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Mastermind (1972-97, 2003-)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Mastermind (1972-97, 2003-)
BBC, tx. 11/9/1972 - 1/9/1997, then 7/7/2003 - present
30 series of 15 x 30 min editions, colour
Created byBill Wright
Production CompanyBBC Television
Producers includeBill Wright, Roger Mackay, Peter Massey, David Mitchell, Penelope Cowell, Sally Evans
Theme MusicNeil Richardson

Presenters: Magnus Magnusson (1972-97), John Humphrys (2003-)

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Cerebral quiz show with a memorably intimidating atmosphere.

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The first edition of Mastermind (billed by the Radio Times as a "new and exciting brain game") went out at 10.45pm on Monday 11 September 1972, an inauspicious start for what would become one of the BBC's hardiest perennials.

Conceived as a cerebral quiz show, it was not expected to last long, which may be why the relatively obscure freelance presenter and Icelandic literature scholar Magnus Magnusson was chosen as the host. However, when the Leslie Phillips sitcom Casanova '73 (BBC, 1973) was given a post-watershed slot following complaints, Mastermind replaced it, and never looked back. Magnusson would become one of the most famous, if least likely, of all BBC presenters, his craggy features and stern countenance not quite concealing a twinkling bonhomie.

For all its mind-stretching reputation, Mastermind's underlying formula could hardly be simpler. A typical edition featured four contestants individually being subjected to two sessions of quick-fire questioning by Magnusson while sitting in the black leather chair that became the programme's visual icon. The first involved a specialised subject of their choice, while the second was a challenging general knowledge quiz.

The intimidating atmosphere (programme creator Bill Wright was inspired by his experience of Gestapo interrogations during World War II) was enhanced by the contestant literally being placed under a spotlight, and the theme tune by Neil Richardson was aptly titled 'Approaching Menace'. Difficult questions could be met with a guess (potentially wasting valuable time, as Magnusson would then give the correct answer) or a "pass" - though the number of passes would count against them in the event of a tie.

Magnusson's catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish", uttered every time a question was interrupted by the buzzer denoting the end of a round, was considered such an indelible part of the programme that John Humphrys adopted it when he revived Mastermind in 2003 (Magnusson had retired in 1997, after 25 years). Humphrys' version was broadly similar, though with a greater focus on popular culture in the specialised subjects. A spin-off, Junior Mastermind (2004-), featured child contestants.

Perhaps the most famous of the black chair's many occupants was taxi driver Fred Housego, who won the 1980 series on the back of his encyclopaedic knowledge of London and subsequently became a TV and radio presenter. Less successful contestants provided vivid anecdotes of their experiences in 'Disastermind', broadcast as part of BBC2's theme night TV Hell (tx. 31/8/1992).

Michael Brooke

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