I’ve started, so I’ll panic: what it’s really like to go on Mastermind
In all honesty, I have no idea why I decided to go on Mastermind. I love pub quizzes, sure, and I’m good at them. Pre-Covid, I was part of a crack team called Quizlamic State, who regularly took home first prize in our local one. As team coordinator, I developed a reputation for ruthlessness, brutally ejecting friends and, on one occasion, my boyfriend, if I thought they were underperforming. At university, I was picked for our college’s University Challenge team, though we didn’t get on the show: too boring, apparently. (The producers picked a team of historical re-enactors and archers from a different college.)
All of this stuff is what I say when people ask why I went on the show. But if I’m being honest, I don’t know why I did it. I don’t know why I do most things. I’m an incredibly impulsive person; always have been. To paraphrase Kim Kardashian West’s reply when asked why she filmed the sex tape that made her famous: because I was bored, and I felt like it.
I guess if I’m honest, I thought it would be a win-win situation. Nail Mastermind, in which case I have lifelong bragging rights; or don’t, in which case I’ll have a funny story I can write about.
Here’s the funny story.
Another confession: when I apply for Mastermind, I haven’t watched it for years. How hard can it be? I think, with the breezy optimism of a rookie journalist thumbing a lift into a war zone. In late May, I fill out an online form and, to my surprise, get a call the following day. The first round is a Zoom interview and quiz with a friendly Northern Irish casting researcher. (Mastermind is produced for the BBC by Hat Trick Productions, which has offices in Belfast.) “You did great!” he says when I correctly name Virginia Woolf’s artist sister. (Vanessa Bell.) I feel a childish jolt of self-satisfaction.
The email comes through the following day: Well done on being shortlisted for this series of Mastermind! I’m told that hardly anyone gets picked for the show, which inflates my confidence. “Your score in the trial was very impressive,” says a producer in a congratulatory phone call. (I later wonder if the producers zeroed in on me because I am a woman of colour, not because I was particularly good: historically, Mastermind has been an overwhelmingly white, male show.)
Next, to pick my specialist subject. The answer comes quickly: the Kardashians. I know everything about that wretched family: their plastic surgeon (Raj Kanodia), the high school they went to (Marymount High), the designer of Kim’s house (Axel Vervoordt.) The opportunity to scrape some utility from this knowledge, like penicillin from mould, is too good to pass up. But alas, I’m not allowed to. (“We can’t accommodate the Kardashians this series,” says a cryptic email from the producers.) Nor am I allowed my second choice (Spice Girls), or my third, the novels of Jane Austen – there are only six major ones, so I figure revision will be easy – as both subjects have featured too recently.
I’m floundering. There’s nothing else I want to do. I consider the novels of Hilary Mantel, but they’re so long, and I’ve only read them once. At this point, I go dark on the producers, but they keep calling me from unknown numbers, asking if I’ve got another specialist subject. Flailing, I cast out the TV show I’ve been binge-watching during lockdown: ER. Yes, they say. That could work. ER it is.
This, I later realise, is why some people tank their specialist subjects on Mastermind. It seems the producers can refuse many of a contestant’s choices, leaving them to tackle subjects they don’t feel comfortable with. The contestants then don’t have as much time to swot up as they would like. So they bomb. Three contestants have scored just one point on their specialist subject to date, and my heart goes out to all of them.
To my credit, I realise my insane folly a week later, when it becomes clear that I’ve got to rewatch all 331 hour-long episodes of ER in under six weeks, before the show is filmed in early July. I send a panicked email. Please, I beg yet again: can’t I just do the Kardashians? They are unmoving but, after some horse trading, the producers and I settle on an inspired compromise: I will focus only on the character of Dr Doug Ross in ER, who handily exits the show as a recurring character in season 5, and, even more handily, is played by George Clooney, in a career-defining role.
For the next six weeks, I eat, sleep, and breathe Clooney, which, in all honesty, makes for the most fulfilling and erotic revision experience of my life. I listen to Setting the Tone, an ER podcast, when I’m brushing my teeth in the morning and getting ready for bed at night. I cancel my plans and instead stay in and watch ER every evening, watching Clooney save a boy from drowning in a storm drain while wearing a tuxedo, punch child abusers, and do that classic Clooney shtick of tilting his head down then looking up with those hangdog puppy eyes. It is rough going.
Euro 2020 derails my revision but, as July rolls around, I’m feeling good. I know Dr Ross’s job title (paediatric fellow) and the names of his parents (Ray and Sarah) and how many children he has (a trick question – most people think it’s two, but he also has a son he mentions briefly in the first series). In the park a month before filming, a friend tests me on my general knowledge. I get two questions right out of 20. “I think the questions are easier than that,” I say breezily. He looks doubtful. “That’s … the official Mastermind quiz,” he says.
I touch down in Belfast for filming, carrying a selection of wardrobe options at the producers’ request, and three pages of revision notes. (“Wear a fancy top!” says a producer brightly in a wardrobe briefing phone call.)
The hotel is full of Mastermind contestants, which makes for a surreal dinner, each of us sitting alone, all of us side-eyeing each other, assessing who has the most bountiful general knowledge of them all. I nod at the man on the table next to me, without acknowledging that I know why he is there. A middle-aged woman returns from filming and begins talking about it on the phone. “Like being at school,” she shudders. I choke on my burger.
