There was one particular stipulation when the BBC asked me to present Mastermind: I must not abandon the catchphrase made famous by my predecessor, Magnus Magnusson.
Go on, altogether now: ‘I’ve started… so I’ll finish.’
I agreed. That was 18 years ago.
Stepping down: John Humphrys
When the present series comes to an end in March there will be someone else in the chair. I wish my successor well — but I’m not sure I envy them, whoever ‘they’ may be. What are the odds on the first female?
Mastermind is one of those programmes you tinker with at your peril. Allow a contender to choose a light-hearted subject and the cry goes out: ‘Dumbing down!’ Change the format even slightly and you are ‘sexing up’.
Believe me, it’s not just the contestants who are in the spotlight.
When I was first approached to do the show, I replied immediately: ‘Thanks but no thanks.’ A few days later I got another message. Same request. Same reply. Then a phone call from the boss.
‘Why won’t you present Mastermind?’
What? Present it?
I had assumed they wanted me to be a contender and nothing could have persuaded me to sit in that black chair. Not then, not now, not ever.
I would struggle with the very first question — the one where you get asked your name.
Nietzsche might have been a great philosopher, but I suspect he had his tongue in his cheek when he suggested that the advantage of a bad memory is it enables you to ‘enjoy several times the same good things for the first time’. During the course of one live interview with a distinguished politician on the Today programme, I managed not only to forget what I meant to ask him but also who he was.
So to become the man who sat behind the desk on Mastermind was the perfect job for me. I would not only have all the questions written out on cards in front of me but all the answers, too. And get paid generously for the not-very-onerous task of reading them out.
But not, perhaps, as generously as I might have been. They told me my fee would be re-negotiated if my first season went well. It did, but the fee stayed the same for the next 17 years.
Not that I’m complaining. Quite the contrary. Not only was it fun, but it was easily the least demanding job I’ve ever done. It took me roughly ten minutes to discover that working in showbiz is very different from working in news.
For starters, you’re treated like a star. I got a taste of it when we were all sitting around talking about my first show and I looked for somewhere to dump the piece of gum I’d been chewing.
A bin swiftly appeared, offered to me by a delightful young woman who I learned was to be my assistant. She would look after me, fetch me coffee, lunch, newspapers — you name it. She was there to serve ‘the talent’.
I’d always been a hack, never ‘the talent’, and I won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy it.
In the early years it was all rather cushy. I’d pop up to Salford for a couple of days, knock off a few programmes, and pop back to London.
Mastermind is one of those programmes you tinker with at your peril
There was one problem: filling the many seats in the studio with a live audience.
The show had been off the BBC for six years or so, after getting the ill-advised axe in 1997: a gap so long that researchers had to scour the streets of Salford begging passers-by to come and join us for a few hours and look as though they were delighted to be there.
I’ve always wondered if the audience at home noticed the slightly puzzled expressions on some of their faces. Eighteen years later, it was Covid that finally put paid to the live audience — and almost put paid to me.
The health and safety tsars had decreed that the air conditioning in the studio should be set at roughly the temperature of a polar bear’s nose. So, for the first few shows, my biggest problem was how to stop my nose dripping onto the question cards. You may have noticed. Then they put a heater under my desk and gave me a thermal vest. Problem solved.
My own boast was persuading the BBC over the years to increase the number of programmes we recorded every day. It used to be two. I talked them up to five and ended up recording 29 shows in six days. Pretty knackering but it saved a fortune in studio costs.
Now it’s goodbye not just to the audience but to the lights, the cameras and of course that chair.
Mastermind was the brainchild of Bill Wright, an RAF gunner who had been captured and questioned by the Gestapo in the war. He knew about tough interrogation. He wanted minimum razzmatazz and maximum pressure: just a black chair, a bright light, a ticking clock and some very nasty questions. And that’s how it has always been.
But one thing that has changed is the celebrity show, in which we treat the contenders just a tad more gently. It’s fair to say some of the answers have been a little eccentric. I asked one soap opera star: ‘What breakfast cereal do you associate with prison?’ Obviously I expected ‘porridge’. He offered: ‘Cheerios!’ Maybe an ironic observation on the prison service? Or maybe he had just lost it.
