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‘I’ve started so I’ll finish’ – Watching the brainy battle for the Mastermind throne

With Mastermind returning to our screens this week for the first time in over 25 years, Calum Henderson visits the set to watch the brainiacs at work.

A couple of days before I went to watch the new series of Mastermind being filmed, I emailed the show’s publicist asking if she could tell me the contestants’ specialist subjects. A list was promptly sent back, with a small clarification: “N.B.,” I was politely scolded, “in Mastermind lingo they are referred to as contenders, not contestants.”

It’s a quarter of a century since the show was last broadcast in New Zealand, but Mastermind‘s unique air of gravitas has been carefully preserved from the ravages of time. With the exception of one major change – the introduction of a ‘New Zealand’ round in addition to the specialist subject and general knowledge rounds – the format of the iconic ’80s quiz show has also remained intact.

There are still the intense 90 second barrages of questions, invariably ending with new host Peter Williams uttering the show’s eternal catchphrase: “I’ve started so I’ll finish.” Contestants still sit in the majestic Mastermind chair. The chair was the first thing I saw when I ducked through the heavy black curtains encircling the set, which was built around the stone pillars of the University of Auckland’s Clocktower building. It’s a classic mid-century Eames office chair, worth around $6,000. The winner gets to take it home at the end of the series.

“And no, you aren’t allowed to sit on it,” the floor manager wryly informed all 20 or so audience members.

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Instead, I sat on a bog-standard stackable chair placed within touching distance of contender number one. He was a guy from Waiheke called Jon, whose specialist subject was The Stone Roses. The Stone Roses! At the end of the 1990 final – won by Kiwi quiz show wunderkind Hamish McDouall with the specialist subject of ‘The Life and Work of David Bowie’ – host Peter Sinclair asked New Zealand’s first ever Mastermind, 1976 winner Patrick Bowles, how the show had changed since his day.

“The special questions have got that much more abstruse,” Patrick replied with a hint of sadness. “Nobody takes History or The Bible these days.” What would he make of this new crop of contenders, whose specialist subjects include not just ‘The Stone Roses’, but ‘The Simpsons Season Six’ and ‘The 2011 Rugby World Cup’?

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He could at least take some comfort from this year’s prize pool, which has been strictly reined in from the opulent quiz show heyday of the early 1990. In addition to the chair (made by Morgan Commercial Interiors) McDouall also took home a Parker Duofold pen (“the pinnacle of writing excellence”), and scored a 14-day trip for two to London.

“I’m a bit envious about that,” admitted Patrick. “I got a New Zealand Atlas, and you’ve got a trip to Britain.” This year’s winner isn’t going anywhere, but they will be presented with a heavy glass trophy to admire from the comfort of their Eames chair. The prestige of being crowned Mastermind is – and always has been – the main prize motivating the 32 contenders, competing across 8 heats to to qualify for the semis, then the final.

Peter Williams, filling the seat of the late Peter Sinclair behind the quiz master’s lectern, seems like his whole broadcasting career has been leading up to this moment. He has been on TV since before I was born; seeing him in the flesh triggered the same deep sense of recognition I feel when I see my own dad. But for all his comforting familiarity, Williams has always been a closed book. His onscreen persona is unfailingly polite and friendly, but rarely warm.

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In other words, he was the perfect choice to carry the Mastermind torch into the 21st century. He came in holding an armful of envelopes, each one containing a stack of question cards which grew in untidy piles on his desk as the show progressed. His executive office chair still had all the tags on it, as if he might take it back to the shop once the series is over.

When each contender was summoned to the Eames chair he sized them up with a volley of small talk. They were simple, innocuous questions, but the tension of the situation made it seem like he was speaking in riddles. David, a James Bond expert and web developer, leaned forward gamely. “Exactly how many websites have you made?” Williams asked.

The show is unerring in its simplicity: three rounds of 90 second rapid-fire questions, and the contender who correctly answers the most questions wins. There’s no twist, no variation, no fanfare. It felt almost revolutionary, a full circle since Mastermind was last on TV here 25 years ago.


Mastermind begins on Sunday May 1 at 7.45pm on TV One

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