What We Talk About When We Talk About Mastermind
(Or Famous Chairs in Television)
Picture the scene. Four thirty in the morning, nine tastefully decorated floors above Salford. I’m in a hotel room, ringing room service to see if they’ll supply me with painkillers. The reason I’m up so early is panic, blind panic. The painkillers aren’t for that, they’re for a shoulder I (wrongfully) suspect I might have dislocated slipping in the shower five minutes ago.
In less than twelve hours time, I’m going to be sat in the most famous chair on British television. Not Chris Tarrant’s precariously elevated IKEA stool, not Jim Royle’s sofa of slothful patriarchy, but a chair that inspired the toughest quiz show on television, a show partly informed by the interrogation tactics of the Gestapo.
Rewind six months. John Humphries, white haired veteran of news and current host of Mastermind is asking potential contestants to apply at the end of a show. I, giddy with having correctly answered eight or nine questions from the comfort of my settee, decide that this is the appropriate arena in which to declare my brilliance. Online application filled in, I sit back and wait for the inevitable phone call from Humpers (as I shall no doubt be allowed to call him soon) telling me to pop along.
Months pass, I get a letter inviting me to audition at my local BBC studios. The audition involves me sitting down, talking a little about myself, and answering twenty or so general knowledge questions. My pub quiz gene kicks in, and I find that I’m supplying answers with reasonable ease. The production people don’t let me know if I’ve got any right, however, and so we move on to the small matter of my specialist subject.
For those of you who don’t know the show, and at this point I welcome anyone who’s completely mistyped the Nuts website address, the contestants have two rounds. One is general knowledge, but the first is a specialist subject, handpicked by the contestant at the audition stage.
In 2006, Simon Curtis, having picked the films of Jim Carrey as his specialist subject, scored only one point. Insert predictably snide reference to Dumb and Dumber here. So, it’s best to pick something you actually know something about. An esoteric prowess that made me the scourge of quiz machines throughout the M4 corridor is one thing, actual detailed knowledge of a specific subject is another. I plump for Factory Records. Been done. The Coen Brothers. Done. Martin Amis. Done. The World Cup. Done.
Soon my knowledge of Rentaghost might be called into question but then, out of thin air, I pluck Raymond Carver. The late, great Ray C, chronicler of American blue collar despair and master of the short story. With him having only managed a handful of publications in an all too short life, I think I’ve tactically pulled a blinder. All I need now is the nod for my appearance.
A month or so later, a phone call confirms I’m through. Four months till filming, the fifty years of Raymond Carver’s life to research. Piece of piss.
Except, of course, I do nothing of the sort. The usual everyday pressures of life take their toll on my planned research schedule. That and my default setting of manana when faced with anything more pressing than a bowel movement. Increasingly, I begin to panic. The family and friends who’ve promised to attend, now faced with shame by association, drop out faster than you can say “I’ve Started So I’ll Finish”.
Soon, I’m on a tram to Salford, barely halfway through an only recently purchased Carver biography. Tomorrow is filming day. Humiliation beckons.
Alarm set for half four, I decide on a shower to shock the sleep out of me. Its here I slip and hurt myself. Now I’m in trouble. The pain is too much to even read. The hotel, quite sensibly, won’t give out painkillers. I also realise, at this point, I’ve left my shaving stuff at home. My request for a razor, surprisingly, is agreed to. I manage to dress myself and head downstairs to pick up a razor that might suffice for some things but not a national television appearance. An early train into Manchester to collect painkillers and shaving things. Back to base for five hours panic reading. Then grooming. Then national humiliation.
At the studios, I’m taken to a green room full of healthy vegetables. Insert production staff joke here. The other contestants mingle with their families and answer random general knowledge questions from wives and children. I sit alone, numb on Panadol. It occurs to me that this is a particularly Carveresque situation to be in, a badly prepared man miles from home about to be humiliated, miles from loved ones. The other contestants are all men, all married with children, and all lovely. I’ve been drawn as Contestant 3. Which is ace. Contestant 4 is the one you don’t want to be. Because, at the start of the second round, you have to go in order of reverse scores from round one, meaning you’d be in and out of your chair like a diuretic yo-yo if you had a Curtis moment.
Sitting in a TV studio where the only lights are on you, with the audience to your backs is an odd experience. Soon John Humphreys emerges from behind a dark web of sinister cameras and wires. Filming begins and I want to go home. A sole spotlight shines on the Eames Soft Pad Lounge Chair. Contestant Number One strides confidently into position and rattles off correct answer after correct answer. Shit. Contestant Number Two does the same. All of a sudden, I wish I’d taken the Rentaghost option after all. Without realising I’m doing it, I’m walking across the stage to the famous chair and telling Humpers who I am and why I’m here. Before the first question, I wonder to myself, is this the moment of my greatest disaster? Humpers speaks.
“Fourfoot, you have two minutes on the life and short stories of Raymond Carver, starting now.”
In this manner, the issue was to be decided.
(At the time of writing, I dont know when its going to be on. I'll let you know.)