Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Which of Dickens' novels begins with Mr Gradgrind saying "Now what I want is facts"? That question came quite late in the last ever episode of Mastermind (BBC1), and you suspected that it was an addition to the programme's small complement of valedictory in-jokes (the final was held in St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney). Mastermind itself has always displayed something of a Gradgrindian addiction to facts - such things being susceptible to adjudication in a way that more amorphous forms of knowledge are not. This hasn't always kept the programme out of the epistemological swamp - what happens, for example, if your contestant knows more about the subject than the question setter, and decides to dispute the very existence of a fact? More unnervingly, how do you decide between a respectable fact and a trivial one? Last week, one of the finalists had chosen the Bumper Book of Bunnies, or some such, as her specialist subject - a concession which had aroused some press scorn at declining standards. But is the attempt at total recall really superior if it is applied to the works of Thomas Hardy, as it was this week? Mastermind has never tested comprehension or appreciation, just the ability to spit out facts under pressure - and, as the raw material of regurgitation, there's not much difference between Aristotle's Poetics and the Collected Works of the Spice Girls.

In any case, the first round is not really the point of the thing. It is a sort of ceremonial obeisance to the idea of intellectual rigour, rather than a ritual in which the congregation can join; indeed, most viewers will think it a miracle if they get even one question right during the specialist sections. What we're watching for here is the the faint possibility that the competitor's hard-drive might crash and that they will be reduced to squeaking "Pass" in response to every question. It didn't happen last night - although the first contestant had to chase a few answers down with his facial muscles, producing one of those masks of frustrated cognisance which were always an important element in the programme's style. But it is in the general-knowledge round that viewers at home get the chance to enter the fray and deploy the arbitrary condescension of their sympathy and scorn. No shame in not knowing the capital of Missouri, you think (mostly because you don't either) - but surely someone who had studied the novels of Thomas Hardy might have become aware that Julia Margaret Cameron was a famous Victorian photographer? It's in this section, too, that you can take advantage of the compilers' occasional acts of charity (if there's a question about a pass between Pakistan and Afghanistan, then it's odds-on that it's going to be the Khyber), and exclaim at the moments when stage-fright prevents the contestants from doing the same (mineral used to make pipes? Means sea-foam in German? Come on! Have a guess. You'd get it right).

There was some drama last night - most notably the moment when a question about an Orcadian poet, stuck in to flatter the locals, led to a four- question wipe-out by the rabbit lady. (The fact that the poet, George Mackay Brown, was well within the boundaries of "general knowledge" didn't really make things easier - the question setters had approached him from an unfamiliar angle.) She had been well-placed as a contender before this derailment, but you could see in her eyes that she knew it was all over. In America she would probably institute legal proceedings for distress and malpractice, but here she gamely smooched the victor, who equally gamely murmured "I don't believe it" under her breath. Then Magnus handed over the last cut-glass bowl of all, laid claim to the inquisitorial chair, and delivered the inescapable punch-line - "I've started, now I've finished". I haven't regularly followed Mastermind for years - so any large-scale sentimentality about its passing would be a bit worked-up, frankly. All the same, watching this last programme made me hope that the BBC is thinking of a way to replace its studiously unfashionable virtues.