As IF the thunderous music and scorching spotlight were not intimidating enough, the sight of John Humphrys in the inquisitor’s chair is enough to instil panic in the boldest soul.
Even before the questions begin on Mastermind, there’s a flicker of sadistic relish in the Welshman’s gaze.
Over the past 18 years he has taken the most confrontational show on TV and made it even more ferocious, even less forgiving, than it was under its original presenter, Magnus Magnusson. Humphrys is no po-faced examiner. He shows flashes of wit and humour that are doubly disconcerting, because they do not signify a kindly disposition.
Mastermind was based on the experience of wartime interrogation by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police. The show’s creator, Bill Wright, was a former RAF gunner who had been captured and subjected to intense questioning
Even before the questions begin on Mastermind, there’s a flicker of sadistic relish in the Welshman’s gaze
When he smiles at a nervous arrival, there’s a hint of the great white shark flashing its teeth.
It is irresistible viewing. Shielded from the lethal barrage of questions by the safety of our living rooms, we can enjoy the sight of a brave quizzer surviving the onslaught… or being eaten alive.
Indeed, the most unwavering of all TV quizzes, Mastermind was based on the experience of wartime interrogation by the Gestapo, the Nazi secret police.
The show’s creator, Bill Wright, was a former RAF gunner who had been captured and subjected to intense questioning. That inspired the studio set, with a lone seat trapped in a beam of light, isolated and vulnerable. This is quizzing as naked torture.
The 24 year old student from Glasgow won by four points in the Grand Final – scoring a perfect 11/11 in his specialist subject on comedy song writing duo Flanders and Swann
It’s hard to imagine Mastermind without the implacable Obergruppenfuhrer Humphrys firing questions like 9mm rounds from a Luger pistol.
But after last night’s grand final – which saw him demanding answers on specialist subjects from the life of President Carter to the songs of Flanders and Swann – he is laying down the question cards. As he wrote in his Mail column in February, ‘I started 18 years ago. Now, after more than 750 shows, it really is time to finish.’
Even to take on the role was a controversial move. Mastermind had been off BBC television’s airwaves for six years by then, following Magnusson’s retirement. But his predecessor, though stern and a stickler for the rules, was always more schoolmaster than scrutineer. Humphrys seemed to embody the original vision, injecting a note of intellectual arrogance that left some contestants quaking.
In 2008, he introduced a round of questions on ‘the Gospels of the New Testament’ by telling the nervous quizzer, a devout Christian named Kathryn Price, that he doubted the Bible’s veracity.
‘If you read all four Gospels, you’ll get different versions, won’t you?’ he remarked. ‘Which are we meant to believe?’
That stirred quite a kerfuffle. The Christian Institute accused the BBC of promoting religious intolerance, adding: ‘It is inconceivable that a Muslim contestant answering questions on the Koran would be treated the same way.’
Humphrys was unrepentant – just as he was when in 2015 he declared the quiz to be no true test of intelligence: ‘You couldn’t argue that it’s a great intellectual challenge. You’ve got to be able to take the pressure, sitting in that bloody chair, but it’s a challenge of memory and that’s it.’
All this, of course, reflects his standing as the most merciless quizmaster on television. Compared to Hard-Hearted Humphrys, Jeremy Paxman is a kindly old don, Victoria Coren Mitchell is mumsy and Jeremy Clarkson is a pal from your local pub.
Former foreign correspondent and news anchorman Clive Myrie takes over as head of interrogation in July, when Mastermind will celebrate its 50th anniversary.
No doubt he will bring rigour and brains to the role.
If he wants the approval of the great Herr Humphrys, however, he’d better not try anything that smacks of compassion.
Can you answer questions winner faced?
1 Leipzig and Stuttgart are cities in which European country?
2 What is the first name of the novelist son of the author Kingsley Amis whose books include Money, London Fields and Time’s Arrow?
3 BSL is a method of communication used mainly by people who are deaf or have impaired hearing. What does BSL stand for?
4 Which musical family from Ogden in the American state of Utah had their first UK Top Ten single in 1972 with Crazy Horses?
5 Which cookery writer and former Great British Bake Off judge described her award of a damehood in the Queen’s birthday honours list in 2020 as ‘the icing on the cake’?
6 In chemistry, a solid that is dissolved in a liquid to form a solution is known as the solute. What is the corresponding term for the liquid?
7 Which costume designer was nominated for 35 Academy Awards during her film career and in the 1970s designed the uniforms for women members of the US coastguard?
8 What is the name of the Los Angeles baseball team that won the 2020 World Series?
9 The shipping forecast area in the North Sea directly between Tyne and Thames shares its name with an estuary in eastern England. Which estuary?
10 What staple of Italian cooking is a fine maize flour which when it’s cooked in salted water can be served soft like a porridge or set and cut into slices? Its name comes from the Latin for pearl barley.
11 The actress Emma Corrin joined the cast of the fourth series of the television drama The Crown which began in 2020. Which member of the Royal Family does she play?
12 The word genera used in the taxonomic classification of plants and animals is the plural of what word?
13 In 1803 America bought about 828,000 square miles of land including most of the Mississippi Valley from France for just a few cents an acre. The transaction is known by what name?
14 In 2020 which politician was elected to serve a second term as prime minister of New Zealand?
15 The name of the title character in a play by Moliere is sometimes used as a word for a religious hypocrite. What is the title of the play?
16 The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite and Everybody Hurts are tracks from the album Automatic For The People which topped the UK charts in 1992. The album was by which American band?
17 Which German political philosopher and revolutionary married his childhood sweetheart, Jenny von Westphalen, in 1843 after an engagement that lasted seven years?
3 British sign language
4 The Osmonds
5 Mary Berry
7 Edith Head
13 The Louisiana Purchase
14 Jacinda Ardern