John Humphrys: What I learnt from 18 years on Mastermind

Having been at the helm for 735 episodes, the ex-host of the iconic quiz offers a unique an insight to what it’s like behind the scenes

‘My 18 years on the show were great fun and, with vanishingly rare exceptions, the contenders were gracious in victory or defeat’ Credit: Kelvin Boyes/ Hat Trick

Twenty years ago, the BBC emailed to ask me to do Mastermind. It took me roughly 30 seconds to reply: ‘Thanks but no thanks’ The only TV quiz I had ever appeared on was the BBC Two Christmas Quiz. That was 30-odd years ago. I have yet to recover from the humiliation. Nothing, but nothing, could have persuaded me to sit in that black chair.

But they emailed back: I had misunderstood. They didn’t want me to answer the questions, they wanted me to ask them. Would I present Mastermind?

Why, of course! Getting paid to read out questions that I hadn’t even had to think of for myself, and for which I had all the answers on the card in front of me. And I even got to approve the questions. Not for their accuracy – quiz programmes like Mastermind buy their questions from specialist companies and get the answers vetted – but I like to think I made them a little less long-winded.

So that’s what I did for the next 18 years. If Celebrity Mastermind and Junior Mastermind are included in the reckoning I have probably asked more questions than any other Mastermind host... including the great Magnus Magnusson. But I have learned nothing.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I have remembered nothing — but it comes down to the same thing in the end. (What’s the point of learning something if it is wiped from your memory bank faster than a politician’s promise?)

For 18 years I rattled out the questions at breakneck speed, mercilessly ending the dreams of those who imagined walking away with the glass bowl. On the rare occasions when the contender challenged my ‘incorrect’ ruling and we had to stop the recording to check, the contender was invariably proved right. But that’s the bit the viewers never got to see.

John Humphrys hosted the show from 2003 to 2021 Credit: BBC

Nor did the viewers get to see the tantrums behind the scenes... because there weren’t any. Or at least not many. I suspect that’s because there is no money at stake. You can understand someone getting a bit tetchy if they’ve just blown their chances of £1 million landing in their bank account, but Mastermind contenders are of a different mettle. They tend to be the best sort of enthusiastic amateurs. If they win there is no cheering or (God forbid) whooping of the sort that has become infuriatingly compulsory on every broadcast show these days.

If they lose they ask to come back and try again after a mandatory cooling-off period. Not everyone, though. Not the contender who was so unimpressed by appearing in the black chair that when I asked her what her specialist subject was, she hadn’t the first idea. She’d forgotten.

But that happened in Celebrity Mastermind, where the answers were sometimes so bizarre I often felt they should get a bonus point.

The all-time greatest answer (for my money) came from EastEnders and Holby City actor Paul Bradley. I kicked off with a traditionally easy starter question: ‘What breakfast cereal do you associate with prison?’ His answer: ‘Cheerios’. Surely worth a bonus point, I thought, for what might have been a sharply satirical observation on the nation’s penal policy at the time. My producer wouldn’t let me.

But it was a politician who got top marks for the most inventive answers. Lord knows why politicians ever want to appear, but they do – and almost always come to grief. Here’s how it went...

Q: Who succeeded Henry VIII?

His answer: Henry VII.

Q: What prison was stormed in Paris in 1789?

A: Versailles.

Q: What was the surname of the woman (Christian name Marie) who discovered radiation?

A: Antoinette.

And so it continued... made even more piquant by the fact that the inventive contender was David Lammy and his job at the time was Her Majesty’s Minister of State for Higher Education.

I said earlier that I’d learned nothing from Mastermind. That’s not strictly true. I learned what ‘talent’ meant.

I’ve been a journalist since I left school at 15. Still am when I’m not presenting Classic FM programmes. But when I reported for duty on my first day at Mastermind in 2003 I entered a new universe. I was introduced to a delightful young woman who, I was told, would be looking after me. That was her job. If I needed to be escorted from my rather luxurious dressing room with its fresh flowers to the studio (I have no sense of direction), she would be there. A coffee or tea or whatever refreshments or help I needed... all would be provided.

