Victoria Coren Mitchell: ‘I’m not at all competitive, which surprises people’

Victoria Coren Mitchell was born and went to school in Hammersmith, west London. She is the younger sister of the restaurant critic Giles Coren. After studying English at Oxford University, she became a writer, presenter and professional poker player. She hosts BBC Two quiz Only Connect and is competing in the current series of Channel 4’s Taskmaster. She is married to the comedian David Mitchell, with whom she has a six-year-old daughter.

Taskmaster is much more demanding than your average panel show. What persuaded you to take part?
Do you think so? I wouldn’t say that at all. On most panel shows, you have to think of jokes. Here, you only have to do physical things, like make an omelette with garden tools or teach an oyster to speak. Massively easier. I agreed to take part because I like playing games and it looked fun.

You said one of the early tasks was “the most exercise I’ve done since school”. Surely not?
I’m not a big exercise taker in a formal sense. I hope I’m reasonably fit because I run around after my daughter, but she’s quite small. She doesn’t go that far. I can outrun her. And, unlike Alex Horne, she doesn’t insist I simultaneously throw balls at her against the clock.

Are you desperate to win Taskmaster?
I’m not at all competitive, which surprises people because I play high-stakes poker. But that’s a very particular endeavour. I don’t have a competitive soul in general. I play all sorts of games with friends and family for the sheer joy of the thing and I usually want others to win so they feel happy and up for playing again. What I enjoy is playing. The thing I badly want to win at is poker.

Are there any other TV contests you’d fancy taking part in? You know, Celebrity MasterChef, Strictly Come Dancing, I’m a Celebrity…, that SAS one…
I don’t think any of those particular ones are for me. I’m a big fan of Strictly as a viewer. This year, we’re very nervously and proudly watching Robert Webb in it, but he’s a fantastic dancer. I’d be awful and not even in a fun way. People would just pity me and look away awkwardly.

Only Connect beat EastEnders in last week’s ratings and regularly pulls in close to 3 million viewers. What’s the secret of its success?
It’s hard for me to talk in straightforwardly positive terms about anything I’m involved in. I struggle with compliments. I want to say: “God knows! With its clumsy host, weird vibe and impossible questions, I don’t know why anyone would watch!” But I am proud of the brilliant people who work on it, by which I don’t mean myself, and I think there’s a lesson in its surprising popularity. Only Connect isn’t obvious or mainstream; its spirit is Welsh and clever and BBC Four. It’s a bit strange, it does its own thing and it’s never consciously tried to be popular. Viewers respond to that – they recognise when they aren’t being patronised. We trust our audience and they trust us. Also, last week Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp all went down and people were stuck for something to do.

It forms part of a quiz triple bill on Monday evenings, with Mastermind and University Challenge. Would you fancy hosting either of those some day?
I don’t think so. Those are quite serious shows with authoritative, grownup hosts. I love Only Connect deeply but also find the trappings of a TV quiz inherently silly, which our contestants and viewers never mind me making clear. If I hosted one of those big beasts, I’d end up undermining them and upsetting the audience.

You have a huge fanbase from hosting Only Connect. What’s the strangest thing a fan has ever done?
I did once have a postman who was a foot fetishist and he asked if I would mind answering the door barefoot when there were parcel deliveries. I said fine. It seemed harmless enough.

Are you partial to a pub quiz? And do you have a regular team name?
It’s hard for me to go to a normal pub quiz now because people expect me to know everything and I can’t risk them finding out the truth. I won’t go on Celebrity Mastermind for much the same reason. Every year, I do the brilliant Christmas pub quiz run by my friends [comedy writers] Shaun Pye and Alan Connor, as part of a team that goes by the hideous name of The Funnymen. It was a stupid joke name we took 20 years ago but I get terrified now that newcomers will think we’ve chosen it with some level of genuine self-description, especially now my husband’s joined the team. It sounds awful. And yet we can’t possibly change it because, I don’t mind telling you, that name is engraved on the cup. SEVERAL TIMES OVER.

You often joke about how you and David aren’t very tech-savvy. What was the last gadget you bought?
Does a saucepan count as a gadget? I bought one of those recently. I was delighted. I’ve been using the same two scratchy old saucepans for about 20 years, just because they aren’t literally broken. It’s a really liberating moment when you allow yourself to upgrade.

You used to review hardcore porn for the Erotic Review. Are you scarred for life by the things you saw?
No, this was pre-internet. It was nothing that awful. I enjoyed it. I have rarely laughed as much. Certainly not while being simultaneously mildly aroused.

You ended up making your own porn film. What did you learn doing that?
That sometimes you should leave things to the experts.

Do you ever ask your brother to recommend a restaurant?
Yes and he can never think of any. The problem with restaurant critics is they know too much. You’re better off asking a normal person, who’s likely to have chosen their three favourite restaurants a long time ago and just goes to them all the time.

You’re one of the top professional poker players. Who’s the best famous person you’ve played against?
It depends what you mean by “famous” and what you mean by “best”. Phil Ivey is one of the most famous players in professional poker and probably the best I’ve played against, in terms of skill and flair. Of the people I’ve played who are famous for other things, Zac Goldsmith was probably the best at poker. But in terms of sitting across the table and thinking “Wow” for other reasons, that would be Steve Martin. Or perhaps Roger De Courcey [ventriloquist of Nookie Bear fame]. You haven’t asked who was the worst but I’ll tell you anyway. It was [darts player] Eric Bristow. And you can interpret that any way you like.

Do you place bets, as well as playing poker? If so, what activity is the most fun to bet on?
Like any gambler, I’ll bet on anything at all. There is absolutely no way to answer the second bit without getting in trouble.

What has being a parent taught you?
That, having previously imagined myself to be a fairly anxious person, I didn’t have the first idea.

What was the last great book you read?
I’m a weirdly slow reader. I’ve been reading Phil Wang’s book Sidesplitter since August. Luckily, he’s a terrific writer. I’ve laughed out loud at least once on every page.

What kept you sane during the lockdowns?
Luck, money and not spending much time on the internet. That’s true when it isn’t lockdown as well.

Only Connect in on at 8pm on Mondays on BBC Two; Taskmaster at 9pm on Thursdays on Channel 4

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