Confessions of a Mastermind

Daily Mail (London), December 8, 2008 | Go to article overview

Confessions of a Mastermind


Byline: Richard Heller

WHAT would be the ultimate nightmare special subject for TVsMastermind? I thoughtabout this question tocalm my nerves whilewaiting to record my most recentappearance in the famouslyintimidating black leather chair,broadcast on Friday night.

But try as I might to come up with atruly terrible topic, I couldnt bettermany of those that have already beensubmitted many by boffins eager toshow off their encyclopaedic knowledgeof some of the most arcane subjects.

Just consider these genuine albeitrejected examples: The DevelopmentOf The Self-Service Petrol Station;and The Banana Industry.

Then there was Perfect SquaresFrom 99-squared = 9,801 a title I donteven understand.

A little girl once unsuccessfullypleaded for her father to go on the showto answer questions about his petsubject, The History Of Loganberries.

According to the late MagnusMagnusson, the programme itself waseven offered as a special subject.

More recently, the question-settingteam turned down The Natural Life OfThe Goldfish. Since goldfish proverbiallyhave no memory, the producers probably feared a record number of passes.

Since it was launched in 1972,Mastermind has become an international obsession. On the one hand,you have the amateur academics hoping to wow the viewers with theiranswers and win the prized Mastermindtrophy the ultimate pub quiz gong.

And, on the other, you have the audience, always giving support where itsdue, but just occasionally hoping, atleast secretly, that one of the competitors falls flat on their face and fails to answer a single question.

But the real magic of Mastermind is to be found in the amazing diversity of subjects peoplepick as their specialist topics.

For example, it was a thumbs-down for the private pilotwho proposed Meteorology ForThe Private Pilot Licence, andan undertaker was cut deadfor offering Cremation PracticeAnd Law.

It was also a resounding no for the surgeon who wanted Orthopaedic Bone Cement InTotal Hip Replacement.

But as devotees of the programme (now presentedby John Humphrys) will know,many special subjects whichhave made it on to the showare every bit as exotic as thosethat were rejected. Take, forexample, The Life-Cycle AndHabits Of The Honeybee or TheBurial Grounds Of London.

I dread to think what kindof people submitted as theirspecial area of knowledge TheVampire In Fiction, NotablePoisoners or Aztec Mythology all subjects that got through.

And I cant imagine thatviewers at home managed toshout out many answers whenthe subject was The MoominSaga, by Tove Jansson, either.

B UT the really esotericsubjects tend to comefrom the early years ofMastermind. Indeed, thelatest series has beenaccused of dumbing down.

For example, one subject recently was the actress Jennifer Aniston. In its defence,the BBC cited the topics also inthe competition in that round:German Wines, The Painter AndFeminist Icon Frida Kahlo,and The Life And Career OfHenry Ford. Hardly everydaytalking points.

Besides, accusations of dumbing down are hardly new Mastermind has always attractedhigh-minded purists amongits devotees.

In the early Eighties, for example, there was outrage when jazzmusicians, such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie, began toappear as specialist subjects.They were deemed to be far toomainstream.

They were soon to be followedby Pop Music 1955-79, PaulSimon and The Beatles. In 1996,a contestant chose The SexPistols as his subject and theBBC had to bleep out part ofthe name of the bands firstalbum, Never Mind The B******s,Heres The Sex Pistols, when itfeatured in a question.

Revealingly, Penelope CowellDee, Masterminds producerduring the Eighties, suggestedthat the acceptance of popularsubjects was a response to thechanging nature of contestants. …

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