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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
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

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable