Why Mastermind ? That's easy to answer. For me Mastermind had always been the king of the TV quizzes. Just you, the chair, the questions, and the clock. I had always intended to be a contender on the show ever since I was a kid in the mid 70s. Then when in 2005 my son Michael told me that you could apply online, I made up my mind that now was the time.
It wasn't until September I was invited for an audition in Cardiff. I now know enough to feel that I was lucky just to get an audition. I know several people who have put in multiple applications over the years without even getting to this stage. So I took a deep breath, and dived in. The ladies conducting the interview smiled a lot. They were nice. They took my picture, and said, no , it didn't matter that I'd been on telly before, in fact, it might even count in my favour. I think I did very well in the 20 General Knowledge questions they asked me.That’s frustrating, though, because they don’t tell you how many you got right. I think that I may have had as many as 18 – I know for certain that I had no idea who played Bourne in the Bourne films, but I think I had most of the others right.
Unfortunately, for various reasons they weren't happy with any of my specialist subject choices.So I had a frantic mental scrabble for subjects which I could do, one of which being the Modern Summer Olympic Games. This was actually far too wide a subject, and given a period of mature reflection I probably wouldn't have chosen it. However, the di was cast. I had a place in the first round of Mastermind. My specialist subject would be the modern Summer Olympic Games, for the semi final , the life and career of Henry Ford, and for the final, The Life of the Prince Regent, later George IV.
For days after being told I was on the show I was deliriously happy. Honestly. After all, on the other two shows I had been invited to join teams which were already in the process of getting on the show. This was something which I had achieved under my own steam. The production team also take care to congratulate you on getting this far. I’m told that over 2000 people apply to take part in each series. I know that one of the competitors in my heat had already applied unsuccesfully before.
When you get your invitation to take part in Mastermind for the first time you are faced with something of a tricky problem. After all, no one has ever told you really exactly how you should go about learning a specialist subject. So what I did was done in a kind of trial and error, learning as I went along, fashion. I tried to apply the lessons which 20 years of teaching had taught me.
That day of the show in March 2006 was a strange day. For one thing we were filming in Leeds, because the Manchester studios where the shows are usually recorded, were unusable for some or other reason. This meant another night in a hotel. On the day of the show, when I arrived back in the studios I made my way up to the Green room . This was a large room, a bit bigger than an average classroom, with lots of comfortable chairs all around it, and a large table with several other contenders all sitting around it. In a way it kind of reminded me of a school staff room, or what a school staff room would be like if all the teachers had only met each other five minutes earlier. A contender in one of the other shows being filmed that day immediately started trying to intimidate me by banging on about how well he had done the last time he was on the show, getting to the semi final, being a member of the Mastermind club, etc. etc. It was such a crude and transparent way to try to put me off my game, and remarkably stupid too, since we weren’t even in the same heat. Thankfully, as I was going to find out, a contender like this is very much the exception and not the rule among Mastermind participants. His show was filmed just before mine, and as I understand it, he didn't do very well at all, and only came third in his heat. Shame. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving contender. Perhaps he should have been revising all the time he was trying to wind me up.
After makeup it was time to get dressed in the clothes we were wearing for the recording. Once you’ve done this, then you know that it won’t be long before you’re on. By this time your show has reached a kind of terminal velocity. You are asking yourself whether this was really such a good idea, but its too late to stop, far, far too late, and all you can do is hang on for your life, and try to enjoy the ride.
As it worked out, I was third to go in the specialist round of our heat. First to go was Neil Phillips. Neil was and is a really smashing guy, who was answering questions on the band REM. Neil told us that he had applied to the show before on more than one occasion, and this was the first time that he had even got an audition. Neil has since become a broadcast quiz fanatic I think, since he also took part in the 2007 Radio 4 Brain of Britain competition. Neil was obviously a regular quizzer, although he did give me a little hope when he said that he'd found the audition questions difficult. He probably won’t forgive me for saying this, but before the show I was arrogant enough to think that I should be able to beat him on general knowledge.
It seemed like no time at all and we were on the set, being shown how to walk from our chairs to THE Chair, being told what camera to look in at the start. Then the lights went out. They do play the music in the studio, too. That’s when your heart really starts doing backflips. I mean, I can feel my pulse racing sitting here, just writing about it.
As I said, Neil was first up. He was outstanding. Answering on REM he scored 17, a brilliant score. So he was in the shake up , and a serious contender without question.
This is probably a good time for me to tell you what its like sitting in the chairs beside the dais and the black chair while someone else is going through their round.You’ve already had a chat with your fellow contenders. Maybe that doesn’t make you all into best friends, but it does show you that these are people, just like you, and that they are going through exactly the same thing you are. There’s this much of a bond between you by now, so you have to have a certain amount of feeling for them. You want them to do well. Only not too well. After all –
YOU HAVE COME HERE TO WIN.
Actually, moving off the point for a moment, I’m not entirely sure that everyone who takes part in Mastermind has any idea of winning it, or even thinks its possible for them to win it. But I did, and so I have to proceed from this point of view.
