximum of four apparently random clues and have to work out what connects them. The fewer the number of clues you need, the more points you score. If you buzz in with a wrong answer, or can’t find the connection within the time limit, it goes over to the other team for a possible bonus point.
Round 2 is ‘Sequences’, which is similar to Round 1, except that that you can only see up to three clues. These form the start of some sort of sequence, and you have to say what will come fourth in the sequence.
The ‘Connecting Wall’ I mentioned earlier is Round 3. You see 16 clues, which have to be arranged into four groups of four, again within a time limit. You make guesses by tapping the clues on a screen. This is not as easy as it sounds as there will often be answers that can fall into more than one category, so an element of trial and error is required.
This is often a key round – if you manage to find all the groups, and can give the right connections between each of them, you score a big 10 points.
In Round 4 we tackled ‘Missing Vowels’. The teams are given a theme covering four questions. Then you see an answer connected to the theme, but with its vowels removed. The consonants appear in the right order but jumbled up into misleading groups. When you see the answer, you buzz in with it, so speed is of the essence.
If you get it wrong or you’re too slow to answer after you’ve buzzed, you lose a point and the opposition can still come in and answer it. The theme changes after each set of four questions.
The show describes itself as “deliciously devious and maddeningly abstract”. What was your experience of the studio show?
It’s difficult to argue with that description of the four rounds! There were certainly a few challenges that defeated our collective brains, only for our opponents to snap them up. Overall, though, I think we did okay, managing to keep calm and solve most of the challenges.
After a slow start in our first match, we finally got off the mark by spotting the link between ‘Beautiful Horizon’, ‘Joyful Harbour’ and ‘Saint Paul’. Coming in after just three clues, we got two points for spotting that these were English translations of cities in Brazil; respectively, Belo Horizonte, Porto Alegre and Sao Paolo. We didn’t need the fourth clue, which would have been ‘River of January’ (Rio di Janeiro).
In Round 2 of our second match, the first clue that came up in one game was ‘IIUR’. I thought this looked vaguely familiar but asked for the next clue, which was ‘IIUB’. I knew it now, so I buzzed in with ‘II4ME’ as the fourth term in the sequence (the third would have been ‘ICUR’). For coming in with the right answer after just two clues, we scored three points.
The sequence is ‘Too wise you are, Too wise you be, I see you are, Too wise for me’, which I remembered seeing in a book many years ago. The version I knew, though, used the letter Y rather than I, which seems more logical. If they had done that, the first clue would have been YYUR, and I would have been straight in for the maximum of five points, which is a very rare achievement.
We all made important contributions at different times. Jane was first to spot a rugby-related connection in our first show, and Jezz got a James Bond link in our second, which would have defeated me totally.
We all want to know: how did you get on?
I cannot answer this question fully, as our second show has not yet been broadcast, so I don’t want to be a spoiler. I can reveal that, in our first outing, we fell agonisingly short, losing by just one point.
Every team gets at least two chances so, in our second show, we have another opportunity to progress by beating another team that lost their first match. The only problem is that, in being defeated, this team achieved the joint second highest losing score in the history of the show, which goes back to 2008; so we have our work cut out.
Update: John and his team put up a good fight in their second show, which was broadcast on Monday 18 September. Unfortunately, they lost to the Suncatchers, 29 points to 20. You can watch both shows on BBC’s iPlayer.
What was it like to be part of the recorded show?
I would say taking part was good fun. Once you get into the quiz, it is easy to forget that you are in a TV studio and that your performance is going to be broadcast throughout the country – you just get on with it. It becomes rather like doing a pub quiz.
We were well looked after. The teams are put up in a comfortable hotel, a short taxi ride from the studios, and all travel and meal costs are paid for. A good hearty lunch was provided at the studios – you could choose in advance what you wanted. The production team were all very friendly, and the producer even came into our dressing room after our two shows to say how well he thought we had done (even if we didn’t necessarily win).
To help put us at ease when we first got into the studio, we played a dummy game against our actual opponents in a truncated version of the show, with one of the production team standing in as presenter. This got us used to the buzzers that we had to press for Rounds 1,2 and 4 and prepared us for the Connecting Wall, which is in a different area of the studio.
(We lost that game as well!).
I haven’t mentioned the presenter yet. That is, of course, the redoubtable Victoria Coren Mitchell, who has been in the job for 15 years now. All Only Connect fans know what to expect from her – she has a sense of humour that is all her own. But she did help put us at ease by chatting amicably to us before filming started. Once the show gets under way, though, she is quite strict – she was quick to penalise us when we were too slow with a Missing Vowels answer, for instance.
What’s it like to see yourself on TV afterwards?
It’s weird to watch yourself back on TV. You think – my God, do I really look like that? Is that really how my voice sounds? But it’s good to have recordings of the shows that you can pass on to your grandchildren (of whom I currently have four).
How would you compare Only Connect with other quiz shows you’ve taken part in?
For me, the obvious difference was that I was competing as part of a team rather than as an individual. Thus, the teamwork element was important, which in our case was complicated by the fact that the three of us were relatively unknown to each other. Nevertheless, I think we managed to gel pretty well.
Despite the toughness of the challenges we faced, I found the atmosphere to be relatively relaxed, certainly compared to Mastermind. In that respect, it was most like Countdown, where the avuncular figure of Richard Whiteley helped put you at ease.
Anything else that you’d like to share with us from behind the scenes?
After we got the Brazilian cities answer, as mentioned above, Victoria asked Jane, who has connections to Chile, if she had ever been to Brazil. She hadn’t but Jezz piped up that he had (he’s been virtually everywhere!). He then launched into an amazing story about the time he took part in a crocodile (actually a caiman) hunt on the Amazon with some indigenous people. As he was speaking, I was thinking that this would surely be cut from the final edit of the show, but it wasn’t – it went out – so now the whole country knows about his exploits!
After the recording of our second show, Jezz drove back home but Jane and I went back to the hotel, along with Charlotte Ashton, one of the team we had just been playing. When Jane and Charlotte got talking, it turned out that Jane had been a teacher and Charlotte a pupil at the same grammar school (Grantham Girls’ School) at the same time, although they had no memory of each other. Just shows what a small world it is!
Any words of wisdom for others thinking about taking part in a TV quiz show?
I would say – go for it! It will be a chance to do something well outside your normal experiences, to have the dubious privilege of watching yourself on TV, and to have your 15 minutes of fame. You’ll find that everyone’s very friendly and you’ll be really well looked after. You may well get to meet some famous people – for instance, in the course of my TV shows, I’ve met, amongst others, Richard Whiteley, Carol Vorderman, Russell Harty (with whom I had a good chat over lunch), Gyles Brandreth, Richard Stilgoe, Bill Tidy, William G. Stewart, Sandi Toksvig, John Humphrys and, of course, Victoria Coren Mitchell.
On some shows, you can win serious money, as Jane did on The Chase. You may also make some new friends. I was delighted, for instance, to finally get the chance to meet Jane and Jezz in person after so much contact by technology. And we are now in a WhatsApp group with other contestants from the series, where we discuss each show after it has gone out.