Drama and tragedy were essential components. The excitement of the general knowledge round was all the greater because you, the viewer, could hurl answers at your favourite. The programme was not without pain, shame even. A string of contestants crumbled beneath the glare of the lights able only to murmur "pass" in answer to Magnus's relentless assault. Imagine what it must have been like for desperately shy people. After years studying their speciality they summoned up the courage to put themselves forward as one of the 4,500 entrants. They won through the tortuous pre-filming competitions to become one of the 48 to sit in the black chair. Their families were gathered in the great, draughty hall at some far-flung university, only to see their beloved super-swots flop to a public humiliation.
But in the main the programme was the triumph of the shy, retiring, obscure and eccentric over the shallow and glamorous. Mastermind was a revelation because it exposed not only knowledge but passion, the passion that drove someone to find out all they could about Jane Austen, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Western Railway. It was a route to celebrity for all hard-working, uncomplaining, unambitious civil servants and teachers, retired bank managers and librarians whose interior intellectual lives one imagined to be as rich and diverse as their social lives were drab and predictable.
Mastermind sprang from the BBC's Reithian traditions. At the height of its popularity, when it was broadcast at peak times on a Sunday evening, there was a sense that the entire country was sitting down to pit its wits against some officially sanctioned body of knowledge that was stored in the vaults of the BBC and poured forth through Magnus Magnusson.It was a forerunner of the national curriculum. The questions were not so difficult that ordinary viewers were excluded but were difficult enough to make you feel tested.
Magnusson's authority was vital. When he delivered the score it was more than just a calculation, it was a verdict on someone's preparation and dedication, almost a moral judgement. His calm assurance created the illusion that he probably knew most of the answers. He was living proof that it was possible to have answers to everything if only we took the time to find them.
It's no surprise that in a world of mounting uncertainty, not to mention competition, that Mastermind should attract a smaller audience. But to give up now would be to betray all those people burrowing away with piles of books in the unfashionable pursuit of knowledge. It's understandable Magnus would want to retire after 25 years. But Desert Island Discs survived the departure of its inventor, surely Mastermind can do the same.
JOHN PLUMMERReuse content