So the round starts, and you find yourself sitting there, surreptitiously counting the answers they get right on your fingers, and when the score starts mounting you can’t help wishing that they’d pass the odd one or two, and you sit there wondering whether the bloody buzzer is ever going to sound. Then it does. Your mind begins to work furiously while John is telling them about their passes, if there were any. Before they’ve even walked back to the chair for you to offer them congratulations on whatever they have achieved, your brain has discovered latent mathematical talents you never knew it had. You find that you have worked out exactly how their score affects your chances, and all in a matter of nanoseconds. It’s a recipe for schizophrenia.
Next up was Katharine Drury. Kath is a local government officer from the Blackpool area. Once again, she is an absolutely lovely person, and like Neil, one whom I have kept in contact with ever since the show. Unlike Neil, I thought that Kath was a contender with a serious chance of winning the whole thing. I hope that Neil doesn’t mind me saying this too much, but I think his general knowledge was just not quite good enough to give him a realistic shot at the title. Kath was answering questions on the Roger Brook novels of Dennis Wheatley. I don't know how many of these novels he wrote, but I bet its quite a few, so a difficult subject this. Kath too scored 17, an incredible performance really.
With 2 rounds of 17 before me, I felt like I was staring down the barrel of a gun. I wouldn’t exactly say that I felt like showing the white flag, but I did think that I couldn’t match that score, and that it was going to be really difficult to win if I had less than 16 or at least 15. Under the circumstances, my 14 and 2 passes on the Modern Summer Olympic Games was a good score, but you'll appreciate that it didn't feel like that when I went to sit back down again.
The last contender in the 1st round was Andrew Snedden. I think Andrew was a medical student. Once again a very nice guy, and very young too. Andrew scored 6 and 3 passes.
So, at the halfway stage I was in third place, 3 points behind the joint leaders. I certainly hadn't been expecting to find myself in this relatively lowly position, and I was asking myself what had ever possessed me to apply to go on in the first place. If I'm honest, I was cursing my bad luck at having two such great contenders as Kath and Neil in my heat as well. With nothing left to play for seemingly, I made up my mind to just try to get as high a score as I could in GK, to salvage a little pride. Andrew went first in the general knowledge round. He finished on 11 points and 6 passes.
After Andrew, the three of us were given very tough general knowledge rounds, I thought. So, next up was me. I sat in the chair, and battled my way to another 10 points, for 24 and 5 passes altogether. You have to understand that when I played along at home, always accepting that the contender in the chair would get on with answering the questions, I would always score over 10, and often between 13 and 16. So when I sat down again I whispered 'Pathetic' to Kath, as I was disgusted with my own performance.
Actually, I really shouldn't have felt like this. Neil came next, and his round proved equally tough, I felt. He needed 7 for 24, but actually only managed 5. He finished with a score of 22 and no passes. What I didn’t know at the time was that Neil’s score would have won some of the other heats in the series, and my score would have won even more of them. So I was actually leading as Kath sat down for her round, and I couldn't be worse than runner up. Surely Kath would do it, though.
Well, actually she did do it, but only just. Time ticked on, and she was clearly struggling, but she battled through to score 8 for 25 and 2 passes. I was beaten by 1 point. Actually she had a little bit to spare, because even if we had tied she would have won on passes countback, a fact that was to eventually affect the tactics which I would use next year. As time wore on, I would come to feel that losing by one point to come second, was a lot better than losing by several to come third, which is the way that it seemed to be heading after Round One. But for the moment I was gutted. Still, there was Kath to congratulate, and I wished her well, hoping that she could go on and win the whole thing now. We exchanged email addresses.
I was just beginning to put the experience into a sort of perspective, when I had a phone call from the production team in the next week. Apparently all the heats had been filmed, and I was a highest scoring loser. My heart missed a beat. In the old days they had always kept one semi final, the repechage round, for the highest scoring losers in the first round. Past winner Sir David Hunt had taken this route to the title, and I don’t believe that he was the only champion to do so. My friend George Sheldrick had appeared in the 1976 series, and had taken this route to the semis. Did they do such a thing nowadays? Alas, no.
However, they did need stand ins, who would be prepared to learn their semi final subjects, so that should anyone have to drop out, or fall ill, they could take their place. It would mean being put up in a hotel for two days during the easter break from school, and attending the six semis. Would I be prepared to do that ? Would I ! Even this small chance of appearing in the semis was enough. Also, finding out that I was a highest scoring loser did wonders for my self esteem. It really had been the luck of the draw. I had done badly in the GK round, and yet I might still have won some of the other heats with my score.
There weren't more than a few weeks before the semis were due to be filmed, but I set about my second subject , Henry Ford, with real dedication, and although I was never used in the semis, I was ready, and I reckon I'd have done very well. But that was not to be.
As it was I wasn't too disappointed, for the day after being an unused stand in at the semi finals, I made my appearence on "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire"