Checked content

Mastermind (TV series)

Related subjects: Television

Background Information

SOS Children made this Wikipedia selection alongside other schools resources. A good way to help other children is by sponsoring a child

New Mastermind Logo
Format Quiz show
Created by Bill Wright
Starring Magnús Magnússon
Peter Snow
(BBC Radio 4)
Clive Anderson
(Discovery Channel)
John Humphrys
(BBC Two)
Country of origin United Kingdom
No. of series 25 (Main series)
4 (Junior series)
(BBC Radio 4)
(Discovery Channel)
Running time 30 minutes
Original channel BBC1
( 11 September, 1972 1 September, 1997)
(Main series)
(Junior series)

BBC Radio 4
Discovery Channel
( 14 November, 2001 16 January, 2002)
( 30 December, 2002–present)
Original run 11 September 1972 – present

Mastermind is a British quiz show, well-known for its challenging questions, intimidating setting and air of seriousness.

Devised by Bill Wright, the basic format of Mastermind has never changed — four contestants face two rounds, one on a specialised subject of the contestant's choice, the other a general knowledge round. Wright drew inspiration from his experiences of being interrogated by the Gestapo during World War II.

The atmosphere is helped by Mastermind's famously ominous theme music, "Approaching Menace" by the English composer Neil Richardson.


Each contestant has two minutes per round. First, each contestant in turn answers questions on their specialised subject (see examples below). The contestant may pass if he doesn't know the answer, rather than guessing. If a question is answered incorrectly, the questioner will give the answer, using valuable time. However if 'pass' is given, then the answer is read at the end of the round. After the two minutes is up a buzzer is sounded; if a question is being read (or has just been read), then the contestant is given a short period of time to answer, leading to the show's famous catchphrase, "I've started so I'll finish." After this, answers to any passes are given.

After each contestant has answered his specialised questions, they are given general knowledge questions. The contestants are recalled in reverse order of points scored.

The winner is the contestant with the most points. If two or more contestants have an equal number of points, then the contestant with the fewer passes is the winner. The possibility of passing leads to tactical play: passing uses less time, allowing more questions to be answered, but may count against the contestant at the end in the event of a tie.

Should the top two contestants have the same score and same number of passes at the end of the contest then a tie-breaker is employed, in which the two contenders are each asked the same five questions (one contender must leave the auditorium while the other answers). It is not clear what would happen should this fail to produce a clear winner, though it is implied that the process would simply be repeated as many times as necessary. It is, however, very rare for the tie-break to be required. In the version of the show hosted by John Humphrys, it has appeared once in the main series and once in the Junior Mastermind spin-off, the latter being in the final broadcast on 26 February 2006.

The winner goes through to the next round, where he must choose a different specialised subject. The winner of the final of the BBC version is declared "Mastermind" for that year and is the only contestant to receive a prize, in the form of a cut glass engraved bowl.

Versions of Mastermind

Mastermind has appeared in six versions:

  • The seminal BBC version hosted between 1972 and 1997 by Magnús Magnússon. It was originally broadcast late on a Sunday night and was not expected to receive a huge audience. However, in 1973 it was moved to a prime-time slot as an emergency replacement for a Leslie Phillips sitcom, Casanova '73, which had been moved to a later time following complaints about its risqué content. The quiz subsequently became one of the most-watched shows on British television. Magnusson was famous for his catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish," which was also the title of his history of the show (by far the most authoritative work on the show — ISBN 0-7515-2585-5). The original series was also noted for the variety of venues where filming took place — often including academic and ecclesiastical buildings. The original series also spawned an International Edition between 1979 and 1983.
  • A version on Radio 4 hosted by Peter Snow, running between 1998 and 2000.
  • A version on Discovery Channel hosted by Clive Anderson in 2001. This version shortened the amount of time available for the answering of questions and lasted just one series. This was also the first to go 'interactive'. By using the red button viewers could play the general knowledge section throughout the series. These questions had been written specifically to afford both standard and multiple-choice format in presentation. There was a one-off competition between the four highest scoring viewers.
  • A new BBC Two version hosted by John Humphrys, beginning in 2003. Whereas the original series kept talk to a minimum, asking contestants only their name, occupation and specialist subject, the new show includes some conversational elements with contestants between rounds. It is also distinguished from the original BBC TV series by the fact that many more contestants' specialist subjects come from popular culture, which probably reflects cultural changes in the British middle classes in recent years. Unlike the original version, this version is studio-based. It is made in Manchester (although, due to asbestos being found at Granada studios, parts of the 2006 series were filmed at the Yorkshire Television studios in Leeds) .
  • Junior Mastermind, also hosted by John Humphrys, is a children's version of the quiz programme and has the same format, the difference being that the contestants are only ten and eleven years old. The programme aired across six nights on BBC One, ending on 4 September 2004. The winner was Daniel Parker, whose specialist subjects were the Volkswagen Beetle (heat) and James Bond villains (final). There was another series in 2005 (subjects included Black Holes and the Star Wars trilogy), which was won by Robin Geddes, whose specialist subjects were The Vicar of Dibley and A Series of Unfortunate Events and another coming in 2006 (with The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the Caroline Lawrence Books).
  • Mastermind Cymru, a Welsh-language version of the programme started on 8 October 2006 on S4C. It is hosted by Betsan Powys.

