The pass master

John Walsh talks to MAGNUS MAGNUSSON

The black executioner's chair, now reposing in Magnus Magnusson's Glasgow home, is smaller than you'd expect, its creased leather worn to a chamois softness from the 1,400-odd quaking bottoms that have sat on it over the 25 years of Mastermind. Look, I said, the arm-rests have become all silvered and pitted because of all the straining, sweaty hands that have clutched them in agonies of information-retrieval... "No no," said Magnusson equably, "that's because the metal supports have become loosened from all its journeys across the UK. It's just normal wear and tear."

Oh blast. Any fan of the BBC's most legendarily challenging quiz show would prefer to believe in the chair's iconic status as a torture victim's throne than in the boring reality. Despite Magnus's cheery, off-camera warm-up cry to contenders that "It's only a bloody game", a considerable army of job-frustrated show-offs, pub-quiz colossi and chenille-skirted know-alls have come to regard Mastermind as the ultimate arena of intelligence on display - the Star Chamber where their knowledge of Byzantine ceramics, their weird, hermitic familiarity with the life of Pope Innocent III will allow them to make the transition from sad, fact-harbouring bore to nationally renowned intellectual giant.

In a couple of weeks, the great quiz will be history, its doomy signature- tune ("Approaching Menace" by Neil Richardson) will be heard no more, its Caithness Glass rose-bowl trophies become collectors' items at posh car-boot sales, and its patrician, Scots-Icelandic inquisitor will be looking for something else to occupy his spare time.

The chair, with its sternly functional lines, looks out of place in Magnusson's handsome haut-bourgeois living-room. There's a long comfy sofa, accessorised by its owner's pipe and tartan slippers. On the walls, several oil paintings suggestive of elemental disarray - Mayhill trams in the rain, a stormy landscape of windswept Scandinavian barns, an Auberbach-ish portrait - loom over the figure of Magnusson's sweet grandson, Magnus minimus, his daughter Sally's youngest child, as he plinks along the family grand piano and goes in search of chocolate bourbons. Magnus maximus, now 67, proudly displays his accumulated glassware: an Irish lead crystal rendering of the famous chair, a rose bowl of his very own from the Caithness craftsmen, and a jar of sweets from a neighbour, its cotton lid embroidered with the words: "Magnus. I started 1972. I finished 1997."

The great man is too busy for comfort today, distracted by a clamour of ringing telephones, photographers, a flock of media-circus buzzards alerted by both the demise of Mastermind and the launch of a history of the show by Magnusson himself (published on 4 September). He is charming and funny throughout, however, patiently rehearsing anecdotes, recalling names and scores and passes with the utmost interest, as if it were his whole life. Which it isn't, of course, as you can see from his Who's Who entry: you need a jeweller's lens to find the single mention of Mastermind amid the flood of popular history books (on Iceland, Scotland and Ireland), archaeology works and belle-lettres (Strange Stories, Amazing Facts, Pass the Port), not to mention the dozen translations from Icelandic sagas, the umpteen "contributions" and "introductions" to other books, the university fellowships and honorary degrees and dignified committees he's chaired in his busy life. Did he care that all this eclectic achievement was overshadowed by Mastermind?

"It's eclipsed the other things as far as the general public is concerned," he said, in that judicious and trustworthy Scots burr. "But before I did Mastermind, I was doing very worthy and earnest work on Chronicle [the popular archaeology show he wrote and presented from 1966 to 1981] which was, I thought, extremely important and very rewarding. I was distilling all the knowledge provided by good academics into a more popular and accessible form, and it took me all over the world, meeting people. Mastermind started purely as a sideline, a little earner and a welcome one, with five children on the go, school fees and mortgages, the full catastrophe."