By the following morning, a small animal is doing yoga in my stomach. We shuffle into a conference room for the obligatory pre-filming briefing and are given paperwork to sign. To my right, two contestants are whispering about a woman in the second row. (“Wasn’t she on Eggheads?” I overhear one mutter to another.)
I return to my room for last-minute revision and begin to unravel. Part of the problem is that I’ve seen the other contestants’ revision folders, which are the Gutenberg Bible to my SparkNotes. But there’s nothing to be done and, before I know it, a researcher is walking me and three other contestants to the studio for our heat. The contestants chat among themselves about other quizshows they’ve been on. Virtually all of them, it seems, are old-timers: they’ve been working up to Mastermind for a few years. My mouth is suddenly very dry.
A lovely makeup artist does her best to calm my nerves – really, she is so kind and, more importantly, my makeup looks great – and then it’s time to face the chair. The chair. How best to describe the Mastermind chair? It is spotlit, well worn, imposing. Its leather has been burnished by the arses of minds far greater than mine, minds capable of retaining all manner of trivia while staying cool under pressure and not panic-sweating profusely via their bum cheeks on to the seat; cellulite-free grey matter, crammed full of general knowledge like a suitcase you have to sit on to close. My mind, by comparison, is a duffel bag containing a single pair of socks.
Because of Covid protocols, there is no studio audience, which is a blessing, because it gives the whole game an oddly low-stakes feel. A floor manager instructs us to stare into a camera while the Mastermind music thunders. Da da da da … DA DUH. The floor lights are raised. DA DUH. What am I doing here?
Clive Myrie, the host, nods me into the chair. I’m first. He asks me my name and specialist subject, then we’re away. I get a couple wrong, a couple right. At the end of my specialist subject round, I’ve scored eight points, which is a respectable though not particularly impressive score. I definitely would have done better if I’d had more time to revise, as many of the questions were on minor plot points for episodes I’d only watched once, but lots of them I’d predicted, and did get right. In all honesty, it was fun. I enjoyed it. (Although I did bolt out of the chair when my round was done, and had to be reminded by producers to sit back down, so Myrie could tell me how I did. Apparently this happens often.)
After everyone else has had their turn, I’m in joint third place for the specialist subject. Which is fine; I didn’t seriously expect to win. I sigh in relief and observe the other contestants. One won’t stop slouching in their chair. Producers stop filming and ask them to sit up straight, but they refuse and slump back down again within minutes. I aspire to their level of sang-froid.
When Myrie beckons me to the chair again, I realise that, for all my cramming about dishy Dr Ross, I’ve completely omitted to even think about the general knowledge round. All my energy and focus has been on not tanking my specialist subject. Walking back to the chair, I think: should I have prepared for this? Could I have prepared for this?
I fumble the first question, which is maddeningly easy – a question about tennis that I know, but wasn’t listening to properly – and just like that, it all falls apart. I can’t seem to hear the questions properly, like I’m in an aeroplane and my ears won’t pop. The only sensation I can compare it to is the time I jumped off a waterfall in South America and, while freefalling through the air, realised I had badly misjudged the angle and was about to land on a rock. Uh oh, I think, as Myrie pummels me with question after question I have no answer for. This is going to hurt. I emerge, dazed and metaphorically bloody, with a paltry four points, leaving me with an overall score of 12.
To my eternal shame, I spend the next five minutes actively wishing for all the other contestants to do worse than me. Annoyingly, they do not.
The final scores are 17, 16, 16 and 12. Reader, I came last. Dazed, I collect myself enough to congratulate the winner, and watch, amused, as the slumper scowls all the way back to their dressing room. I’d have killed for their score, but they’re clearly devastated. They probably think I’m an amoeba.
Back at the hotel, I call my boyfriend and deliver the news. After a pause, he says: “Probably not worth it in retrospect. All that effort and you came last.” I consider never telling anyone about this ever, but I’d stupidly posted on social media about applying for the show, and my editor saw it and asked me to write this piece, and it felt wormlike to weasel out – even though writing this has, at times, felt like acupuncture with a drill bit, or watching every embarrassing thing I’ve ever done on an Imax screen.
(Besides, I tell myself, as I lie awake at 2am, it’s not like I got the lowest-ever score on the show. That honour goes to athlete Kadeena Cox, who scored just three points on her specialist subject of Arsenal on the Celebrity edition, and none on general knowledge. I wonder how she’s doing.)
What lessons can I learn from my tale of televised quizzing mediocrity? That Mastermind is harder – I would go as far as to say considerably harder – than a pub quiz. That next time I feel like doing something dumb and impulsive, I should get another piercing. That the best way to transcend shame is to lean all the way into it, make it a funny story, and come out the other side: because the only thing worse than a person who flubbed Mastermind is a person who can’t laugh at themselves.
Oddly enough, I actually don’t regret it that much. I still love quizzes. I definitely didn’t do well, but I did go for the grandfather of all quizshows as a complete newbie with barely any revision, like scaling K2 without supplemental oxygen, in winter, on my first attempt at climbing. Next time, I’ll try a gentle walk up Ben Nevis first. Something straightforward, like The Weakest Link or Pointless. Until that day, I’ll return to the comfortable camaraderie of my Quizlamic State teammates. Some games are better played in the pub, after all.