'Mastermind' faces tough questions over lack of ethnic diversity

A quick-fire inquisition in the black leather Mastermind chair has long been regarded as the ultimate test of any trivia buff's knowledge and nerve.

But the quiz show's reputation as a haven for retired civil servants and teachers showcasing their knowledge of the honey bee or warships of Britain could be about to change.

BBC bosses yesterday launched a search for more black and ethnic minority contestants who are willing to brave the encounter with question master John Humphrys.

The 40-year-old show has already been successful at attracting women and younger contestants but boasts just one black winner – barrister Shaun Wallace, who won in 2004 with a specialist subject of FA Cup finals since 1970.

But yesterday's attempts to broaden the programme's ethnic reach by staging auditions in the cultural melting pot of Bradford, West Yorkshire, failed to score when no Asian would-be participants turned up. Undeterred, the BBC insisted it had started the process, so it would finish.

Jon Kelly, the series producer, said that in order to overcome the perceived image of the show, the BBC had been advertising in publications read by ethnic minorities, marketing on-line and holding auditions in under-represented areas. "What we've found quite markedly is we aren't getting the applications from the black and mixed ethnic populations," said Mr Kelly.

"The reason it's more noticeable is in the last two years we have had a lot more applications from everyone. The number of young people applying is increasing substantially with more online marketing. So we can identify areas where we are not getting appli

cations, and this has flagged up that black and ethnic minority applications are not going up at all," he said.

But there is a dual reason for wanting to attract new candidates: producers also want to freshen up the range of specialist subjects, presumably wishing to swap two-minute rounds on the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan for the life and works of Beyoncé.

Mr Kelly said: "There was a feeling that the programme was mainly for older intellectuals. It is a problem as although Mastermind is about the general knowledge test, it is also about people's interests."

He added: "The BBC as a corporation is charged with representing the whole country. If we get more and more applications year on year but not more from particular groups in the community, we need to do something."

First to audition in Bradford was Duncan Stephenson, a 53-year-old building society risk manager, who despite having watched since 1972 was sympathetic to the prospect of change.

"I'm interested in the Second World War, but I got the sense they were quite bored with that... The show has got a bit too serious. Everything has to evolve. The entertainment is someone being put under pressure and the competition, but also you have to have interesting subjects," he said.

Downstairs in the hotel, Suhail Nawaz, 26, a probation officer, was unaware of the auditions. He said: "I don't think the people of Bradford knew about it. I certainly didn't... I have never seen anyone Asian on Mastermind."