LONG RUNNERS / No 24: Mastermind

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The Independent Culture
Age: 22 (it started in 1972).

Frequency: 17 shows a year.

Slot: Sunday night, between Clive James and Everyman. It's also appeared on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

Ratings: depend on the slot, but now average about 7m - a far cry from the peak of 22.6m in 1979.

Formula: four contestants take it in turns to occupy the famous spotlit black chair and answer questions posed by Magnus Magnusson. Each contestant has two two- minute rounds: one on a chosen specialist subject, the other on general knowledge. If they don't know an answer, they must say 'pass'. The contestant who collects the most points over two rounds wins. In the event of a tie, the victor is the one with the fewer 'passes'.

Who thought it up? Bill Wright, the show's original producer. Charged by the BBC with dreaming up a new upmarket quiz show, he did just that. 'He had been a prisoner of war in the Second World War,' recalls Penelope Cowell Doe, the current incumbent, 'and he had a dream about the Spanish Inquisition mixed up with the Geneva Convention. He woke up, turned to his wife and said: 'I've got it.' '

Did it catch on immediately? No.

Why not? Thinking it a minority-appeal 'parlour game' the programmers initially gave it a late-night graveyard slot. 'Then Mary Whitehouse intervened,' says Cowell Doe. 'We have her to thank for everything.' The moral crusader kicked up such a fuss about the pre-watershed spot allotted to Casanova '73, a saucy sitcom with Leslie Phillips, that the BBC1 Controller smartly switched it with Mastermind. Since then it has built a loyal following, if a somewhat earnest one: witness the fact that last year 18 viewers complained about a mistake in a question on the Indo-China war, and the BBC was forced to apologise.

Most unexpected venue: HMS Hermes.

Why would anyone want to sit in the black chair? Perhaps for the adrenaline rush (read, fear), or perhaps because they need a sterner challenge than walking away with the local pub quiz every week. Two thousand people apply to be contestants each year. Cowell Doe interviews 300, and whittles them down to the final 48.

What sort of people are they? Predominantly professional types - including an inordinate number of teachers and civil servants. But in a remarkable era between 1980 and 1985, the title was won by a taxi driver, an Underground train driver and a hospital driver.

What are the most popular specialist subjects? Tolkien, and anything involving the two world wars or trains (but don't even think of using the word trainspotter).

And the least popular? 'The route to anywhere in mainland Britain by road from Letchworth' and 'Orthopaedic bone cement in total hip replacement'. Sadly, neither topic was ever given an airing.

Any other little-known facts? Fred Housego, the aforesaid taxi driver, is now the traffic-news sidekick on Angela Rippon's LBC drive-time show. He also features in a corny radio ad which plays on his status as a former Mastermind.

Anything that makes you want to kick the set in? The theme tune has a portentousness more redolent of the Open University than a primetime quiz show. This is mirrored in the sometimes austere chairmanship of Magnus Magnusson - dubbed Smugness Smugnesson by the critic Sylvia Clayton. Penelope Cowell Doe's defence is that 'he's authoritative, not a cosy gameshow host'. Equally annoying are comedy shows that use the Mastermind format or catchphrases - 'You passed on three' - in sketches: the black chair, or its close cousin, has been used to non-humorous effect by the Two Ronnies, Ben Elton, and Smith and Jones.

What is with those catchphrases? Search me, but viewers wrote in threatening to boycott the show when Magnusson stopped saying 'I've started so I'll finish'.

The bottom line - how good is it? It's a simple idea, well done. Viewers like the sense - however bogus - that the contestants are 'one of us'. Cowell Doe explains: 'I hope this is not going to get me in Pseuds' Corner, but Mastermind celebrates the spirit of the ardent amateur as opposed to the professional knowledge-broker . . . And, as Bamber Gascoigne said of University Challenge, it's like watching athletics. You can't actually jump the hurdles yourself, but you still like watching it supremely well done.' A large part of the viewers' enjoyment stems from the possibility of contestants failing - the show could be subtitled Schadenfreude.

(Photograph omitted)