Thinking About Mastermind

About thirty-five years ago I had a bit of success in the TV quiz show Mastermind. It was an interesting journey.

The show continued here in New Zealand and then went off the screen towards the end of the 1980’s or early 1990’s. It has now been revived. And it is different, as one would imagine it would be. Times change and so do entertainment styles. And some things remain the same.

When I did Mastermind the format was two minutes on a specialist subject of one’s choice followed by two minutes of general knowledge questions. The winners of the eight preliminary rounds went to the semi-final. We were required to change specialist subject. Otherwise the format remained the same. The winner and runner-up made it through to the final. The current format reverses that process. The winners and eight other top scorers go through to the four semi-final rounds. Only the winners of the semi-final rounds make it to the final. And for the semi-final the specialist subject must change.

The trick with Mastermind was to answer as many questions correctly as possible within the two minutes. This meant maximising the number of questions asked. There were ways to do this. The first involved knowing what you don’t know and passing as quickly as possible – even if it mean interrupting the question. The other way was to get the answer out as quickly as possible if you did know it – and if you could get the correct answer out before the question finished so much the better – even if it is a bit rude to interrupt.

The current series of Mastermind screening on TV1 is far more polite. Contestants have to wait until the questioner has finished. Some of them have interrupted, but the questioner proceeds to finish the question. A bit strange and pedestrian in my opinion and certainly inhibits a fast paced round. And definitely inhibits building up a decent score.

On the subject of questions and pace I must say that the questions seem to be incredibly long and contain too much information. Surely it is better to ask for a simple fact than to preface the question with information that is not directly relevant to the answer. An example (and I have concocted this) would be “What were Gandalf’s last words to the Fellowship on the Bridge at Khazad-Dum” Brief, punchy and to the point. And there is only one answer. But question construction in the TV1 series means that the question would probably be phrased in this way, “As the Fellowship were fleeing from the Balrog in the Mines of Moria on their way to Lothlorien, what were Gandalf’s last words on the Bridge at Khazad-Dum” And the answer is the same. “Fly you fools!” But that answer doesn’t need all the prefatory stuff. And the problem is that this slows down the pace, prevents the accumulation of points and means more time is spent asking individual questions than really testing the contestant’s knowledge.

The format of the current show allows 90 seconds on the specialist subject, 90 seconds on general knowledge and 90 seconds on a New Zealand general knowledge topic. I don’t understand the addition of the New Zealand section unless it is to make the show “relevant” but general knowledge is general knowledge irrespective of location and when I did the show there were New Zealand general knowledge questions included – no need for a special round. Once again, 90 seconds is not really long enough to build up a decent score. If anyone has watched other quiz shows, especially The Chase, it will be obvious that once a contestant gets into rhythm of answering, more questions get answered and the tension – and the points – build up. An extra 30 seconds makes all the difference.

I understand that “commercial necessity” means that there have to be advertisements but I can’t understand why the placement of those announcements must be in the middle of each round. Murder on the contestants and once again slows down the pace of the show.

But it is still a great format. The filming location under the clock tower at Auckland University is different and appropriate. The show is entertaining and good on the contestants for giving it a shot – sitting in an exposed position under a bright light and having questions come out of the dark is quite tense. The show was inspired by the experiences of the originator being interrogated by the Gestapo in World War II. Whilst the tension is, shall we say, different, it is still there. Maybe a return to the original formula might increase the drama and the thrill and the tension, at least for the audience. And good luck to all concerned.