Magazine article The Spectator

Twinkle-Eyed Humphrys

Magazine article The Spectator

Twinkle-Eyed Humphrys

Article excerpt


Twinkle-eyed Humphrys

Mastermind (BBC2) is back, with John Humphrys sitting in the chair once occupied by Magnus Magnusson. The radio version never worked because this is a visual show. You need to see the sweat on the upper lip, and the score slowly mounting - or else not moving at all. When we watch University Challenge (currently running just after MM on BBC2) we like to shout out the answers. When we watch Mastermind we want to see the contestants squirm. In UC we are thrilled to know for ourselves that Madame Bovary's husband was called Charles. In MM we are pleased when the contestant hasn't got the faintest idea.

The success of the original MM was that the cruelty of the format contrasted with the obvious kindness and decency of Magnus Magnusson. Unlike us, he wanted them to do well. They were his boys and girls. It would have been a terrible mistake if John Humphrys had run the show as if he were conducting the Today programme. Dead Ringers, just after both quizzes on BBC2, had a funny skit in which he bullied them into submission. Luckily, on the real thing, he was courteous and twinkle-eyed, permitting himself only a mini-interview with each contestant which implied, ever so faintly, 'You must be bonkers if you're interested in that specialised subject.' But it kept its vital cosiness - the 'I had that Fred Housego in the front of my cab' feel. However, quite a few questions were easier than before. Who wrote Middlemarch? - forsooth! Tougher questions, please.

I enjoyed three historical documentaries. Darien: Disaster In Paradise was about the 1698 Scottish expedition to set up a colony in Panama. The venture was meant to make Scotland rich, but it was a disaster. Only a handful of settlers survived, and the doomed attempt took with it half the capital in the country, forcing Scotland into the Union barely a decade later. A re-enactment of the expedition was cunningly intercut with a recent archaeological trip to find traces of its passing; the lowering misery of the first contrasted with the chirpy good humour of the latter in a manner that was satisfying and moving.

However, I gather that the humiliation of Darien stills scars the Scottish soul, so I waited for the moment in which the English would be blamed. It finally came towards the end when an arrogant, upper-class, bewigged English twit of an officer informed the starving settlers that they would get no help from him. So that's all right. The colony was set up in swampland, without adequate equipment or medicine, near to the Spanish who controlled that neck of the woods with ruthless force. …

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