Slide Rules at Dawn

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Patrick Olner/Parasol Media

IChemE members Sanjoy Sen and Mick Lee go head-to-head in a fight for survival on UK television

TWO teams of three people face each other across a studio. Four rounds of some of the hardest questions on UK television will sort the wheat from the chaff, the conquerors from the conquered. And the prize? Prestige. Just prestige, even for the winners of the grand final. No holiday, no car, no prize money, just the knowledge that you and your team have beaten some of the best minds in the country.

Only Connect, presented by Victoria Coren Mitchell, is now on its 13th series and has something of a cult following in the UK, both from those who can actually answer the questions and those of us, like The Chemical Engineer editorial team, who watch with amazement. The basic premise of the show is that the teams of quizzers must identify connections between apparently unconnected things, and it is fiendishly difficult.

Quite by accident, two IChemE members ended up as contestants on the same series. Fellow Sanjoy Sen and Chartered Member Mick Lee captain opposing teams on the programme. They are in a surprisingly cheerful mood as we convene over tea and chocolate biscuits to discuss this most polite of battles.

Getting involved

Sen, a development engineer for the Oil and Gas Authority, captains a team called The Wanderers. His two teammates are a geologist and an environmentalist and initially wanted to call themselves The Mudloggers, but it was decided that it was too obscure. All three applied individually for the show and were matched by the series production team.

“I work in London, and we all met up in a pub in Kensington about an hour before the audition – true story! We met up, did the audition and off we went,” says Sen.

His selection as team captain was something of an accident as it just so happened that the only free chair in the audition was the central captain’s chair, although he admits he’s not sure if that was deliberate.

Lee jokes: “It’s that natural command you bring!”

Lee works for BP in group research in Hull, UK, and collected the IChemE Bioprocessing Award in 2014 for BP’s Hummingbird process, which dehydrates bioethanol into polymer-grade ethylene in one step. He also applied to the show as an individual after efforts to persuade friends to join him failed.

“I used to find myself shouting at the TV, and occasionally at quizzers, and I felt I was doing well from the comfort of my own sofa and thought I could really fancy giving this a shot, so I applied,” he says.

His captaincy was also an accident.

“I ended up on a team with the two guys I auditioned with, who’d also applied separately, and we just clicked. Jenny, the producer, swept her eye over us as we entered the room and said: ‘Right, you’ve got a pocket square, you’re the team captain.’ You can’t really argue with that kind of steely logic,” he said. The team name (The Vikings) came about as they all have a connection to York, which has a wealth of Viking heritage, although Lee admits it also appealed as it’s a “strong” name, especially for a battle.

Patrick Olner/Parasol Media
Team Wanderers

The format

In Only Connect two teams of three battle it out over four rounds in each episode. In round 1, teams must choose a question from the board, identified by Egyptian hieroglyphs such as ‘twisted flax’ and ‘eye of Horus’ (the Greek alphabet was considered too pretentious), and spot the connection between four apparently unconnected clues in 40 seconds. In round two, the clues make up a sequence, and the teams must guess the final clue in the sequence. In round three – The Wall – teams are each given 16 clues and must identify four groups of connected clues and their connections, with points given for both. There are often red herrings and clues that fit into more than one category. The final round, on the buzzer, is the missing vowels round, which as the name suggests involves phrases being shown with all the vowels missing and the spacing altered, for example T HCH MCLN GNR.

Each tournament begins with 24 teams. Twelve first-round winners automatically qualify for the second round. Winners of the second round automatically qualify for the third round, with the six losing sides and the two highest-scoring first round players facing each other in a play-off, with two winners progressing. The eight teams left must win twice to get to the semi-final or lose twice to be eliminated. The two winners of the semi-finals then face each other in the grand final.

Filming the show

Like me, I’m sure you might have thought that Only Connect was filmed in a glamorous studio, perhaps in the heart of London. You’d be wrong. It’s filmed on an industrial estate in Splott, an area of Cardiff, near the Princes fruit juice carton factory.

“They’re fixing cars in one unit and the next one is the studio. It’s basically just a shed!” Sen says, adding: “There are just three tiny changing rooms and a small green room.”

The atmosphere from the start, however, is enormously friendly. In the small green room it is difficult to avoid people anyway, and the production company set a convivial tone with a warm welcome and by providing lunch for all the contestants and making sure things stay as relaxed as possible. Coren Mitchell herself adds to the general friendly atmosphere, with Lee describing her as “charming” and “engaging”, no mean feat with 24 teams to meet.

Lee says that it feels more like you’re playing the questions, rather than the other teams, but that doesn’t mean there is no rivalry at all. He confesses that he didn’t think was particularly competitive when he started but quickly found out that he was. Sen says the same.

“I started out thinking I just didn’t want to go out in round 1, but then I just wanted to go on,” says Sen. “There are some really good teams, and when they get thrashed you can feel a bit bad for them. Or you just think ‘ah well, hard luck!’”

Only Connect attracts some of the very best quizzers in the UK, including winners of other classic quiz shows such as University Challenge, Mastermind and Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and even question setters for other quizzes such as The Chase.

The filming process is fast. All 37 episodes are filmed over three long weekends, back-to-back, with multiple outfit changes for Coren Mitchell that Lee likens to a Formula 1 pit change. Each half-hour episode takes around 45 minutes to film. Sometimes, teams end up filming more than one episode in a day, which is tiring. Lee says that the fatigue showed in his team’s faces in the second.

