Mastermind contestants on life after the black chair

What's it like to be a member of the Mastermind club? Richard Johnson finds out

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Pity Big Ron – the tour guide. He’s been booked to give a walking tour of Sheffield (well, the parts that survived the urban planner) for the Mastermind club. That means that everyone on his tour has – at some time in the past 29 years – sat in the Mastermind chair. So, when Big Ron tells them that Sheffield is built on seven hills, he sounds embarrassed. “You probably all know that,” he mumbles. 

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Mastermind club

Ann Kelly, a freelance historian, certainly does. So does Mel Kinsey, “the 2,027th most common name in the USA”. He is about to compete on Mastermind for the fourth time. In the new series, he will be answering questions on Watergate and the fall of President Nixon. To revise, he’s set himself questions specifically designed to get inside the head of the quiz master. So Big Ron doesn’t stand a chance. 

The members of the Mastermind club, wearing their T-shirts and badges, walk past St Peter’s Close (“Not too close, I hope,” says one). Big Ron starts to talk about Charlie Peace, the local mass murderer . “Jumped off a train,” says Leslie Grout. Under his breath, you understand. “And the man who hanged him was called James Berry,” he whispers. It’s like he can’t help himself. 

Love

The club isn’t just for winners of Mastermind. It’s enough to have competed. And it isn’t just for Brits. Marga Johnson was on the Dutch version – Megabrain. She saw a documentary on Mastermind, which included an appeal for new club members. Johnson was accepted and came along to her first club weekend – in Dublin – in 1998. “I met another very nice member,” says Marga, “fell in love, and got married. There were 13 Masterminders at the wedding”. 

A middle-aged woman rushes up to ask Kevin Ashman for his autograph. Ashman has, in his time, been the world quiz champion and the British quiz champion. He became the highest scoring Mastermind champion ever, the 15 to 1 champion of champions, and the team captain on Eggheads. Ashman is quiz royalty. 

Disastermind

Whoever has done the seating plan for tonight’s Mastermind club dinner has a sense of humour – they’ve sat Ashman next to Arfor Wyn Hughes. Wyn Hughes, a history of art teacher from Wales, answered questions on European painting from 1830 to 1940. “But everything went,” he explains. He eventually scored a total of 12 points, and earned the nickname Disastermind. “After that, whenever I asked the kids a question at school, they answered ‘pass’.” 

Wyn Hughes tried bringing his wife along to Mastermind club. “She said, ‘Never ask me there again. They were all like you’.” The members of the club share a real thirst for knowledge. “But some of them do have this blinkered look on life,” says Wyn Hughes. “Quizzes, quizzes and quizzes. They just don’t seem to do anything else.” 

Origins

Mastermind was first screened in 1972 as a late-night quiz, hosted by Magnus Magnusson. It was taken off BBC1 after 20 years, but reincarnated on Radio 4 with Peter Snow and on Discovery with Clive Anderson. The current BBC2 Mastermind, with John Humphrys, has been going since 2003.

The members of the Mastermind club are fond of Humphrys. But Magnusson has a special place in their hearts. He was, until his death in 2007, an active patron, and would attend the annual reunions. The prize for the club’s quiz back then was a Toby jug in his likeness. And the club’s T-shirts carry his words: “It’s only a bloody game.”

There is a sense that everything was better back when Magnusson ran the show. That’s when the show created its catchphrase (“I’ve started so I’ll finish”), made us think again about the meaning of the word “pass” and attracted audiences of up to 22 million. 

Quiz of the weekend

The highlight of the weekend is, as it happens, a quiz. But Ashman isn’t playing. He is at the bar next to fellow Egghead Chris Hughes. Hughes is so dismissive of the Mastermind club it makes you wonder why he bothers coming. “It fills a weekend,” he says. But Hughes likes to think he’s different. “Fred Housego was a taxi driver. And I was a train driver. We didn’t go to university. We’re not the same as these people.” 

The people that Hughes is referring to aren’t shy. Maybe a little less socially accomplished than your average person. But not shy. After all, they volunteered to sit in a spotlit black leather chair, in front of a TV camera. The quiz was devised, by former PoW Bill Wright, to have a “hard inquisitorial format”. So “shy” isn’t the word. 

The quiz is what they live for,” Chris Hughes says. “When I entered it was ‘You against me – and I’m going to beat you.’ Which I did. But there’s a lot of people I find… not obnoxious, but the antithesis of myself.”

Since the last AGM there have been five deaths. Alan Blackburn, the President, recites John Donne’s words: “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” He reads the names of the dead. There is a sense that these men and women have been through something. And when he suggests we stand for a minute in silence, it feels right.

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 25 October.

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Mastermind is back for a new series tonight, 8pm, BBC2.