Magnus Magnusson

Presenter of the BBC quiz show 'Mastermind' who was himself a writer of real scholarship

Tuesday 09 January 2007 01:00

Magnús Magnússon (Magnus Magnusson), writer and broadcaster: born Reykjavik 12 October 1929; staff, Scottish Daily Express 1953-61; Chief Features Writer and Assistant Editor, The Scotsman 1961-68; presenter, Tonight 1964-65; presenter, Chronicle 1966-80; presenter, Mastermind 1972-97; Rector, Edinburgh University 1975-78; Chairman, Scottish Churches Architectural Heritage Trust 1978-85; Chairman, Scottish Youth Theatre 1976-78; Chairman, Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland 1981-89; President, RSPB 1985-90; Hon KBE 1989; FSA 1991; Chairman, Nature Conservancy Council for Scotland (from 1992 Scottish Natural Heritage) 1991-99; Chancellor, Glasgow Caledonian University 2002-07; married 1954 Mamie Baird (one son, three daughters, and one son deceased); died Blairskaith, East Dunbartonshire 7 January 2007.

"I've started, so I'll finish . . ." For an astonishing quarter of a century Magnus Magnusson was the seemingly all-knowing but invariably fair and charming presenter of the television quiz show Mastermind. For 14 years, too, he was one of the presenters of the BBC historical programme Chronicle. Like Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Glyn Daniel, Jacob Bronowski and A.J. Ayer, he can truthfully be said to be one of a small band who "educated us all". He was much more than a television presenter, however. He was more, much more, than that, albeit it is in the nature of human beings that most of us will remember him for his triumphs on the box.

Magnus Magnusson was born in Reykjavik, in 1929, but from the age of one brought up in Edinburgh where his father, Sigursteinn Magnusson, became the Icelandic Consul General for Scotland, and his mother, Ingibjorg Sigurdardottir, was a teacher.

They sent him to Edinburgh Academy, where he received, he acknowledged, a rigorous education of the best quality. Years later he was to write the authoritative history of the school, The Clacken and the Slate (1974), an account which commands interest from those who have not themselves been Edinburgh Academicals but who are concerned with the history of the Scottish capital.

It is beautifully written - but then Magnusson, unlike quite a number of distinguished television personalities, always wrote beautifully. This may be partly due to his education at Jesus College, Oxford, where he was one of the few students of Old Norse and therefore received the intense personal interest of distinguished but unusual Oxford dons. He was delighted to be made an honorary fellow of Jesus in 1990, an addition to a whole parade of honorary degrees up and down the land.

He started his career in 1953 at the Scottish Daily Express, transferring in 1961 to The Scotsman, headhunted by Alastair Dunnett, Roy Thomson's long-term and distinguished editor.

His first presenting job at the BBC was at Tonight in 1964-65. In 1966 he was one of the originators of the Chronicle series of archaeological programmes. Teachers of archaeology owe him an immense debt as a shrewd and extremely well-informed populariser of their subject; the public at large has benefited enormously from the skill and imagination that Magnusson showed as a creator and presenter of programmes in this field. That we now all have at least a nodding acquaintance of the archaeology of the Bible lands and the mysteries of the monuments of our own past is due to Magnusson as much as to anyone.

Nor were his services confined to appearances on the box. He wrote at length on a wide range of archaeological subjects. I saw how he operated at first hand: my wife, Kathleen, was a member of the Ancient Monuments Board for Scotland, which Magnusson chaired between 1981 and 1989. (She describes him as "a real Viking".) The board had the civilised habit of taking three days each year for a visit to the sites for which Historic Scotland was responsible in a particular defined region; they had the even more civilised habit of allowing paying spouses, of whom I was one, to go on these visits. Magnusson's scholarship was real and not confined to being well briefed by those who provided television and radio back-up.

He also did serious and valuable work as a translator, both of the old sagas for the Penguin series - Njál's Saga (1960), Eirik's Saga (1963), The Vinland Sagas (1965), King Harald's Saga (1966) and Laxdaela Saga (1969), all with Hermann Pálsson - and of the novels of his compatriot Halldór Laxness.

