What it’s like to be on Mastermind

From the first phone call to the semi-finals


23 Mar 2017

John Humphrys fixed me in the eye and began one of those near-interminable Mastermind questions: ‘Which of Howell’s teachers at the Royal College of Music…’

I thought: Howells’s teachers were Parry, Stanford, Walford-Davies and … Bugger! Who was the other one?

‘…insisted that he submitted his piano quartet…’

Er, which piano quartet? OK, he didn’t say ‘second piano quartet’ so that must be the first, from 1917.

‘…to the Carnegie Trust for an award?’

OK, I don’t know. Help! So which teacher was it most likely to be? He was Stanford’s favourite, but Parry also took a keen interest. Parratt! That was the fourth! Right, which of those four?

This is how your mind works when you’re in the chair — and this was the semi-final. You have to work out the answer to a question fed to you in pieces. If you don’t know it, you have to guess because passes count against you — in a tiebreaker if the scores are equal. In any case, Herbert Howells was my specialist subject. General knowledge is pot-luck, but to win in Mastermind you must score well in the specialist round because you can prepare for it. This question decided whether I made it to the final. Get it right, and I’d almost certainly go through. Get it wrong and I’d crash out.

Eighteen months earlier, I’d finally applied for Mastermind after years of procrastination. I’ve always had quite good general knowledge (excepting popular culture!) and I captained King’s College London’s University Challenge team in the Gascoigne years. I also appeared, with less success, on ITV’s The Chase, where I exited after suggesting that the supermodel Cara Delevingne had won ‘poet of the year’ (popular culture).

I heard nothing for months, for a year, longer. I thought little more about it and eventually wrote it off. I had not made the cut.

Then I got the call. Twenty general knowledge questions, straight off the bat. They didn’t tell me my score but I knew I’d done well. An invitation arrived for an interview at Broadcasting House. To a media civilian like myself, broadcast studios are glamorous places. I was ushered into a glass office and invited by two bright young things to enthuse about my specialisms. Then a nasty surprise: another 20 general knowledge questions I was totally unprepared for. By the time the contestants appear in front of the camera, they have already been through two rounds, one of them a blind-sider.

When I eventually sat in the chair, I was nervous but well prepared. My first special subject — you must declarethree in advance — was the architect Hawksmoor. I had made a timeline of his life and visited his works for inspiration. I was driven by the need to do him justice. My round was a chance to boost his reputation.

By the time I’d had my make-up applied and my shirt pressed, I felt ready. I did Hawksmoor proud, finishing with a score of twelve. But next up was Sam, a teacher from London, who had chosen The X-Files — all 280 episodes! What chance did I have against that sort of memory? After round one we both had 12 points. It was down to General Knowledge.

I got all but one right and emerged with a score of 31, a series record. This was the high point of my Master-mind experience and I received the rare accolade of being asked a personal question by John Humphrys. I was supposed to start revising for the next round the following day, but instead went out drinking with the other three contestants. That’s another bonus of Mastermind — you meet the most interesting people.

I’d wanted to do the films of Powell and Pressburger for the semi-final — my banker subject. But another contestant had got there first and, frustratingly, he was now blazing an excellent score against me in my semi-final. After hearing his very challenging questions, I realised that my ‘banker’ had been no such thing. My second piece of luck!

And now John Humphrys and several million viewers were still waiting for an answer to the question that would make or break my Mastermind career. Which of those four teachers had pushed Howells for the Carnegie prize? I had to take a punt, albeit an informed punt.

‘Stanford?’ I ventured.

The uncertainty in my voice must have been audible, and Humphrys, like a pro, paused for dramatic effect before saying ‘Correct!’ That answer, combined with my general knowledge, took me to a modest 23. But the point took me through to the final.

‘Aren’t you terrified in that chair?’ people ask. But Mastermind is cleverly constructed. The light is shining on you, not in your eyes. The ominous music lacks menace in the chasm of the studio. The spotlight on the question-master focuses your attention and the chair itself is very comfortable. When the lights go down and you have to concentrate on answering question after question, it’s not as hard as you’d expect.

Alas, my luck ran out. I was not to go home with the famous Caithness glass bowl. But I’ll probably try again. Isabelle Heward, who won this year at her fourth attempt, first entered in 1983.