“Mastermind” and Special Subjects

The format of the BBC quiz show “Mastermind” has barely changed since it was first broadcast in the 1970s. In the opening rounds four contestants each answer two minutes’ worth of questions on a special subject and then have two and a half minutes on general knowledge. In later rounds (semi-finals, the grand final) there are more than four contestants and the time allotted to each set of questions is shorter, but the basic format is the same (special subjects followed by general knowledge).

The show currently airs on Fridays, at 8pm on BBC2. I rarely watch it live but record it and watch later. When the special subjects are on topics I know nothing about I will typically forward through to the general knowledge questions and try to answer along with the contestants.

From time to time I keep count of my scores. The number of questions asked in each round varies. It depends on how quickly the contestants answer, and whether they say “pass” or offer wrong answers. In the latter case John Humphrys will read the correct answer, taking up a bit more time, as noted in this piece. Usually there are 18 or 19 questions, occasionally more, sometimes fewer. A sample of five weeks early in the current series shows that my best score on a single general knowledge round was 18 correct answers (out of 21) and my lowest was 9 (out of 18). I usually find one of the four sets of questions harder than the others, either the second or third set, rarely the first or fourth. Here, as simple text, are my scores from those five sample rounds:

Date, correct/total answers 1st round, 2nd, 3rd, 4th = Total
28 July 2017, 12/17, 12/18, 12/17, 13/20 = 49/72 [a little rusty early in the New Trivia Season]
4 August 2017, 14/17, 14/19, 9/18, 13/19 = 50/73
18 August 2017, 14/19, 12/19, 14/18, 14/19 = 54/75
25 August 2017, 11/17, 16/20, 18/21, 15/20 = 60/78
8 Sep 2017, 15/18, 13/19, 13/18, 18/20 = 59/75 [either I was more match-fit, or the questions were a little easier]

This suggests that if I ever took part on “Mastermind” (and could cope with the added pressure of being on TV, in “the famous black chair”) my general knowledge score could be 14 or 15. A score of at least 13 on a special subject would give a total of 27 or more, good enough to get through to at least the semi-final. Sometimes 23 is a winning score in earlier rounds. (Right now I do not intend to compete on either “Mastermind” or BBC Radio 2’s Pop Master, but it’s a New Year and who knows what the coming months will bring?)

Over the years, without prepping beforehand, I have occasionally answered more questions correctly on a special subject than a contestant on the show. It happened when someone chose Led Zeppelin, as noted in this piece. Many years ago, a round on 80s Music, which I would never choose as a specialism, yielded 15 correct answers out of 16. The only question I got wrong was about a Bonnie Raitt album. At other times, when a subject comes up that seems ideally suited to me, I struggle to get more than a couple right. Shakespeare has been chosen more than once and despite my enthusiasm for the plays, and despite having read them all and seen them all performed at least twice on stage, I have never got more than 5 questions right.

In the current season there have been occasions where I have outscored the contestants on their own special subjects, without prepping in advance. Back in September someone chose The Gospels and got 7 out of 14 correct. I managed 9, which surprised me. It’s not a subject I have deliberately studied, though I have read Luke and John in their entirety. Clearly, after several decades of going to mass, I have retained enough information from some of the Gospel readings to answer quiz questions about them. In the following sentences correct answers to sample questions appear in brackets. The wedding feast, where Jesus performed his first miracle, was at (Cana). The elderly woman in the temple at the Presentation of Jesus, early in Luke’s Gospel, is (Anna). The Prodigal Son, also in Luke’s Gospel, leaves home and later finds work (feeding pigs). And the number of fish hauled ashore, as recounted in John’s Gospel, was (153). I didn’t know, however, that Jesus healed a blind man on the way back from (Jericho) or that the village referred to in Matthew as Magadan is called (Dalmanutha) in Mark.

My best score so far in this series, answering someone else’s special subject, was 12 out of 14 on British Oscar-winning Actors and Actress (29 September 2017). The two answers I didn’t know were the names of Margaret Rutherford’s character in “The VIPs” (The Duchess of Brighton) and Hugh Griffith’s character in “Ben-Hur” (Sheik Ilderim). Last month (22 December 2017) someone answered questions on the Clash and I got a reasonable 8 out of 14. Although I’m a big fan of the band, and first saw them perform live nearly 40 years ago, my passively acquired knowledge of them over the years did not include the name of the Vietnam veteran they played a gig for in Cleveland (Larry McIntyre), the name of the club in New York where they played a residency lasting over 2 weeks in 1981 (Bond’s) or the name of Ellen Foley’s 1981 album that all four members of the band performed on, and which guitarist Mick Jones produced (“The Spirit of St Louis”). Nor did I know that Jones was in a relationship with Ellen Foley at the time, which the question revealed. I have subsequently learnt that he wrote “Should I stay or should I go?” about their relationship.

As this current season of “Mastermind” progresses, through to its Grand Final in March or April, I will update this Post if other special subjects spark my interest, especially if I manage a better score than any of the contestants brave enough to appear on the show.




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