Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Appearing on "Mastermind"

My only appearance on television was on the BBC quiz “Mastermind” back in 1981. I would never have got on the show without the good advice from a neighbour, Mrs Horrocks, who had won the final in an earlier year (she was a Tolkien specialist). She told me two very important things when making an application: firstly, that it was useless to admit to being a teacher, since a clear majority of the applicants were teachers; and secondly, that it was necessary to choose an unusual special subject to be tested on. (She had given up teaching to have a baby just before her own application, and was thus able to describe herself as a "housewife") So I duly described myself on my application as a “sportswriter” (I had actually published a number of articles on gymnastics in various magazines), and nominated as my special subject, “The gangster age in the USA, 1919-41”, which I thought might be sufficiently eye-catching. Before I knew it, I had been summoned for an interview!

This took place at a hotel in central Birmingham. I met Roger Mackay, the producer of the show, who told me I was the first sportswriter to apply, and the first person to want to answer questions on the gangsters (thank you, Mrs Horrocks!). Then he asked me twenty general knowledge questions, of which I got about sixteen right, and said they would, in the time-honoured showbiz phrase, “let me know”. A few weeks later I received a letter telling me I’d been accepted. This appeared in retrospect such a hit-and-miss selection process that I’m surprised they didn’t end up with a number of complete duds.

My programme was filmed at Bradford University at the end of August. Actually, two episodes were filmed on the same day, to be broadcast on successive weeks. We all had a number of tickets for the audience, to be given to friends. We met Magnus Magnusson, who was then the quizmaster. All I can really remember about him is that he had enormous hands, like wicket-keeping gloves. In the afternoon we had a rehearsal, which was actually for the benefit of the sound and lighting technicians, but which had the benefit of making us feel less nervous. It involved sitting in the famous black chair, whilst Magnus asked us a series of very easy questions, and said, “Correct” regardless of what we answered. The actual programmes were shot that evening.

I was first one up in the first programme, which was fine as far as I was concerned, since I hate hanging about waiting for anything. People afterwards always asked me if I was nervous, and I always said it was like being in a big sports match: the most nervous moment is when you walk out onto the pitch and wait for things to start: once you’ve touched the ball, you stop feeling nervous (it’s much the same in a play, while you wait to deliver your first line). One important thing about the quiz is that although the TV audience can see the scores up on the screen, the contestants have no idea how many they’ve got until their time is up. As it happened, I scored 13 and the gangsters and 17 on general knowledge, for a total of 30. And I lost by one point! This was especially annoying since my last question was, “Who built the dome on Florence Cathedral?” and all I could remember was “It’s B-somebody!” I should have known it! Incidentally, the contestants in my round were three teachers pretending to be something else, plus a lorry-driver - and since the lorry-driver won, I had my doubts about him too!

When my round had finished, the audience was shuffled around, Magnus Magnusson was given some fresh makeup, and then after a pause the opening sequence was played again and he announced to the cameras, “For the second week running, we’re at the University of Bradford”, and the next episode to be broadcast started. Even when this had been completed it wasn’t quite the end. I had to return to the chair for a second attempt to film the section when I was told the answers to the questions I’d passed on. Then the producer decided the opening sequence with its portentous music wasn’t quite up to standard, and we had to have four or five retakes before he was satisfied. The two programmes were to be screened in October, and we were all sworn to secrecy about the results until then. There was, of course, no prize money, only travelling expenses.

The special subject questions are set by someone who is considered an expert in that field. I found out afterwards that mine had been set by Professor Adams of Keele, an American History specialist. But I didn’t really approve of his choice of questions: when I was revising for the quiz over the summer I read half-a-dozen books on organised crime in New York, but he didn’t ask me a single question about New York. I did ask the producer about a rumour I’d heard that a contestant was once invited to set his own questions, and apparently this did once almost happen. As I recall the story, there was a contestant wanted to answer questions on the life and work of the composer Chopin, so the BBC contacted the Chopin Society to ask for a well-qualified question-setter. They were given the name of a certain man and duly wrote to him - and he told them he was actually the contestant! I wonder whether he ever felt tempted to dishonesty there?

I have no record of this, my solitary TV appearance, because at the time I did not know a single person who possessed a video recorder. That in itself is enough to show the difference between those times and today!

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