Weaver's Week 2021-02-14

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File:Square Mastermind.jpg

A change to the advertised Week, as news broke last weekend that we simply have to cover. We wrote this before hearing All Things Quiz discuss the matter ; it's gratifying to know that this column is thinking on similar lines.



John Humphrys is to step down as the Mastermind inquisitor. The fourth English-language host, he's held the role since 2003, and such longevity proves that he's done something right.

The distinct lack of warm tributes from colleagues might demonstrate that he's not done a lot right. According to his leaving statement (as reported in an unreliable source), Humphrys could not be bothered to continue schlepping to Belfast. That's an incredibly rude and inconsiderate thing to say. He could at least pretend that he wanted to spend more time with his family, or that he felt it was time to step back and enjoy his retirement. He could even have used the excuse that he's re-assessed his priorities in the present climate. But no, Humphrys has to stick the boot into the best thing to have happened to Mastermind since Nancy Dickmann beat Ian Bayley by a whisker.

Yesterday's man.

While it's now necessary to re-cast the host, it's also a chance to help re-make the show. One great thing has happened to Mastermind in the last few years: a new production team, which happens to be based in Belfast. Since autumn 2019, the show feels fresher, more vibrant. The set design is stark black-and-white, it feels like the contenders are alone in the universe. It's far more imposing than the blue palette used before (and still used on Mastermind Cymru, of which more later). Other changes have helped the show – a move back to Monday, fresh setters of general knowledge questions – but these are less obvious to the casual viewer.

Before we float names about, we've got to ask the pertinent question: What do we want from the Mastermind host? Ideally, we're looking for knowledge, skill, and courtesy; and to reflect modern quizzing.

Magnus Magnusson The original.

Knowledge? The host is going to be asking questions on a lot of subjects, the role is the conduit for experts in the specialist fields to quiz each other. As viewers, and as contenders, the host needs to make us feel like they know what they're talking about. While the host may know nothing about studies into the flightpath of the Kampuchean moth, the host needs to act as though they do. A certain gravitas and authority is needed, whether real or acted.

Skill in asking questions is vital. An even, equitable tempo is necessary, so that the questions can be measured out in syllables for exact fairness. The host needs to be able to pronounce unfamiliar names first time, and understand the various responses possible from the contestant. Ideally, we might like the host to speak a little more quickly than John Humphrys; certainly they do not read out the "model" answer when a contestant's given an "also accept" response.

Peter Snow Radio's presenter.

Courtesy is essential. The contenders are the stars of the show, we watch Mastermind to see them succeed under intense questioning. To make good television, the contenders need to allowed to concentrate on their performance. Contenders don't need to worry about whether the host will mispronounce their name, say "Bucket" instead of "Bou-QUET", or otherwise get little things wrong. Someone who can rub along well with the contestants is essential.

Courtesy for the viewers is also essential. We must assume that this is a long-term appointment, the average Mastermind host has stuck around for 12 years. While things can change in unpredictable ways, we would want to cast someone who is prepared to commit for that long.

Clive Anderson Did a version in the sky, once.

Humphrys' appointment reflected the world of television quiz as it was in 2003: middle-aged, a bit traditionalist. It was the domain of a certain person, and an exclusive club to which some were not invited. Humphrys was always a conservative figure, appointed as a copy of Jeremy Paxman on University Challenge, albeit a copy done on a misaligned machine running out of toner. He represented quizzing as it was, with little foresight into how it might change.

So much has changed in the passing years. Quizzing has become younger, much more diverse, less stuffy. Pop culture and highbrow culture get along just fine, and the new Mastermind host needs to be equally at home with jurist William Gilmore, baseball's Gary Gilmore, and the tv series Gilmore Girls.

For the first time in a generation, there's a chance to represent quizzing as it is now, and how we can expect it to become in the next few years. We'd prefer the host to not be another old white man – but if the best man for the job is an old white man, then sign him up!

Name That Host

When he took on Mastermind in 1972, Magnus Magnusson was a relatively familiar face, he'd hosted shows on history, and presented the topical discussion show Tonight. In that vein, we might look to people with a journalist's training – but who avoid the self-indulgent brawling we hear on Radio 4's The Today Show. The BBC would be wrong to presume that political interviews are its finest work, and would do well to separate news more firmly from entertainment. Elsewhere in society, we see what happens when poor performers are told they're entertaining, and play to the crowd rather than their strengths, and look where that gets us. We would not reserve the job for the Newsnight squad.

Anita Rani Time for A Rani?

Nor would we entirely rule out people with journalistic training. Anita Rani from Radio 4's Woman's Hour would bring something different to Mastermind, and Anita has proven herself in the black chair. From Radio 5, we might suggest Nihal Arthanayake and Naga Munchetty. Claire Byrne from RTÉ is sharp and personable, her colleague Philip Boucher-Hayes is as tough as nails. Many things were wrong with Number One two decades back, Krishnan Guru-Murthy was assured and confident from the very start.