As Rector of Edinburgh University from 2002 to 2005 I took an intense interest in Magnusson's period as Rector, 1975-78. This was at a time when relations between the elected representatives of students and senior members of the university were far from smooth. The two previous rectorships of the students, Jonathan Wills, now a distinguished Shetland broadcaster, and Gordon Brown, now Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been tumultuous.

Thanks largely to Magnusson's patience and skill as a conciliator, together with his firm and unfailing support for the Principal Sir Hugh Robson, the position was changed for the better. The university now had a court which could address itself continuously to the issues of university government, chaired in the view of one of its members "with remarkable fairness by one who was well appraised of the difficulties and in no way shirked their thorough discussion but who also had no interest of his own to forward and wanted only to find solutions which would do justice to all proper claims."

Donald Wintersgill, in his fascinating book The Rectors of the University of Edinburgh 1859-2000 (2005), recalls Magnusson as saying during his campaign for the rectorship: "The Court has indicated its wish to increase official student representation on the Court and to revert to an impartial chairmanship by a chairman whose interest is not sectional but impartial; someone who would devote his attention to the interests of the university as a whole and to the proper functioning of the Court. The Rector would therefore not be the mandated representative of the students, but the student choice of the best person to ensure that all interests in the university would be heard fairly and openly. Instead of the politics of confrontation (often, alas, manufactured) which have been such a feature of university government in recent years there could be a new spirit of co-operation and conciliation."

If Magnusson, who had beaten the student activist Allan Drummond in the election by 2,414 votes to 1,731, with the Liberal David Steel getting 883, I doubt if the centuries-old Scottish tradition of a rector elected by the students would have survived.

Magnusson's writings were prolific. A taste of his style comes from Treasures of Scotland (1981), a book which he wrote for the National Trust for Scotland. "Some two centuries ago," he writes of Culzean Castle, "the most celebrated architect in Britain was called to the most dramatically appealing building site in Scotland. The architect was Robert Adam, Scots-born and Italian-trained, whose fashionable London practice had come to grief over the disastrous riverside Adelphi project, which had forced him to return to his native Scotland. The place was Culzean (pronounced Kullane) on the fretted Ayrshire coast on the lower Firth of Clyde, five miles west of Maybole, one of the ancestral fastnesses of the Kennedys of Carrick. The outcome was a dream castle in a dream setting, one of the premier jewels in the treasury of the National Trust for Scotland. "

It was Magnusson's view that every house, however great, however humble, is essentially a drama of life and love, of ambition and achievement, of failure and despair, of happiness and tragedy. Every house in the world was for him a backdrop to humanity and every house had a story to tell. His book celebrated the golden jubilee of the National Trust which had done so much to guard houses such as Craigievar, Crathes and Castle Fraser from neglect.

Magnusson had the knack of celebrating the buildings themselves and the families who created them and lived in them for generations, leaving behind a treasure store of Scottish history, art and tradition. He was a superb interrogator of descendants of families connected with great houses - but then he was a superb interrogator of all those who interested him in whatever walk of life.

Most famously, he interrogated on BBC's Mastermind from 1972 to 1997, sitting individual contestants in a sinister black revolving chair. Dramatic music (the theme tune was entitled "Approaching Menace") and stark lighting effects heightened the tension, until Magnusson launched into a torrent of questions, to be answered against the clock. If the signal sounded for the end of the round as he was still speaking, he would utter the words "I've started, so I'll finish". The catchphrase soon entered books of quotations.

Fred Housego, the London taxi-driver who won the Mastermind title in 1980 (his specialist subjects were King Henry II, Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London), said of Magnusson's studio presence: "With him sitting there in the dark with [the scorer] Mary Craig, who sat beside him all dressed in black, he never ever became personal with you during the quiz. He really was an interrogator, he was a nasty man, until the programme was finished and then you had a drink with him and you realised what an absolutely delightful human being he was. "

In faltering health, he was wonderfully supported by his wife of over half a century, Mamie, and by his children, who achieved television and kindred fame as a result of their own efforts.

Tam Dalyell

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