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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us