The call came from Celebrity Mastermind at the end of October, the net of “celebrity” having widened sufficiently to include me. After years of dreaming about sitting in the famous black leather chair, it seemed utterly surreal that on 15 November, I would be.
But what had I let myself in for? My friend Richard Herring was on this time last year and still wakes up in a cold sweat thinking about the questions he got wrong. (He scored a near-perfect 35 points, nonetheless. No pressure, then.)
I’ve had my specialist subject hypothetically lined up for years: 1970s disaster movies, a lifelong passion. I quickly agreed upon a definitive canon of films with the question-setters, from Airport in 1970 to Airport ’79, basically. (My schoolboy error was to suggest four titles missing from their list, thus voluntarily expanding the parameters of the job ahead.)
I typed out every single piece of basic trivia on every disaster movie on the pre-agreed master list — year, name of director, principal cast, character names, Oscar nominations and so on — and painstakingly went through the printouts on public transport until they formed a mantra (“Airport, 1970, director George Seaton, novel Arthur Hailey, fictional airport Lincoln International…”)
But the big task was to revise general knowledge — or “GK” as I discovered it’s known by the production team. How does one meaningfully go about learning, well, everything?
In my case, by mainlining pub-quiz books — I got through three of them, methodically testing myself, or being tested by my wife. (The non-celebrity version of Mastermind started during this intense training period, so I played along using the pause button.)
On the train to Manchester for what felt like the hardest exam of my life, I was still reciting the monarchs of England by visualising the actors in The Tudors. Once inside the MediaCity complex in Salford Quays, I decided that last-minute cramming would be futile — although one fellow contestant took crib sheets into make-up.
Obviously, I can’t reveal how I did. I’ve not even told my Mum and Dad. I will say that it wasn’t as terrifying as I’d been led to believe. And that I’ve only woken up in the night subsequently because of the cat.