“It’s tiring but it also puts you in the mood to do them. When you’ve played one you feel like doing another one. Two is enough though, I wouldn’t want to do a third,” adds Sen.

Patrick Olner/Parasol Media
Team Vikings

The battle (spoiler alert)

The Vikings and The Wanderers had already knocked out two opponents apiece when they met in the third round of the show. Coren Mitchell has a unique and rather enigmatic way of introducing the contestants, with descriptions never explained. Sen was introduced as “a chemical engineer who was led away for questioning at the Che Guevara monument in Cuba”, while Lee was described as “a chemical engineer who has 83 former housemates”.

The first question, “horned viper” was chosen by Lee and The Vikings, and turned out to be the picture round. The first picture was of Robert de Niro, the second of Bela Lugosi, the third was of UK television weatherman John Kettley, and the fourth was of Bette Davis. The team correctly surmised that the link was that all of them had all been the subject of songs.

Although it didn’t make it into the final cut of the programme, Lee and Sen recall being made to sing the songs depicted in the  pictures. One of Sen’s teammates is a keen singer and rose the occasion, in fact taking every opportunity to sing in each episode, but for the rest of them it was slightly more traumatic.

“I still see it in the darkness sometimes,” says Lee.

The most memorable question for Lee of the whole series was in fact in The Wanderers vs Vikings first round, with a series of seemingly nonsensical French phrases, such as “Et qui rit des curés d’Oc”. Think about it. Or try reading it aloud in a thick French accent. Sound like anything? The connection between the clues was “Frenchified nursery rhymes”, or English nursery rhymes spelt phonetically in French. That example is, of course, “Hickory Dickory Dock”. Lee’s team stole the point off Sen’s, which failed to spot it. The first round finished with The Vikings just trailing The Wanderers, 4-3.

The Vikings kicked off round 2 as well, choosing “eye of Horus” and correctly guessed the last clue after seeing the first two clues, after realising the link was the Greek alphabet. Sen’s Wanderers had a difficult round, failing to identify any of the final clues on their three questions, which included timings points on the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race and Ricky Gervais stand-up tours, but equally, The Vikings also could not get the answers, failing to steal any points from them. The round finished with The Vikings creeping ahead, 10-4.

The Wanderers kicked off round 3 but only correctly identified two of the groups, 80s computer brands and famous Fionas. They did, however, identify the connection between the other two groups, dances with the first letter changed (like ‘mango’) and shades of green (like ‘lime’), to get six points. The Vikings solved their wall very quickly, with categories including shipping forecast areas and breeds of cow, coming out with the maximum ten points.

“We were good on the wall, where we were slow was on the final round, the missing vowels. I think this is largely because of us not really knowing each other. We didn’t necessarily trust each other to say, ‘I’ve got this’, and hit the buzzer,” says Lee.

In the final round, which was full of tension, it was The Wanderers who easily came out on top.

Sen says: “When you see the missing vowels round at home, you can think, ‘I can do this’. There’s actually a time delay. In the studio, it comes up on screen and someone gets it, and you blink and you miss it!”

Sen’s Wanderers won the missing vowels round 9-5, but sadly it was not enough and Lee’s Vikings eventually scored a 25-19 victory.

Get your applications in

The Chemical Engineer is not allowed to reveal which, if either, of The Vikings and The Wanderers reached the final or won. Both Lee and Sen, however, are enthusiastic about their experiences. Lee says he would encourage anyone who’s interested to apply for it, with a team or without. If you can sit at home and get around a third of the answers right, he believes you’re good enough. Sen says that nobody is good enough to answer all the questions on their own.

Being able to think laterally is important for a quiz like Only Connect, which Lee says is definitely connected to the engineering mindset.

“It’s problem solving, it’s trying to spot trends. I actually found myself doing this! There was one question where we really didn’t have a scooby, we were really flailing. I thought back to my time of fitting reaction kinetics. I was thinking, I do this for a living, trying to fit things to things. I’ve been a modeller for years. We’ve got our Y, let’s just change our X until we get it. I was kind of doing that out loud, which everyone enjoyed because the team was really squirming. It didn’t pay off unfortunately, but intellectually it was satisfying!” Lee says.

Sen adds: “You’re not using HAZOP techniques or anything like that, but you have to be a bit structured and logical about it. There’s a bit of splitting things up and simplifying things.”

And of course, there’s the teamwork element.

“There’s something in there about being able to form a team quickly,” says Lee. “Sanjoy had met his team for an hour in the pub, I’d met my teammates three times if you count breakfast. Being able to make a team and trust each other quickly, it’s right there in engineering and in what we do.”

Both of them loved the social aspects of the quiz and made new friends.

“It would be good to see more engineering folks on it because it should work for that kind of logical mindset,” says Sen.


UK viewers can watch The Wanderers v The Vikings episode on BBC iPlayer.

Charity appeal

Lee used his appearance on Only Connect to fundraise for mental health charity Mind, which has offered much support to his family in recent years, particularly his brother-in-law.

“I’m unlikely to run a marathon,” Lee points out. “I thought maybe any time that people were cheering us on, or more likely watching us miss some absolute sitters, we could perhaps have a sponsored ‘I can’t believe you didn’t get that, you daft git!’”

Visit to donate.

Article by Helen Tunnicliffe

Senior reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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