Or they could look to non-journalist experts familiar to a television audience. Coast introduced us to a lot of great communicators – host Neil Oliver, Miranda Krestovnikoff, Mark Horton, Alice Roberts – but would these experts want to be known as "the host of Mastermind"? We can come up with plenty of other names – Maggie Aderin-Pocock from The Sky at Night, Liz Bonnin from Countryfile, author Sinéad Gleeson, polymath Tom Scott, scientists Jon Tickle and Jim Al-Khalili. For all, the question is do they want the job, and would they be great at it?

Lucy Porter, reigning celebrity champion of champions.

We know that a good voice actor is able to read anything put in front of them, and make it sound convincing. Angus Deayton and Alexander Armstrong are the most iconic names, but both have stronger game show connections already. We might look for someone with comedy training, who can improvise to whatever happens. Zoe Lyons does well on Lightning, and Lucy Porter has the quiz credentials, and there are so many voice talents we've heard without knowing their name. Or someone from the unpredictable world of children's broadcasting: can we entice Josie d'Arby from Young Musician of the Year?

They could knock the intellectual credentials in a heartbeat, and poach someone from Round Britain Quiz. Stuart Maconie is known to be an excellent broadcaster, and can cut the mustard with the rest of the cleverpeeps on the show. Paddy Duffy and Freya McClements are local to the Belfast studio, and young and qualified. Anna Nolan would be a very leftfield choice: she's presented Bake Off in Ireland, proven she's smart and inquisitive, and certain to put people at their ease.

He won't be around forever, either.

Of course, Mastermind is only the warm-up. At some point in the near future, we'll have to find a new host for University Challenge. Like it or loathe it, at some point Jeremy Paxman is going to have to leave the student quiz; we pray that it's a decision he can choose to make. Who will follow him? Perhaps the new Mastermind host will give us a clue.

...and Mastermind Cymru


A nine-week run of Mastermind Cymru ended on 3 February. The basic idea is the same as the Saesneg version: a specialist round, a general knowledge round, solo efforts against the clock.

The series format was a little different from the anglophone version. Contenders were given two trips to the chair, on two separate programmes, offering two different specialist subjects. The total score across the two shows – four minutes of specialist questions, five minutes of general knowledge – was added up, and the top four scorers came back for the final.

Mastermind Tom shows the glory of Aberystwyth.

Tom Cosson was the first contender in the final, the civil servant took Welsh Castles as his final specialist subject. Another tradition they've brought over: each finalist makes a short film to talk about themself, and talk about their specialist subject. Tom – who has learned Welsh as a second language – is filmed in the stone ruins of Aberystwyth Castle, talking about how it has a different history from all of the other castles. A subject too large for the final? Perhaps, perhaps not: the score of 9 points leaves something for the others to tilt at. We're still chuckling at the name they give the cavern under Pembroke Castle (Wogan!)

Mastermind This week's box office pick.

Gwenno Hughes, a media freelancer from Cardiff, took The Lord of the Rings films into the final. She's made her film in the city's arthouse cinema, and tells us she's taken pop culture subjects (Gilmore Girls and Peep Show) as an escape from reality. It's nice to have an excuse to watch the films again, and to show off in front of 10,000 viewers. 11 points sets the mark.

Mastermind Going up in the world.

Geraint Efans, an architecht, tells us about the history of rock climbing in North Wales. He's filmed at an indoor climbing centre near his home, and tells us that when you're rock climbing, you cannot think about anything else, it's total concentration. Sitting in the Mastermind chair should be an exam, waiting the questions and hoping the right one turns up. Many of them do: 9 points.

Mastermind The past is everywhere.

Gethin Jones, a museum supervisor, has brought Lee Harvey Oswald to the table. His film is shot in a museum: not the Sixth Floor museum in Dallas (well worth it, if you're in the area), but his own workplace at St Fagans National Museum of History. Lee Oswald's life story would be interesting in its own right, had it not been intertwined with JFK or curtailed by Jack Ruby. 11 points.

Mastermind Cymru is a BBC Studios production, and re-uses the old blue lighting and graphics – and even the logo – abandoned on BBC2 a couple of years ago. There are doubtless perfectly good licensing reasons for this – the new logo and style is associated with the Hindsight / Hat Trick productions. The one nod to modern living: thick perspex screens between the contenders.

Mastermind It's more colourful than the BBC2 editions.

Like on the English language version, the questions tend to be a bit long. Part of that is the structure of the Welsh language, it tends to be a little bit more long-winded than English. "Amatau" is the Welsh for "pass", three syllables in the place of one. It is probable that the questions were written and researched and checked in English, and then translated into Welsh, which would add an extra layer of clunkiness.

The net result is that, like the English-language quiz, Mastermind Cymru has quite long questions. We see this as something to avoid. If you're going to probe the cracks in someone's knowledge, you've got to give them lots of opportunity to fail. And to get lots of opportunity to fail, you've got to ask lots of questions. The present arrangements allow for perfect rounds of 11 or 12 points; ten years ago, a contender had 15 or more opportunities to err. If the writers can come up with concise questions that help tell a story to the viewers, so much the better, but the show has to focus on the contenders, not the questions, not the host.