I wondered about the image of the inquisitor he so endearingly holds in the public mind, the silkenly courteous, potentially ruthless, when- did-you-last-see-your-father? magistrate-cum-Gestapo-officer, asking people things relentlessly, out of the darkness. "That was an image I was required to foster in the early series. I was actually called the Interrogator in the credits. But the curt, laconic delivery - `Correct', `Nope' - was simply a function of the speed required to get through as many questions as possible. And the idea of the steely-eyed, rat-jawed guy is not terribly me. The contenders all say I'm a terrible old softie. I liked them all, you see. And although the programme, in its presentation, relies on a melodramatic situation, they knew I wasn't there to trip them up."

The highest-ever score was 41, achieved in 1995 by Kevin Ashman, a civil servant from Winchester (special subject: Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Civil Rights Movement). "His score was theoretically impossible," said Magnusson. "Because I time all the questions and answers at studio speed with a stopwatch, and there should be time for exactly 20 questions in each round, if the answers are prompt and accurate. But some people, like Ashman, are so bloody fast, they do the impossible..." Magnusson displays a kind of benevolent awe about others of his charges. "Jennifer Keaveney," he said wonderingly, "who scored 40 in 1986, was an absolute automaton. While she was answering, she switched into some computer mode, completely deadpan. I noticed when I shook her hand afterwards it was ice-cold, as if she'd become a shaman... And there was Mary-Elizabeth Raw, the vet in the wheelchair, who had entered, as much as anything, to prove that disablement did not affect your mind. She wanted to win very badly indeed, and to score 40 was a colossal triumph of the will."

I reminded him of the downfall of Susan Reynolds, which, like 10 million others, I watched, horrified, in 1974: an Oxford classics student with the face of a Dresden shepherdess, she sailed through the heats (special subject: "Greek Mythology"), hummed through the semi-final ("The Works of Richard Wagner") and entered the final taking "British Ornithology" as her subject. Disaster struck. Due to a fit of amnesia, panic attack or hubris, she couldn't answer any questions about birds. As she whispered "Pass" again and again in a sad little mantra, Magnus said, in his kindly way, "Do try to answer some of these..." and the country collectively wept for her. "It emerged later that she'd had an accident that afternoon, and was hit by the wardrobe door in her hotel room," said Magnusson. "There was a great bruise on her forehead, hidden by make-up. And I have a theory that she'd chosen the wrong aspect of her subject - she knew all about Bird Identification, but I suppose she thought Ornithology sounded posher..."

He really does seem to have total recall of this quarter-century of faces, this Niagara of questions, this blizzard of facts. The book, I've Started So I'll Finish, is beguilingly crammed with good stories, especially the moments of Magnusson's fluffs and botched questions ("The solanaceous plant Lyciopersicon esculentum is a genus of which tomato?"). There's the lady contender who was taking Valium to calm her nerves and got plastered on two glasses of sherry; and the Beethoven expert who strode off the set in exasperation when his answers weren't accepted ("We were terribly slack in those days; we wouldn't dream of checking the special-subject questions..."). Hadn't he fallen out with some of them? "I took a quite irrational dislike to one man, who came on with a dog-collar, called himself the Reverend Robert Peters from some theological college. I found him insufferably arrogant. The day after his appearance, people started saying he was some kind of imposter. Then the News of the World exposed him. He was an Anglican vicar, who'd been unfrocked for bigamy, had gone to New Zealand and married again, so he was a trigamist, and had returned to England with his gorgeous new wife." What was his subject? "The Life and Times of Archbishop William Temple. He didn't do very well," Magnusson noted with grim satisfaction.

The quiz-master sometimes gives the impression of believing his own image as the fount of all knowledge. Unbelievably, people often ring him at home to ask him the capital of South Dakota or what won the Grand National in 1933, and he has a sneaky way of asking his interlocutors what they know.

"Most of the answers go by in a blur, unless it's a subject that interests me, like history or archaeology. But some things stick - like when I learnt the meaning of the word "shibboleth"...

He cocked an interrogative eyebrow at me.

You mean a password or rallying cry?

"Yes, but what's really interesting is..." The eyebrow lifted again. I seemed to be taking part in some test. "...Is..." Is that it's the old Hebrew word for an ear of corn and, in the war between the Gileadites and the Ephraimites, was used as a password for detecting infiltrators because, if asked to say the word out loud, the Ephraimites invariably pronounced it "skibboleth"?

