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ColumnsJuly 29, 2015

Stevie TV: Suit of Silver and Hair of Gold – Mastermind’s Peter Sinclair in the 1990 Finale

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With the news that Mastermind will be getting a revival, Steve Braunias revisits the classic final of 1990, and remembers his old golden-mopped friend Peter Sinclair. 

Who will they get to host the new series of Mastermind? New Zealand On Air has committed $685,360 to reviving the show, which ended in 1991. You’d want someone smart. Wallace Chapman has intellectual credibility. He went to university. Actually, he went to university with David Bain, and he’d make an incredible host. Picture the lights going down in the studio – they always do that on Mastermind – and his face filling the black screen. You’d have a heart attack. He’d be the last face you’d ever see. Safer to appoint Wallace Chapman.

But no-one who gets the gig will ever be as good as Peter Sinclair. He hosted the original Mastermind and he wore the same silver suit year in, year out. It looked as sharp as the first night he wore it on TV. Nothing about Peter ever faded. He was my friend in the last years of his life and it was such a privilege to get to know him. He’d been the most famous man in New Zealand for about 30 years. In the 1960s and ’70s, he hosted frenetic TV pop shows C’Mon (“Get with the go-go for the next 30 minutes!”) and Happen Inn (“It’s a happening scene on your TV screen and here’s what we mean!”).

In the 1980s, he achieved gravitas as the host of University Challenge and Mastermind. He was such a pro, who only ever needed one take, who remained calm as the host of those 24-hour orgies of greed, tears, and B-grade celebrities, known as Telethon. All that fame and all that work but the money was lousy and when we met, in about 1996, he was renting a one-bedroom downstairs flat in Herne Bay. He owned a cat.

Every news story about NZ On Air’s decision to revive Mastermind was illustrated with a photo of Peter. He was the face of the show, forever blonde and smiling. One complete Mastermind – the classic final of 1990 – is available to view on New Zealand On Screen, and it remains a tense and nail-biting contest.

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The theme music on the opening credits features an attack of the killer synths and an ominous drum sound that signals the end of the world. It’s a relief when Peter emerges on screen. There’s a studio audience in pearls and ties, and then Peter introduces the four contestants. Geoff Neville is a schoolteacher from Helensville who looks like a biscuit in his brown suit. Paul Marshall is a science technician from Hamilton who has plainly never missed an episode of Miami Vice. Stuart Boag is a manly farmer from Canterbury who last smiled in circa 1950. The fourth contestant, Otago University student Hamish McDouall, was already known throughout the land as one of the most insufferable know-alls to ever appear on New Zealand television. He’d won the 1989 Sale of the Century with his smart-alec ways and now he’d blazed his way to the final of Mastermind. A nation held its breath, and hoped he’d lose.

“May the best contestant win,” said Peter. It was good to see him again, and hear his voice. He loved to talk. He was a dazzling conversationalist, erudite and sharp and hilarious; his best friends, such as Belinda Todd and Andrew Shaw, loved him to bits. He hosted huge birthday dinners at Nishiki in Freemans Bay, and adored cigarettes, cognac, and Pimm’s gin.

The first half of the programme was devoted to specialist topics. Geoff Neville chose the works of AA Milne but it soon looked as though he’d never fucking heard of Winnie the Pooh because he got the first question wrong, passed on the second, third, and fourth, and got the fifth question wrong. It’s a dreadful performance and his suffering is plain to see. The guy looks traumatised.

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As his torture continues, he keeps getting them wrong, keeps passing; he blinks his eyes with fury and bewilderment, buries his beard into his shirt, and tries to bury his face into his beard. He gets on a winning streak with questions 17, 18, 19, but by then it’s far too late and his final score is a pathetic seven points.

Peter just smiles. He had a black sense of humour, but he was also a sentimental, tender person. I thought of him as lonely in that small flat. He walked up the road to Three Lamps each night to host the Love Songs to Midnight radio programme – strange to think of a loner and a bachelor playing the music of romance.

Paul Marshall, in his white tie set against his blue shirt, chose Fawlty Towers, and scored 19. Stuart Boag scored 18 with his manly subject – battleships. The detestable McDouall chose David Bowie, and scored 19, but not without controversy. Should he have been given a point when he correctly answered that the New Zealander in Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ video was Geeling Ng – but hacked at her surname, and mispronounced it, “En-gee?” I say no. I say he should be retrospectively stripped of his title. Geeling! What say you?

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Peter hated music. He never owned a stereo or bought any records. He loved pottery and ran a ceramics studio, Alicat on Jervois Road, for many years. He loved literature most of all, and died with a copy of Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honour in his hands.

In part two of the programme, the contestants were quizzed on their general knowledge. The hopeless Geoff Neville couldn’t have told you his name by this stage, and got the first question wrong, passed on the second, third, and fourth, and got the fifth question wrong. Final score: 11. God almighty. Did he ever live down the shame? He sat slumped in his chair when his torment ended, blinking away tears.

Paul Marshall didn’t know the name of the lead singer of U2, and scored 23. McDouall scored 29. It was down to Doag. he tried. He tried hard. He was good on geography, Shakespeare, history. But he wasn’t good enough. Final score: 28. The studio audience went berserk, discreetly. McDouall grinned, brazenly.

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Peter never talked much about his TV work. He never talked much about his private life, either. He once mentioned a fiancée. After he died, David Herkt wrote on that none of the obituaries – I wrote one, Diana Wichtel wrote one, there were many others – mentioned that he was gay. He condemned that, and he also condemned Peter’s refusal to come out: “Sinclair’s life encompassed the most turbulent years of New Zealand homosexual history, from the deep grey closet of the 1950s, free-wheeling love of the 1960s, the liberation years, the fight for equality and human rights. But here was a man who made no public comment on the issue, ever. This is like having an impassioned All Black fan who never admits to having seen a game or ever speaking about a game or a team or even acknowledging the team exists.”

I don’t think it’s like that at all, and I think this sentence is even more ridiculous: “Peter Sinclair never got to drive a sports car through Ponsonby Road, with the warm wind in his hair, leading a Hero Parade.”

Peter hated all that bullshit. He didn’t want community. He didn’t want to be a role model, or lead the way, or show solidarity, or any of that. Maybe he should have and maybe he would have been happier. I don’t know. His sexuality was an open secret – everyone knew – and as far as he was concerned, it was none of anyone’s business. He died on August 8, 2001, from leukaemia, aged 62, at St Joseph’s Hospice. He wrote in an email that week, “Isn’t it awful to be so feeble? I hate it and wish I was like I used to be, all the time.”

Like he used to be, when he was smiling and charming his way through Mastermind. McDouall accepted the applause, and then the prize of a flight to London. The tickets were presented to him by Patrick, the very first winner of Mastermind. “I must say I’m envious,” he said. “All I got was an atlas.” Peter shoved him out of the way and brought the show to an end. All four contestants stood around the grinning know-all McDouall. Geoff Neville went to shake his hand, but he couldn’t even get that right, and was beaten to it by Peter.

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He then delivered his trademark line. “A very good, good night,” Peter said, his hair golden and immaculate.


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