Books: Obey the Old Norse code

Name: Susan Jeffreys. Occupation: writer. Subject: Magnus's memoirs; I've Started So I'll Finish: the story of Mastermind by Magnus Magnusson, Little, Brown, pounds 16.99

Third in the pub quiz this week. If only we hadn't let ourselves be persuaded that the Last Emperor had come out in 1991, not 1987. True, the other teams were in tearing form. The Gypsey Giros had their star player back and the mysteriously named Side Show Bob were firing on all cylinders, but we still threw away a chance of gold.

It's serious stuff out there in the quiz world. I've never thought that Magnus Magnusson, despite his air of gravitas, has ever quite understood that. His gaffes, his lack of precision, his mangling of French that put any specialist in matters Gallic at a terrible disadvantage, grated on the nerves of quiz buffs for the 25 years that he was Mastermind inquisitor. But he looked right.

Broad-browed, granite-featured, he fitted perfectly into the nightmare set. It was, literally, that. The BBC had been casting around for a rival to ITV's University Challenge. Racked by dreams of his wartime experience with the Gestapo, producer Bill Wright came up with the idea of an isolated contender and a remorseless interrogator. The chair, a customised executive model, and the music, "Approaching Menace" by Neil Richardson (remember that, it could come up in a quiz), helped pile on the doomy feel.

Contestants groped towards the pool of light and the terrible chair. Mastermind started with an audience of 1.5 million, which grew to 6.5 million. A change in scheduling put it on peak-time Thursdays. and its audience shot up to 12 million.

I'm quoting Magnus on these figures, and he can be a bit slapdash on this sort of thing. I noticed my brother's name in the text spelt just about as wrong as it could be, which cheered me up but is not what you expect from a quizmaster supreme. The ex-most famous Icelander is pretty upfront about his mistakes, remembering those terrible moments when he called Ho Chi Minh Chinese or turned Polonius into Hamlet's father. He assures us that contestants took these things in good heart, but that's not what I've heard. Those who sat through the recordings spoke of the bum-numbing boredom of endless re-takes.

What with crass punctuation (lots of exclamation marks!) and chapter headings such as "The Team Spirit" and "Winners All", this book is like one of those school histories by an amiable retired headmaster. But the Old Norse does have a real affection for the old boys and old girls. There are some strange stories lurking here: Christopher Hughes the underground driver, who tried to do a Fred Housego and launch himself onto the choppy seas of a media career; Ian Meadows, a hospital driver with a Trinity degree obsessed with doing a thesis on the History of Smoking. There are contenders who triumphed over crippling illnesses, the highly strung and the highly dedicated.

Arfor Wyn Hughes, an art teacher, made a terrible mess on his specialist art round, scoring five to become Mastermind's lowest ever scorer. He toughed it out by holding a party at his house, which his wife filled with helium balloons with the word PASS on them.

It is an obsessive business, and Magnusson does catch that: the nights spent in the reference library, the tape-recording of questions to speed up reflexes. I had a lodger who was a Mastermind semi-finalist, and a high scorer. Contestants are allowed tickets for family and friends, but my lodger lost to a man who had no family to cheer him on. He gave up quizzes not long after that and went on a world tour. I wish he'd come back, though; he'd be handy this Tuesday against Side Show Bob and the Gypsey Giros.

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