Mastermind Betsan Powys: best Mastermind host we've seen all year.

Another flaw common to both versions is the unbalanced rounds. Two minutes of specialist subjects, two-and-a-half of general knowledge. If there must be an imbalance in the rounds, we'd much rather it be a longer specialist round. The contender has put in a lot of work to research and revise their specialist subject, it's their chance to show off about a topic close to their heart. Right now, Mastermind says that specialist work is only 75% as important as a random grab-bag of questions, and we simply think they've come to the wrong conclusion.

In this series, the general knowledge questions include a fair smattering of Welsh culture. On one hand, Fari Lwyd and bards and St Winefriedes Well and Lynn Davies. On the other hand, jumbucks and Harry Styles and vitamins and Clarence Birdseye. We'd expect nothing less, and perhaps got nothing more.

There was a celebrities edition on Christmas night, won by politician Carwyn Jones. In the studio, little looked like it was going to stop Gethin Jones: he'd finished top of the qualifiers board, and maintained his pace with a winning score of 21 in the final.

Mastermind Gethin takes home this piece of kryptonite.

In other news

Still with Welsh culture, we've thoroughly enjoyed S4C's recent series of Hewlfa Drysor. Filmed last summer – sunny skies, everyone keeps their distance in a responsible and fun manner – the show combines the tricksy clues of a good treasure hunt with stunts and a dash of local education. Here's the series, available worldwide. Hope we can see more next year; wonder if BBC Scotland or Channel 4 might pick up the idea.

The Masked Dancer ITV has bought a series of The Masked Dancer to provide an "alternative" for the autumn schedule. In this show, unlike anything else on television, celebrities perform artistic and meme dances while wearing fancy dress. It's expected to air during the run of Strictly Come Dancing, possibly stripped over a week.

Reinventing The Wheel Trade works in the other direction, and NBC has filled out the copious amounts of red tape required to buy The Wheel from Michael McIntyre. We don't yet know who will host the programme, but if the deal doesn't include Paul Farrer's music, we're going to go off like McIntyre.

The Wheel And we'd rather say, "yay!".

All Wright Now Ian Wright is going to host a new game show. The former footballer, who hasn't had a big show since they canned Wright Around the World, will present The Money Ball on ITV. The programme is described as "a cross between questions and sports", and it comes from ITV Studios imprints Potato and Possessed.

Game on! Channel 4 is looking to bring back Gamesmaster. The video game show ran for most of the 1990s, and – because Channel 4 is now the home of cutting-edge ideas from the commissioner's youth – is set for a new series. We expect the programme to be completely re-cast, as Gamesmaster Patrick Moore died some years ago, and uber-host Dominick Diamond has settled on radio in Calgary. Some wags have suggested former MP John Bercow as the new Gamesmaster, an idea to tickle our fancy.

Junior Eurovision Song Contest Follow that!

Siouxsie wanted TG4 intends to return to the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, after a one year absence caused by the you-know-what. Young singers are invited to apply to the television station. There's no word on what the song will be, so we're still gently humming the most recent entry "Banshee".

Fifteen-to-One wiki We've mentioned the Jack's Online Writings blog before, a full set of recaps for University Challenge and notes on other shows. Jack has created a wiki about Fifteen-to-One, everyone's favourite daytime quiz hosted by William G Stewart (and then by Sandi Toksvig). This column is digging out some extensive notes we took while watching the show's early years. If you can help, with recordings or notes or memories, drop a note to Jack.


The Beano Power Awards named its show of the year: The Masked Singer.

Riddler Nation found the most powerful words for five-letter Lingo puzzles. By using BINTS, CLOAK, GYRED, and WHUMP, there's a 95.96% chance you'll be able to solve for any five-letter word. However, this analysis doesn't follow the standard rules, which require every word to start with the given first letter. So if you want to go on the second series ITV have commissioned, this is a rotten strategy.

Exercises for the interested bored reader include: generalise to four-letter and six-letter Lingo puzzles, work out the 26 best guess sets for each possible initial letter, repeat the process for Dutch words, complete this puzzle.

Lingo Answer later.

After last night's final of The Masked Singer, you might have withdrawal symptoms. ITV2 can ease the pain with The Masked Singer Us (weekdays). It's also the final of Celebrity Home Cook (BBC1, Tue and Wed).

A Valentine's Day special of, er, Breaking the News (Radio Scotland, BBC Scotland). Not the show we most expected to get in the romantic mood, but there we are.

No rugby next Saturday, so we've got Celebrity Mastermind with John Culshaw, Stephen Mulhern's Celebrity Catchphrase with Stephen Mulhern, goalkeeper David James on Catchpoint, Chris Kamara on The Wall Versus Celebrities, Stephen Mulhern but Gary Barlow on Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, and children's television royalty on Pointless Celebrities. Dave Benson Phillips is in the studio: are you pondering what we're pondering? Will we have fun when we wave our magic wand about?

Photo credits: Hindsight / Hat Trick, BBC, Granada, BBC Studios, Hungry McBear, EBU/TVP, Regent Productions.

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