No matter, the celebrity show is meant to be fun. But, boy, some of them take it very seriously. Stephen Fry is a brilliant actor, comedian and writer with a brain the size of the planet. If there’s a showbiz figure with a sharper intellect, I have yet to meet him. So when he volunteered for Mastermind I knew what to expect. He would be super-confident, possibly a little disdainful of my predictable questions, and rattle off the answers as though he had better things to do.
I was wrong. He started out brilliantly. When I asked for his occupation he answered: ‘Principal ballerina at the Mariinsky State Opera.’ The audience roared with laughter and he smiled a trifle condescendingly. He was in control.
But when I started firing the questions at him, the transformation was immediate. He stuttered and stammered and grimaced and groaned and generally had the tortured look of a young Bill Wright facing the Gestapo.
It demonstrated how much winning a quiz show on telly can mean to someone who’s already earned the respect of the nation in a dozen ways. Plus, there really is something about that black chair that turns even the most confident and clever into quivering wrecks.
When I asked the Casualty star Amanda Henderson to name the Swedish girl who had become the most famous teenager in the world for crusading on climate change, she panicked and said ‘Sharon’. It went viral and Amanda got the most dreadful pasting from Greta Thunberg fans around the world. Greta actually changed her username on Twitter to Sharon.
Such is the power — and the curse — of Mastermind.
I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been asked what my own specialist subject would be. I’ve always given the same answer: it will never happen. But I did once become the subject — chosen by the comedian Andi Osho. That was embarrassing enough. Even worse, she didn’t get them all right.
The most successful contenders on Celebrity Mastermind tend to be stand-up comedians. They have the confidence and quick brains you need in that chair. The least successful tend to be actors — maybe because they are used to working with a script.
But my most memorable was also the least blessed in the brain department — possibly because he didn’t have one. He was Hacker T. Dog, the biggest star on CBBC at the time.
We recorded the show on the day Donald Trump became President of the United States. I remember myself saying something like: ‘I’ve been a political journalist for most of my life, and here I am on a day when a massive story has broken that will affect the entire world and I’m interviewing a puppet!’
The other contender who will stay in my mind for very different reasons was a man who should not have been in a BBC studio. He should have been in jail. He was Jimmy Savile.
It was 2004 and the rumours had been circulating about him for some years, but the BBC view was that nothing had been proven. He’d been awarded a knighthood for his charitable work. He was, undeniably, a huge name in showbusiness.
Our show passed without incident, but when the production team sat around for a drink later I asked the young women who had the task of meeting and greeting the guests what they’d made of him.
They looked at each other, clearly discomfited. And then one of them said: ‘We all felt the same the moment we met him. We didn’t want to be alone with him and we weren’t prepared to go into his dressing room. We left him at the door.’
How desperately sad that showbiz bosses had not spotted in Savile over the decades what those young women spotted in minutes. It was, I think, the lowest point in my 18 years on the programme.
The high point was not the celebrities, it was the ordinary contenders in the regular Mastermind. Some of them were brilliant, with minds capable of soaking up vast amounts of information and regurgitating it whatever the pressure. They were effectively professional quizzers. Most were not.
They were ordinary, modest people leading ordinary lives who did it because they loved it. To see the expression on their faces when you told them they’d made it through to the next round… that’s been the joy of my job.
They knew when they applied what they’d be letting themselves in for — endless hours of swotting up on their specialist subjects and the terror of not knowing what the general knowledge round might throw at them.
They knew, too, that even if they made it through to the grand final (slim chance) and won, they wouldn’t be waltzing off with a million quid from Jeremy Clarkson. Just a glass bowl.
But scared stiff though they might have been, they relished the challenge. And when they lost they didn’t complain. They are the real heroes of Mastermind and I’ll miss them.
I started 18 years ago — a very long time in the ephemeral world of showbiz. Now, after more than 750 shows, it really is time to finish.