Magnusson looked at me. "Well done," he said shortly. "You're the only person who's been able to answer that." I later learnt it's indeed a little test he gives interviewers.

Did he think memory had much to do with intelligence? "I think memory is a factor in intelligence, certainly. If your retrieval system is good, then your intelligence can flourish more." Did he think the concept of "general knowledge" had become a little moth-eaten? "No, I think the enjoyment of knowledge is still there, as you can see from the growth in pub quizzes. You may call it `trivia', but it's just as important to people as darts and they take it as seriously. I think there's a constant celebration of what you can do inside your head, and Mastermind reflected this interest and promoted it as well."

Almost unnoticed, Magnusson has slipped into committee-speak, an idiom with which he is very familiar. His chairmanship of Scottish Natural Heritage, which runs out in 1999 (`when I'm 70, the century's over and, as with Mastermind, it's the right time to make a graceful exit") is a bureaucratic chore he takes very seriously. Their remit is "to look after and enhance the natural heritage of Scotland and aid its enjoyment and understanding", while briefing the Secretary of State for Scotland on gripping matters of soil erosion, designated areas and scheme facilities. Magnusson's voice drops below his habitual low purr when talking of such things, until you fear we both may fall asleep; but he is reanimated passionately by the subject of birds.

He worries about how to protect the rare Greenland white-fronted geese who have moved en masse to Islay. He's concerned about the repercussions of the Common Agricultural Policy on the corn bunting and skylark. He notes that the corncrake, once to be seen in the streets of Edinburgh, "has been driven into the last bastion of the Western Isles. Although the figures are beginning to go up - there were a hundred calling males recorded last year..." Gosh. Was he a twitcher? "No, no." But you sound so... "Well I love 'em. At school I started a Bird Watchers' Society, now called the Ornithology Society," [he chuckles. We seem to be back in Susan Reynolds territory]. "I won the Public Schools Essay Competition when I was a wee laddie, writing about birds." The title? "It was on the mating rituals of blackbirds. In March and April, I used to cycle down to some woods before school, and there one day I saw this ring of male blackbirds with a female in the middle. I couldn't find any reference to it in bird books, so I wrote about my observations and it was later confirmed that that's what blackbirds do."

He has a thing about badgers too. And archaeological sites (his recreations, according to Who's Who, are "digging and delving"). And derivations, both of words and family names ("the name Magnus comes from Charlemagne, `Carolus Magnus' you see, though the first Magnus was the son of St Olaf of Norway..."). And women. Stories of a mildly scandalous nature have long accreted around Magnusson's saintly snow-white bonce. One publishing lady took him to lunch to discuss the publicity schedule of his new book and was startled when he interrupted her, placed an avuncular hand on her arm and breathed, "It's OK. I've booked a room where we can go and make love..." "I don't remember that at all," says Magnusson with a delighted laugh. "If I did it, I was probably winding her up."

There is a decidedly skittish streak about this Establishment figure, a touch of the Viking lurking inside his quiz-master sobriety. He was once invited on to Radio 4's Any Questions. The first question was about the safest way to keep football hooligans penned in without danger. Magnusson suggested wiring up their chairs and running an electrical current through them if they misbehaved. "I just thought it needed a bit of irony amid all the earnest stuff," he says. "But they didn't ask me again..." When you ask him what's in store, what new career he can embark on at 67, it's good to hear that he's not settling for writing books in retirement and tartan slippers. "What I'd most like to do now is a TV series on the Odyssey, in 24 parts, showing where Nestor's Palace was." Yes that seems an appropriate place for this restless but reassuring figure to end up - bringing an epic down to manageable proportions for ordinary people to enjoy. And just imagine the interviews: "Name?" "Cyclops." "Occupation?" "Giant." "Your special subject?" "Eating sailors." "Your two minutes start... now."

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