Thursday, June 24, 2004 by

Here’s a programme that seemed pretty near unsalvageable upon its demise back in 1997, yet has managed to defy expectation and return in astonishingly better shape than anybody could really have dreamed.

Mastermind was, in truth, a dreadful show by the time it was finally put to sleep. All the exhilaration and style had long since seeped from its pantomime trappings, the thrill of watching virtuoso displays of intelligence and recall utterly compromised by a creeping obstinacy born of the presumption the series was somehow more than the sum of its parts. Competing factors jostled for the viewer’s attention. There were the hopelessly inappropriate settings: sprawling gothic piles, musty academic seminaries and tottering religious catacombs, the scale and preposterousness of which increasingly rendered the quizzing pitifully irrelevant. There was the weight of the programme’s own venerated history, forever dragging the focus of proceedings backwards to former glories instead of forwards to the possibility of tantalising feats yet to come. Above all there was the swaggering pomposity of its presenter, and his belief, which oozed without scruple from every gesture and remark, that he was Mastermind: that everything you were seeing was down to him, depended upon him, and without him would evaporate into nothing.

Of course, precisely the reverse turned out to be true. While Magnus Magnusson threw in his lot with all those other ever-circling lamentations of bitter ex-Beeb employees, crying treachery and occasionally pausing to dispense another anecdote which revolved entirely around himself, Mastermind was carefully and sensibly taken to pieces by BBC Manchester and re-built around the one element its original makers had come to so fatally ignore: modesty.

Out went all delusions of grandeur, particularly the idea that for a programme to be significant it had to come from a significant location. Out, too, went all baggage to do with mystique and reverence. The view now ran that this was a TV quiz show which, sure, had acquired a somewhat esteemed and lofty reputation, but that shouldn’t preclude it now being open to absolutely anyone to come on and demonstrate their flair and skill under pressure. That also meant positively downplaying all notion of there being “right” and “wrong” specialist subjects. After all, to penalise someone for exhibiting knowledge – of any kind – is a quite ridiculous proposition. So now, quite properly, just to be a specialist in something was deemed enough. It didn’t matter what the subject was; to be willing and able to prove, on the spot and under questioning, that you were an expert in a field of any kind was cause enough for a shot at the Mastermind title.

To complete the transformation, in came a presenter who had no desire whatsoever to become the star of the programme, no intention to distract or overshadow any of the mechanics of the game, nor any inclination to become the walking embodiment of everything the entire show stood for. Instead, John Humphrys managed, from day one, the commendable achievement of concentrating and maintaining attention on the only thing that mattered: the contestants. This was to be their forum, not his; their intelligence measured, their personalities tested, their obsessions examined.

In short, the programme has got back to being about its participants, and nothing but. It’s meant that rather than mock their arrogance or envy their cleverness, the viewer has once again felt able to take the side of the contestant. Sitting at home, we’re now inclined to cheer them on, rather than belittle them for knowing more than us, or jibe them for looking particularly dour and ordinary. We’re tacitly encouraged to applaud virtuoso displays of genius, not dismiss them as evidence of people with far too much time and self-importance on their hands.

Humphrys’ real masterstroke has been to turn the presenter’s role into that of a kind of museum curator-meets-inquisitive everyman. Contestants are invited to display their collected wisdom in front of the watching millions, before being petitioned as to the origin of such a dedicated pursuit. This is usually the cue for some amusing banter, often verging on gentle mocking, about the nature of a participant’s interest, but crucially never from any kind of snooty or patronising perspective. Humphrys opts for bemused befuddlement when dealing with matters about which he and everyone watching will only have a general, even hazy awareness – and the result has been the equivalent of letting a huge gust of fresh air into a hitherto boiling hot examination hall.

During his first series in charge last year Humphrys offered up memorable verdicts on, amongst others, The Smiths (“They were a miserable band!”) and The Manic Street Preachers (“They’re Welsh, aren’t they?”) in-between chiding contestants for picking topics that were self-evidently too broad or, in the case of the lady who opted for the entire flora and fauna of the United Kingdom, simply too complicated (the facts partly spoke for themselves: she’d only scored two points).

We’re only one week into the new series, but already we’ve had “Doctor Who? Oh dear!” followed by some time-honoured joshing about Daleks being unable to climb up stairs. In tonight’s edition our host managed to open up conversations on everything from punk rock (“What was the point of punk? Some of it was really pretty unpleasant!”), Only Fools and Horses (“I wonder if we’re reaching the end of that sort of comedy”) and Halifax Rugby Club (“Oh dear is all we can really say about them, isn’t it? They’ve had a rotten time!”)

You certainly never got this sort of thing with Magnus. He’d never have dreamed of allowing members of the public one second’s more opportunity to grab attention from him, or say anything that could distract from the solemnity of the occasion. This again underlines just what was so wrong with the show’s original format: the fact that everything always had to defer to the greater good that was the awesome sombreness of the Mastermind legacy. What rubbish. The programme’s supposed to be about celebrating people’s intelligence, not belittling them for not matching up to some past winner’s standards or castigating them for wanting to put themselves through such a nerve-wracking ordeal.

Not only do Humphrys’ self-consciously chatty asides help offset the threat of events ever becoming just a little too earnest (although even during the questioning proper he plays it dead straight and avoids all Magnus-style melodrama), it renders the contestants that much more human. It underscores the fact that Mastermind is at heart merely a chance for people to exercise their understanding of a topic they’re really fond of – and that alone is more than enough of a hook upon which to hang an entire quiz series. Nothing more is needed; no histrionics, no bombast, certainly no boring lecture about where the programme is coming from this week.

By waking up to its core strengths, the show has gained a point once more. It may be a defiantly low-key point, but that’s enough. In its modest way, the revived Mastermind is a triumph.


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