Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

The return of Mastermind: Don't touch the chair

Calum Henderson sits in on the filming of a classic TV quiz show, revived for the 21st century.
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."
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."

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.

And, 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, built around the stone pillars at the centre of the University of Auckland's Clocktower building.

It's a classic mid-century Eames office chair, worth around $6000. 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.

Instead I sat on a bog-standard stackable chair placed within touching distance of contender number one, a guy called Jon from Waiheke, 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.

Peter Sinclair chaired the original New Zealand Mastermind.
Peter Sinclair chaired the original New Zealand Mastermind.

"The special questions have got that much more abstruse," Bowles 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"?

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 1990s, when, 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 Bowles. "I got a New Zealand Atlas, and you've got a trip to Britain."

This year's winner isn't going anywhere, but will be presented with a heavy glass trophy to admire from the comfort of the Eames chair.

Of course, the prestige of being crowned Mastermind is and always has been the main prize motivating the 32 contenders, competing across eight heats to to qualify for the semis, then the final.

Behind the quiz master's lectern, filling the seat of the late Peter Sinclair, it seems like Williams' whole broadcasting career has been leading up to this moment. He has been on television 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.

Current host Peter Williams.
Current host Peter Williams.

But for all his comforting familiarity, Williams has always been a closed book. His on-screen persona is unfailingly polite and friendly, but rarely warm.

In other words, he was the perfect choice to carry the torch of Mastermind 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 though 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 - 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 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.

What: Mastermind
When: Sunday 7.45pm
Where: One

- TimeOut

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