What night is 'Mastermind' on? Er, pass

Michael Leapman on why a cherished institution must battle 'Coronation Street'
Sundays will never be the same. Beef is off many a household's menu, and now, in a make-or-break move to halt a remorseless decline in viewing figures, the BBC is shifting Mastermind, its 24-year-old answer to the Spanish Inquisition, from its hallowed place on the evening schedule when it returns for its annual run this month.

"If Mastermind fails in its new midweek slot it might be the writing on the wall for it," admits its producer, David Mitchell. If so, he would prefer a quick death to a slow and agonising one.

From 29 May, clever-clogs who like to shout the answers to Magnus Magnusson's rapid-fire questions will need to be at home at 7.30 on Wednesdays. And they will have to forgo Coronation Street on ITV, for Mastermind has been allotted the dreaded "poison pill" spot, head-to-head with the most popular programme on television.

Apart from one aberrant year in the mid-Eighties, when it switched to Thursdays, Mastermind and its menacing black chair have been part of a BBC1 schedule that symbolised the traditional British Sunday as powerfully as roast beef and deserted shopping centres. The line-up included Songs of Praise, Antiques Roadshow, Only Fools and Horses and, with luck, a sentimental costume serial for afters: middle-class TV heaven.

Today it is very different. Fewer and fewer of the middle class watch Mastermind. Last year's run drew an average audience of fewer than five million. In the Eighties it would regularly double that, and the grand final in 1989 was watched by 13 million.

The programme's supporters believe that part of the audience decline can be put down to "itchy-scheduler syndrome". Whereas for years it commanded a fixed spot in mid-evening prime time, in its last few seasons it has been pushed later and later into the evening. Worse still for audience loyalty, the starting time varied from week to week.

"The quiz fanatics will tune in whenever it's on," says Mr Mitchell, "but at 10 or 10.30 we were losing the family audience. A lot of listeners wrote saying they used to watch with their parents, and others complained that they couldn't concentrate so late at night. When we went out at nine we'd get six million viewers. If it was 10 we'd be down to four million, at 10.30 even fewer."

Alan Yentob, the controller of BBC1, agonised for months with his schedulers about when to screen the programme this year. Mr Mitchell was originally told it would begin its run in January, but it was continually postponed while the debate on its timing raged. "Finally they said we'd start in April at 10.20 or 10.30 on Sundays. But we'd have been following Dennis Potter's Karaoke and the schedulers thought the audience wouldn't be in the right mood."

To pick between inheriting an emotionally drained Potter audience or competing with the goings-on at the Rover's Return is a Hobson's choice, but at least one influential observer thinks the BBC may have got it right. Tony Dart, deputy rector of the University of Westminster and president of the Mastermind Club - restricted to previous contestants - says: "Some people aren't pleased with the move but I'm quite keen. It brings Mastermind back into the public eye. It's been tucked away for a few years, which has made it look more esoteric than it is. Kicking it around the schedules did it no good. It's a classic way of reducing the audience and then saying nobody watches."

Mr Mitchell will be happy to attract five million viewers - a million more than the current-affairs programme Here and Now achieves in that blighted Wednesday slot. He is planning no significant changes to the format, although he is restricting the number of schoolteachers and civil servants, who customarily proliferate among contestants, and aiming at a wider range of specialist subjects.