Friday, 11 March 2011

Mastermind Special - Brian Pendreigh

LAM regular Brian Pendreigh sent me a copy of this article which he wrote for a regional newspaper about his first round appearence in this year's series. Brian is in tonight's semi final, and so I thought it would be good if I could share the article with everyone. With Brian's kind permission I reprint it here in full

Everyone always asks about the chair. What is it like to sit in the chair? The producers have contributed to the process of turning the Mastermind chair from a seat into an icon, lovingly caressing the black leather and shining metal with the camera as the theme tune Approaching Menace throbs away.

Bill Wright, the former RAF flight-sergeant who devised Mastermind, drew on his experience of being interrogated by the Gestapo for the format and for the chair, so it was always intended to be intimidating. But as far as I am concerned it was just a chair.

What worried me was the questions. I had watched Mastermind for years. I got some right, I got some wrong. What would happen if Fate strung together all those questions for which I did not have answers. I could, in theory, score nothing.

The question is not - What is it like to sit in the chair? The question is - Why did I apply to go on Mastermind in the first place? I am reminded of what George Mallory said when asked why he wanted to climb Everest. “Because it’s there.” But then he died on the mountain, not an experience I wanted to repeat on television.

Poor performances have been greeted with the headline “Disastermind” in the past. A few weeks before I auditioned a “contender” was lampooned in the press after setting a new record low score of five points – four on his specialist round and one on general knowledge.

He had a lot of passes and wrong answers, but nothing as ridiculous as the contestant on another quiz who thought Liverpool beat India in the European Cup final or the one who thought the Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo DiCaprio. Sometimes it is a slip of the tongue. Sometimes people just cannot recall an answer under pressure and crack, like the woman who got all 12 of her questions wrong last year on Postcode Challenge, Scottish Television’s Friday night quiz.

I always had a passion for facts and was always very competitive. I liked exams at school. I went to a selective school, which also had streaming, and there was a spirit of competition both in academic subjects and sport. This was a long way from Peter Mullan’s Neds.

Mastermind started in 1972, when I was at school. It is quizzing in its purest form, no gimmicks, just a test of what you know and what you can recall. The show and the chair quickly worked their way into the public consciousness, with sketches from Monty Python, The Goodies, The Two Ronnies (Ronnie C “answering the question before last”) and Morecambe and Wise (Eric wins when asked to complete the name of the Khyber What?).

My uncle, the late Jim Brunton, appeared on the TV version of Brain of Britain and sang the Grand Old Duke of York in answer to a question. In 1986 we both applied for Superscot, the BBC Scotland quiz hosted by Jane Franchi. We both reached the final, co-wrote two quiz books - one of which made the bestsellers list, and compiled newspaper quizzes together for years.

But for the past decade I had done nothing other than the fortnightly pub quiz at the Starbank in Edinburgh and occasional social quizzes. One of the younger guys kept suggesting we put in for Eggheads. Somehow I ended up applying for A Question of Genius, a short-lived BBC quiz hosted by Kirsty Wark. It recorded at Pacific Quay and I had to be up at 5.30 am. I got about 90 minutes sleep the previous night, but I was runner-up and wanted more.

There is a nationwide Grand Prix circuit of quizzes in England, where Masterminds, Brains of Britain and Eggheads regularly quiz against each other. It is a varied bunch of people, mainly but not exclusively male, aged from twenties upwards.

It was at one of my first Grand Prixs that I auditioned for Mastermind about a year ago. I feared there might be a blacklist for people who could not name the US Vice-President. Apparently not. I had two months to swot up on The Beatles, my first specialist subject, and on the entire history of the world, devising various mnemonics – the order of the outer planets spell SUN appropriately enough, the order of the state capitals of the two Dakotas are my initials.

There are 12 original Beatles UK albums, with international variations, 13 EPs, 22 singles, four feature films and over 1000 books on the group. There are smaller subjects, but I wanted something I felt passionate about. I listened to every track, watched every film, read numerous books, compiled copious notes.

My wife Jenny helped me with “past papers” of general knowledge. My scores ranged from 6 to 13. Kevin Ashman, a former Mastermind, Brain of Britain and world quiz champion, set the Mastermind record of 41 - 20 on his specialist round and 21 on general knowledge. General knowledge in the heats is now two and a half minutes, instead of two, but for various reasons that does not mean there are more questions. I reckoned I would be happy with 9 or 10.

The BBC put me up in a four-star hotel in Manchester. I stayed there till lunchtime and then wandered along to the Granada studios. Contestants have to take three or four shirts and half-jokingly I took a country-and-western shirt I had bought in the United States – black with bright silver stars all over it. The wardrobe guy loved it, although I feared I might be remembered as the man with the starry shirt and the less-than-starry performance.

I knew, in theory, I had a chance of winning, depending on the questions and the other “contenders”. But the main thing was to do ok. One of my rivals Paul Philpot recognised me from Grand Prixs. He was two ahead after the specialist round, but I knew I only needed two correct answers on general knowledge to secure second place. I felt the pressure was off. I was not nervous. I was not aware of the chair or the audience, just John Humphrys and the questions.

And then it happened – 2 wrong, 2 passes, 20 correct. I had done better than ok. It was one of the highest general knowledge scores in the history of Mastermind. I was lucky. The questions suited me. I had a total of 35 and won by 11 points.

There were almost four months between heat and semi-final. I cannot say anything about it, except that my specialism is Sean Connery and both rounds are 30 seconds shorter, so the scores are not comparable. The previous year someone did Jim Carrey and scored 1. Time to worry again.

In the meantime I went on Postcode Challenge with some of my regular quiz buddies. We set a record score and won some cash. We did finally go on Eggheads and played Kevin Ashman et al. It will be broadcast later this year. But that is another story.

*Mastermind, BBC 2, Friday 8 pm.

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