I pointed out that I was an old hack and newsrooms tend not to provide such luxuries. ‘Ah,’ they said, ‘but this is LE [Light Entertainment] and you are THE TALENT.’ The capital letters hung in the air.

I’d like to say I resisted but of course I didn’t. That’s the way it was in LE. There seems to be an automatic assumption in television that if the purpose of a programme is to entertain as opposed to inform, the presenters must be treated like stars. How else to explain Gary Lineker’s rather generous pay packet?

My 18 years on the show were great fun and, with vanishingly rare exceptions, the contenders were gracious in victory or defeat. My favourite remains the Paralympic athlete Kadeena Cox, who won not one but two gold medals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. She did not, it’s fair to say, excel on Celebrity Mastermind. 

She scored a modest three in her specialist subject and a fat zero in the general knowledge round. I was mildly embarrassed for her when I gave her the scores but she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘Oh well... two gold medals?’

Now that’s what I call putting things in perspective.

...and this is what it feels like to be a Mastermind champion

Gavin Fuller broke the record for the youngest ever winner when he became Mastermind champion in 1993, aged 24

Gavin Fuller: ‘Despite the terrors along the way, becoming the 1993 champion is an experience I’ll always treasure’

I still remember the day I first appeared on Mastermind. First, the theme tune, a piece of music by Neil Richardson called Approaching Menace. It’s ominous enough hearing it on television but sitting in one of the contenders’ chairs waiting to take part makes it even more threatening. Then came question-master Magnus Magnusson’s opening spiel — and all the while my nerves were increasing.

I had been fortunate to attend a recording some four years before I appeared on the show; at the time I was a history student at Exeter, and seeing it live fired my desire to take part.

I applied four times before I was finally accepted — I was delighted when I received a phone call. By then I was a part-time archivist for HMS Warrior at Portsmouth and for three months I knuckled down to revise my specialist subject: Doctor Who. This caused a bit of controversy back in 1993; I was the first person to be accused of dumbing down the show.

Then I simply crossed my fingers.

On the day of the recording I discovered I was the first contender in the first programme of that year’s series — no pressure there, then! On the plus side, it meant that I didn’t have to watch other competitors going on before me and performing well.

As the lights went down, I remember thinking: ‘Nowhere to run’. My main hope was not to make a fool of myself, or get anything wrong when Magnus asked the famous opener: name, occupation, specialist subject?

After the lights went down I wasn’t aware of anything other than myself and Magnus; people talk about being in a tunnel of concentration and that was exactly how it felt.

Settling in, I scored 16 with two passes during my specialist round; my three fellow contenders failed to match this score so by the halfway point, I was in the lead. I went last in the general knowledge round, and had the advantage of knowing not only the target score (29), but also how many passes I could afford to give. In the end it came down to a tie, and I scraped through because I had one fewer pass.

Back then the programme was structured so that the winners of the first four heats were in the same semi-final. I was able to see who I was up against before the recording – and one contender in heat three did so well he terrified the rest of us.

Contenders were expected to keep quiet about how well they had done until the programme was broadcast, which was entertaining. My specialist subject for the semi-final was medieval castles of Britain and Ireland, so I made sure I was never seen with any of my reading material.

The final day was the most nerve-racking of all, perhaps because I realised there was the possibility of winning. It’s right in front of you – the most prestigious quiz prize on British television. Even the location, the Commonwealth Institute in London, seemed set up to terrify – the audience, which included 17 former champions, sat above and around us in a circle. We had to walk up a tunnel to the podium, which felt like the Colosseum on lions day. It didn’t help that technical issues delayed the recording; by then I just wanted to get it over with.

Despite the terrors along the way, becoming the 1993 champion is an experience I’ll always treasure. You can see me on camera saying, ‘I don’t believe it; as I sit with the prized Caithness bowl, and I really couldn’t believe it: winning was something that felt more like a dream than something that could actually happen.

Since then I’ve returned to the black chair when they did a champion of champions special (coming joint third). This followed the current studio-based format and didn’t have the same atmosphere as those earlier ones. I’m also president of a club for former contenders — and never miss an episode — so all these decades later, my connection with Mastermind is as strong as ever.

How would you fare in the big black chair? Play our interactive quiz featuring 50 of the hardest questions in Mastermind history