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Mastermind began as a late-night quiz show for eggheads on 11 September 1972 and was only supposed to run for one year but has so far lasted nearly half a century.
The modest but resolutely high-brow quiz show – made for peanuts and offering no prizes except a fancy cut-glass bowl to one winner a year – might have stayed happily undiscovered as it was initially considered to be too high-brow for peak-time audiences.
The programme its late-night slot through a happy accident and as a temporary measure when a Galton and Simpson comedy, Casanova ’73, was pulled out at the last minute. The Controller of BBC1, Bill Cotton Jnr, and Director of Programmes Alasdair Milne had previewed a couple of episodes and thought them too tasteless and offensive to be shown.
Mastermind was put on in its peak-time slot as a short-term emergency replacement. The response was immediate, and the programme’s right to a permanent place in the peak-time schedule was recognised. By 1974, the show shared top ratings with The Generation Game, and by 1978 it attracted audiences of 20 million.
The man responsible for Mastermind was Adolf Hitler. Bill Wright, a BBC producer, had been a prisoner of war during WWII, grilled for a month by the Gestapo who were convinced he was a spy. Bill’s idea for Mastermind was a painless form of this grilling, with the ‘victim’ spotlit alone in a black chair in a darkened room.
The sombre-voiced Icelandic-born Scottish journalist Magnus Magnusson (born Magnus Sigursteinnson) put the questions to the “contenders” (rather than “contestants”) and torture was applied in the form of a ‘time’s up’ buzzer. A question begun when the buzzer went would be completed, and “I’ve started so I’ll finish” became a catchphrase along with “pass” for “I don’t know”.
Each of four contenders picked a specialist subject for his or her first round, which was later followed by a round of (ruddy difficult) general questions. Among the specialist subjects that have been rejected by the show are ‘The Banana’, ‘The Human Leg’, ‘Perfect Squares from 99 Squared to 98801’, ‘Beers of the World’ and ‘Routes to Anywhere in Mainland Britain from Letchworth’.
In the first three years, the winners were women. Sir David Hunt, a former ambassador in Brazil, won in 1977, but the most famous winners have been taxi driver Fred Housego, 1980’s winner, and train driver Christopher Hughes three years later.
The series was finally deemed to have run out of steam in 1997, after 25 years, and ended after a final contest filmed at St. Magnus Cathedral in Orkney.
When Magnusson retired, the famous black chair found its way into Magnusson’s library. “It was given to me by the BBC, but it’s a shrine, I don’t sit on it.”
The show made a comeback on Radio 4 and eventually on Sky (with Clive Anderson at the helm). It returned to the BBC in 2003 with John Humphrys hosting.