In the United States, the game show 2 Minute Drill on sports network ESPN had its roots in Mastermind. Contestants faced questions fired at them by a panel of four sports and entertainment celebrities for two minutes. The contestant with the highest score after two rounds would win the night's prize, and the winner would have a chance to double those winnings by correctly answering the "Question of Great Significance," as host Kenny Mayne called it. In each series, winners advanced in a bracket-style playoff format, with prizes increasing from $5,000 in the first round to $50,000 (doubling to $100,000 by answering the final question) in the final round. Prizes such as trips to the Super Bowl or ESPY Awards were also given. The show had three series over a 15-month period, September 2000 to December 2001. Like Mastermind, 2 Minute Drill featured a leather chair, dramatic lighting and sound effects. Willy Gibson of Columbus, Ohio was the grand champion of the first two series; he was defeated in the second round of the third and final series. Unlike Mastermind presenters, Mayne had a very dry, quirky and sometimes sarcastic sense of humor, but did a very good job of keeping the game going; he would quickly jump in if one of the celebrity panelists was tardy in posing their question, so as not to penalise the contestant.


The highest Mastermind score is 41 points, set by Kevin Ashman in 1995.

The lowest score record is seven points, set by Colin Kidd in an edition broadcast in 2005. Lower scores have been attained by celebrity contestants, such as Arabella Weir and Tara Palmer-Tomkinson who both scored six points on the same show. Murray Walker also scored seven points in the same 2004 celebrity series.

Arfor Wyn Hughes, dubbed "Disastermind" by the British press, has frequently claimed (most recently on a BBC tribute to Magnus Magnusson) that his score of 12 was the lowest ever, but in fact scores of as little as nine points had been achieved several times prior to his 1990 appearance on the show.

Perhaps the most famous Mastermind winner was garrulous London taxi driver Fred Housego, who won in 1980.

In October 2006, Simon Curtis achieved the lowest ever score on the speciality subject round, scoring just 1 point. Simon was at the Semi-final stages but passed on almost every question to do with "The Films of Jim Carrey".

Examples of "Specialised Subjects"

  • The life and works of Gilbert & Sullivan
  • The Moomin saga by Tove Jansson
  • The history of Lancashire County Cricket Club
  • The life-cycle and habits of the Honey-bee
  • The Buddhist sage Nichiren
  • The work of H. P. Lovecraft
  • A special episode of Mastermind called Doctor Who Mastermind was broadcast on 19 March 2005, in which all four contestants had the specialist subject Doctor Who. The prize was awarded to the winner by the then current Doctor, actor Christopher Eccleston.


