A misplaced click whilst researching Victoria Coren Mitchell for our interview introduced me to the online version of Only Connect, the brain-manglingly difficult quiz show Coren has presented since 2008, in which groups of contestants decipher links between apparently unrelated words. If I don’t manage to hand in my essay for Thursday, I’m blaming BBC4. The game has since come close to overtaking BuzzFeed as primary library distraction material and, since I haven’t had the restraint to SelfControl Blacklist it, I’ve already taken a break from writing this interview to have another go at one of its tables. It’s not that I’m any good at playing online Only Connect. As Coren herself describes it to me, it is a game for “people who can name all the kings of France or every country that’s ever come second in an Olympic bid”; I am not one of those people. But there’s an addictive sadomasochism to quizzes in which you’re incapable of getting more than one answer right. Anyone who can figure out the link between “Duffy, Iowa, Missouri and Saratoga”, please write in.
Gratifyingly, however, Coren claims that even after ten series, Only Connect has done little to improve her general knowledge. “I can come across all Jeremy Paxman on air – but by the time the shows are on TV, I can’t answer any of the questions that I asked in the recording two months before,” she tells me. “I have a memory which is both photographic and extremely short term, which is utterly useless unless you’re revising for English finals. In my last term at Oxford, I could write out Shakespeare plays from memory. Now, I could probably name one Dickens novel, if you mimed the key words for me.”
I’m sceptical. “Being bloody clever” is essentially Coren’s USP as a television personality. Her on-screen presence – not only as the unblinking ring-master of Only Connect but on almost every established panel show going – is witty and charming, and yet underpinned by a ruthless intelligence that has won her millions as a professional poker player. When not firing off quips from somewhere to the right of Paul Merton’s elbow, Coren is one of the UK’s highest grossing female gamblers, a professional player for the PokerStars Team Pro and the first woman to win an event at the European Poker Tour in 2006. She began playing poker as a teenager, when her brother (Giles, the columnist, critic and Sue Perkins’s Supersizers partner in crime) started hosting games in their kitchen. “It seemed intriguing. As a fan of riddles, crosswords and detective stories, as well as games and gambling, I liked the cut of poker’s jib. Its core essence appealed to me.”
Coren denies that there’s much link between her gambling and the personality she shapes for herself on television. The metaphorical “poker-face” she maintains in her deadpan delivery on Only Connect is unintentional – “I just seem to come across that way. I read one review that said ‘The show opens with Victoria’s traditional menacing glare’. That’s supposed to be my welcoming smile!” Yet, to me, it’s when the two words of cards and comedy collide that Coren becomes television gold – when steely mathematical ability peeps out from beneath her droll, typically ‘English’ sense of humour. In her first appearance on QI, for example, Stephen Fry asks the contestants the smallest number that, when spelt out in words, has its letters in alphabetical order. Jimmy Carr makes a wisecrack about dyslexia, Alan Davies pulls his stock “confusion” face, and Bill Bailey bumbles with wisps of beard and names numbers at random. Coren, on the other hand, sits back and within twenty seconds has calculated the right answer: “forty”. It’s like watching your most charismatic history teacher momentarily transforms into Le Chiffre from Casino Royale, and it’s very impressive.
Yet Coren defines herself neither as a poker-player, nor a comedian, but as a writer. She has a weekly Observer column that provides a shrewd and often very funny take on everything from smoking to the burqa, and has written several full-length works as well (including Once More, With Feeling, a comprehensive account of the time she spent in Amsterdam with comedian Charlie Skelton, blithely attempting to direct “the greatest porn film ever”). Her writing career began with a Telegraph column at the precocious age of fourteen, and Coren tells me that she spends far less time writing than she’d hoped to do when she was younger. “I seem to be pursuing all my hobbies for a living. Writing is harder work and lower paid than anything else I do. It may be harder work and lower paid than anything anybody does. But that’s what I am in my heart, a writer”.
It’s not many fourteen year-olds who can write 500 funny, Telegraph-worthy words on a weekly basis, but Coren was, she claims, “a rather gloomy and self-punishing (if quite high achieving) teenager. I wasn’t very happy because I didn’t think I was pretty and I certainly wasn’t socially confident. That stuff seemed terribly important.” Her experiences at Oxford were similarly plagued with shyness: “the idea of walking into the college bar and trying to make friends was absolutely terrifying. In the second and third years I got a bit more involved in university life, in drama and comedy – I wish I’d had the confidence to do that from the beginning. But my time as an undergraduate was very much not about punting down rivers with handsome aristocrats, or any of that glittering stuff you see in films. It was quiet and bookish and fairly uneventful.”
Thank Christ. If Victoria Coren “spent a lot of time in my room, or going back home for the weekend” then there’s hope for us all. Nowadays, her mixture of husky smoker’s voice, long blonde hair and “curves” (Cosmo’s phrasing, not mine) has transformed her into something of a cult sex symbol. The tabloids seem to follow each use of her name with the epithet “Thinking Man’s Crumpet”; Tatler labelled her “Blue-Stocking Tits of the Year 2013”. The wider media seemed mildly baffled at the appearance of a female television personality who is charming, pretty and unashamedly quite academic, and have been left dusting off the sort of “nudge-nudge-wink-wink, look at the size of her…brains” gags last aired for Carol Vorderman circa 1982.
Coren, however, has a different perspective. This sort of sexualisation, she tells me, makes her “feel affectionate about people. It just goes to show: whatever they say about the oppressive weight of media perfection, the endless images of flawless women on billboards and in magazines and the damage it might do to our collective self-esteem, someone like me (short, chubby, asymme-trical and pushing 40) will still get a barrage of strangers’ flirtation just for appearing on screen.
“I’d love to go back and advise my teenage self: brush your hair, smile a bit, and people will fancy you. As long as you’re basically nice, and not literally covered in dog hair and your own sick, anyone can fancy anyone.”
Famously, Coren is now Coren Mitchell, having married the comedian and Peep Show star David back in 2012. With her relatively highbrow shows like Balderdash and Piffle, and him best known for playing a military history obsessive who sees “brown bread for first course, white for pudding”, the couple have a firm place amongst geek royalty. Coming from a family of well-known writers and comics – as well as her brother Giles, her late father, Alan Coren, was a renowned humourist – I ask her whether being surrounded by other writers and media figures on every side ever brings out a competitive streak in her.
“I feel competitive with strangers – cocky young Swedes and big bulky gangsters that I meet over the poker table – not my own family! The four of us all do (did) different but complimentary things. It’s like if your dad’s a butcher, you might become a fishmonger. You’ve got the gist of running the shop, but maybe you’re more into cod than venison. But in the end, you’re still wrapping comestibles in paper – I feel I’ve lost control of this metaphor.”
Texas Hold ‘Em and television presenting, quirky quiz shows and Dutch porn, Observer columns and metaphorical fishmongers – Coren provides a witty and recognisable link between each of them. Her idiosyncratic combination of interests make her an Only Connect wall all of her own.