Monday, February 05, 2007


This evening the BBC paid tribute to Magnus Magnusson who died earlier this year. Although he had a long and varied career as a broadcaster, journalist and writer, Magnusson was best known as the presenter of Mastermind, which ran for a quarter century from 1972.

At a time when television quizzes are growing more ridiculous in their execution and the questions replace trivia for knuckle-dragging, knuckle-headed fuckwits who still can’t get the answer, Mastermind was about knowledge. Thankfully bereft of flashing lights, carnival sets and faux dramatic pauses, Mastermind was simplicity itself.

The show was the brainchild of a former RAF gunner turned television producer. The show’s ritual of asking the contestant’s name, occupation and specialist subject was based on his experiences as a Prisoner of War in Germany, reciting name, rank and serial number during questioning.

The contestant sat on a black chair with a spotlight shone at them. It was staged as an interrogation, Magnusson was the inquisitor and intelligence won out. Watching the show, growing up, it was doubtful that I could any any of the specialist questions, especially when the subjects were more esoteric. But that wasn't really the issue.

If the BBC's original mandate was to inform, educate and entertain, as present-DG Mark Thompson said in the tribute, Mastermind was the programme that expertly drew together those values. At a time when intelligence wasn't a dirty word, if I didn’t know the answer it meant I learnt something.

Though the show eventually came back after a six year absence, I discovered either I had become certainly more intelligent in the intervening years or the questions were less difficult. The same could be said for University Challenge, although in that instance it could be the students getting thicker.

Tonight, faced with a photograph of Peter O’Toole as TE Lawrence, the students of Corpus Christi, Oxford identified him as “Omar Sharif in Lawrence of Arabia.” The withering look Jeremy Paxman gave them was wholly deserved.


Post a Comment

<< Home