Main Champions

  • 1972: Nancy Wilkinson
  • 1973: Patricia Owen
  • 1974: Liz Horrocks
  • 1975: John Hart
  • 1976: Roger Prichard
  • 1977: Sir David Hunt
  • 1978: Rosemary James
  • 1979: Philip Jenkins
  • 1980: Fred Housego
  • 1981: Leslie Grout
  • 1982: no regular competition
  • 1983: Chris Hughes
  • 1984: Margaret Harris
  • 1985: Ian Meadows
  • 1986: Jen Keaveney
  • 1987: Jeremy Bradbrooke
  • 1988: David Beamish
  • 1989: Mary Elizabeth Raw
  • 1990: David Edwards
  • 1991: Stephen Allen
  • 1992: Steve Williams
  • 1993: Gavin Fuller
  • 1994: George Davidson
  • 1995: Kevin Ashman
  • 1996: Richard Sturch
  • 1997: Anne Ashurst
  • 1998: Robert Gibson (Radio 4)
  • 1999: Christopher Carter (Radio 4)
  • 2000: Stephen Follows (Radio 4)
  • 2001 - 2002: Michael Penrice (Discovery Channel)
  • 2003: Andy Page
  • 2004: Shaun Wallace
  • 2005: Patrick Gibson
  • 2006: Geoff Thomas

Junior Champions

  • 2004: Daniel Parker
  • 2005: Robin Geddes
  • 2006: Domhnall Ryan
  • 2007: Robert Stutter
  • 2007: David Verghese

The Chair

Perhaps the most famous icon of the show is the black swivel chair in which the contestants sit, lit by a solitary spotlight in an otherwise dark studio. The inspiration for this was the interrogations faced by the show's creator, Bill Wright, as a POW in World War II. The original black chair was given to Magnus Magnusson as a souvenir when he retired from the show.


The programme has been the target for many television spoofs, most memorably the Two Ronnies sketch written by David Renwick, featuring Ronnie Barker as Magnus Magnusson and Ronnie Corbett as a contestant named Charlie Smithers, whose specialist subject was "answering the question before last". This continually led to humorous and often rude answers. A similar sketch featured Monty Python alumni Michael Palin as Magnusson and Terry Gilliam as a contestant whose speciality was "questions to which the answer is two."

The 2003-onwards version has been spoofed by the Dead Ringers team, with Jon Culshaw playing John Humphrys. One episode included Mastermind: The Opera.

Another spoof was featured in Armando Iannucci's 2004: The Stupid Version, where a contestant's specialist subject was "The television series Thunderbirds and Lady Penelope's Cockney chauffeur".

Also in 2004, Johnny Vaughan's BBC Three show Live at Johnny's featured a version called Mastermind Rejects -- the premise being that the specialist subjects were too ludicrously obscure even for Mastermind. In the final show of the series, Magnus Magnusson took over as the quizmaster - it was the last time he would utter the catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish" on any form of Mastermind. The specialist subject was The History of the Home Video Recorder, 1972 to 1984.

On their 2005 Christmas Special, comedy duo French & Saunders parodied the show with Jennifer Saunders playing Abigail Wilson, a pensioner whose special subject is Ceramic Teapots. She passes on all but one question, which she answers incorrectly anyway.

In 2005, the show was spoofed on BBC Radio 4's The Now Show where the specialist subject was "Britishness", relating to the proposed test immigrants may have to take, to prove they can fit in with British society.

In the 1970s a young viewer of Jim'll Fix It had her wish granted to sit in the black chair and answer questions from Magnus Magnusson on the subject of the " Mr. Men".

Also in the 1970s, Morecambe and Wise performed a sketch based on Mastermind, which featured Magnusson and the black chair. The format was different, however, with Wise, then Morecambe, being asked 10 questions each.

Benny Hill parodied Mastermind on The Benny Hill Show on at least two separate occasions. In one of the parodies the show was called "Masterbrane". In each, Benny played the role of Magnusson while Jackie Wright played the hapless contestant.

Spitting Image used the Mastermind format in a sketch where a Magnus Magnusson puppet asked questions of a Jeffrey Archer puppet whose specialist subject was himself. The twist was that Archer's puppet, being incapable of answering questions about himself without exaggeration or evasion, ends the round with zero points.

A section of a 1992 episode of the BBC Two evening theme show TV Hell hosted by Angus Deayton and Paul Merton was entitled 'Disastermind' and told the story of a teacher contestant who obtained a risible score leading to much derision by his pupils.

In his early routines Bill Bailey would often parody the Mastermind music as he found it very sinister. He would then play the music on keyboard with an over-the-top hellish sounding climax.

Retrieved from ""