Cancer claims Magnus Magnusson at 77

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Magnus Magnusson, the former presenter of Mastermind, died last night, aged 77. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer four months ago and died peacefully at home, near Glasgow, with his family around him.

Although Magnusson was a prolific journalist, author and presenter, he was best known for hosting the BBC quiz show, for which he coined the catchphrase: "I've started, so I'll finish." He presented the programme, which at the height of its popularity was watched by around 22 million viewers, for 25 years, from its first recording in, 1972 until 1997.

Mark Thompson, the director general of the BBC, said: "Magnus Magnusson was one of the defining faces and voices of the BBC. To the contestants of Mastermind, he was a tough but always fair question-master, but behind this screen persona there was a family man of tremendous warmth and humanity."

In a statement, his wife of 52 years, Mamie, and four children said: "He taught each of us how to live, and in the last few weeks he has taught us how to die. He did both with infinite grace."

Magnusson, who was born in Iceland but moved to Scotland as a child, first became ill in 2004, when he had to undergo emergency abdominal surgery. He made a good recovery and was working right up until he was diagnosed with cancer, on his 77th birthday, in October last year.

When Mastermind was first broadcast it was given a late-night slot on BBC2 and Magnusson described the show as a "one-off little undemanding programme for insomniac academics late at night".

But the programme, as famous for its starkly lit, imposing black leather chair and darkened studio as Magnusson's quick-fire delivery of questions, developed a cult following, and was quickly moved to a prime time slot on BBC1.

By the late 1990s, however, ratings had began to slump. By the time he retired from the programme Magnusson, whose austere demeanour appeared to bring many contestants out in a cold sweat, had asked more than 64,000 questions over the course of 447 programmes.

He went to develop his broadcasting and writing career. He had written several books on the Vikings and his most recent study of the history of fraudsters, Fakers, Forgers and Phoneys, was published late last year.

In 2000, he lamented the way in which the television quiz show genre had developed, saying in an interview that they had "degenerated into a theatre of cruelty", adding: "Mastermind could look a bit severe but it was you against yourself and the clock - you didn't have people turning on each other like you do on the new shows."

Mastermind was recommissioned in 2004 with a new host, John Humphrys. But the original black leather chair was no more - Magnusson took it after hosting his final show, saying at the time: "It will be a permanent memento of 25 of the happiest years of my life."

Humphrys said last night: "You don't replace somebody like Magnus, you take over the job, but you can't replace him, the programme was his - he was Mastermind."

Despite his affection for the programme, Magnusson is thought not to have taken the show too seriously. In 1993, when a winning semi-finalist queried an answer, sparking an argument between contestants, he is said to have muttered: "It's just a bloody game."