I’m often told I should go on Mastermind. Although this isn’t a compliment (it’s actually a very polite, and very British, way of asking, ‘Can we talk about something else now?’), I still take it as one. Whenever someone mentions to me that I ought to audition for a spot in The Black Chair it tells me that, conversation skills aside, I’m at least on course to be the kind of person I’d like to be. If someone told me I should try out for The Weakest Link or, worse, The National Lottery: In It To Win It, I’d take it either as an insult or a suggestion that I really should engage in some sustained self-improvement.
To describe why I love Mastermind, it’s necessary – or at least easiest – to point out why I dislike virtually all other television quiz shows. I don’t like the avaricious game show slant unavoidable in anything with cash prizes or dream holidays at stake. The amateur ethos of Mastermind, on which the only rewards available are a cut glass bowl and the knowledge that you’ve jolly well done your best, seems to me directly descended from the spirit that built the British Empire. (In Mastermind there are no consolation prizes. As my paternal grandfather once said when he saw an Olympian celebrating a silver medal: ‘Runners-up prizes are nonsense. You either win – or you’ve lost!’)
I loathe anything over-complex and excessively showy, which bars from my affections too many quizzes to catalogue. And I’m embarrassed by anything that thrives on opportunism, ganging up, voting out or the playing of bizarre wild cards – which bars from my affections almost all the rest.
I don’t, though, despise every other TV quiz show. University Challenge is decent in theory, and admirable in ambition, but it allows all that cowardly conferring and, frankly, I see it as a short and swift journey from the vulgarity of its dependence on ‘buzzing in’ to the vulgarity of Total Wipeout and Hole in the Wall. (Reading the description of the latter’s first episode in a TV guide – ‘Dale Winton hosts a new game show in which celebrities try to fit through holes of different shapes and sizes’ – I’m certain I actually heard the sound of civilisation collapse.)
BBC4’s Only Connect is wonderful, its best attribute being that it inspires the same sort of admiration for its competitors as Mastermind. Entire episodes of the programme pass without me leaving the state of awed incomprehension brought on by Mastermind’s more obscure specialist subjects. Only Connect’s only failing is that it has to try so incredibly hard to be so incredibly clever: anything with rounds that have to be exhaustively explained and rules that have to be forever reiterated fails the tests of a great quiz show on matters of purity. Mastermind is superior to other quiz programmes in the way boxing or sprinting are superior to other sports. It is the simplest, least adulterated, form of competition in its field.
Countdown is the fairest of all quizzes: every contestant has the same letters, numbers and anagram, and an equal chance to make of them what he or she can. (And, since I was a boy, I’ve been in love with the idea that a complete set of encyclopaedia is the greatest prize that can be earned by a quiz contestant. The spectacle of those gorgeous leather bound volumes arrayed at the feet of the Countdown Series Champion seemed to me how school prize-givings must be in Heaven.) It is second in my affections to Mastermind simply because it isn’t a quiz show of the question and answer type: it’s more a mixture of after dinner word game and end of term exam.
Whilst it lived, Fifteen to One was almost irreproachable, and I remember several testy arguments with my maternal grandfather, who maintained it was more rigorous than even MM. He had one good point: ‘There’s no picking your favourite subject – you have to know what you’re asked!’ But Fifteen to One failed for me with the rules of its final round, and the opportunity to nominate other players to answer a question a contestant could have taken his or herself. That just seemed unsporting.
The programme is, though, as close to flawless as any test of knowledge ever devised for the television screen and Bill Wright should have been knighted for creating it. Four people, already expert on a topic, study it until they have absorbed every snatch of information they can fit into their improbably capacious brains. They enter a studio and sit in a forbidding black chair to answer questions about said subject in an ordeal supposedly inspired by Gestapo interrogation techniques. Later, they return and answer questions on any subject thought difficult enough to test them. The best person wins, and leaves without whooping. Mastermind is the quiz show’s only masterpiece.