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How to choose the perfect specialist subject on Mastermind

Producer Mark Helsby reveals what the most popular choice is – and the kind of subjects you should avoid
By Sarah Carson

Can contestants choose any topic as their specialist subject?

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You can do any subject you want – within reason. They have to be suitable for broadcast on BBC2 on a Friday night, but pretty much everything is do-able, provided there’s sufficient source material to refer to.

As a minimum, we would want there to be at least two good quality books on a biographical or historical subject. TV, film and literary subjects are a bit more subjective, but we would never allow just one book or one film.

How many subjects do contestants have to pick?

Every contender has to agree three different specialist subjects with me before I confirm their place in the heats and commission the writers to come up with the questions. We don’t repeat subjects from one series to the next so that we can give the writers a break from doing the same material.

What’s the most popular subject?

Harry Potter! Last year 262 people wanted to take that as one of their three specialist subjects – only one of them could.

Have any subjects been over-done?

Some of the shorter sitcom series – Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Father Ted for example – have been exhausted for new questions. Thirty-two people wanted to do Fawlty Towers last year, 19 wanted Blackadder and 22 wanted Father Ted. Some of the very popular literary subjects such as the Chronicles of Narnia or Roald Dahl probably wouldn’t be agreed to for the same reason.

What subjects do you reject?

Some subjects are very broad and need to be tightened up; or they might be too tight and need to be opened out to make them a fair contest compared to the other people they’re competing against. One applicant wanted to do “meat” and narrowed it down to “pork”. Unfortunately, we still said no.

I try very hard not to reject any subject out of hand. I’d rather work with the contender to find some common ground between what they are interested in and what we think we can write enough questions about.

The rule of thumb I always suggest that people bear in mind is that if they wanted to do the Works of Shakespeare, we would say no, as the subject is so vast that there is very little chance that what they think is worth remembering would overlap with what the question writers think is worth writing a question about. Equally, we would say that Romeo and Juliet would be too narrow but Shakespeare’s Tragedies would be a good compromise. Shakespeare’s Tragedies was last done in 2012.

How do you balance diverse subjects like The Inbetweeners with, say, Leonardo da Vinci?

People have been accused of taking the easy option by choosing a comedy like Friends or Frasier but they have over 200 episodes each, so that’s still a lot of research. There’s sometimes a debate on Twitter about whether it is fair to have a “classic” Mastermind specialist subject in the same programme as someone doing a sitcom, but we treat them equally and it’s the skill of the question writers, verifiers and the team putting the questions together in the office to make sure that they are comparable tests of knowledge.

We work hard to make sure that each contender should get the same number of questions in their allotted time, provided they answer promptly and accurately, and the same number of easy, medium and hard questions along the way.

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Mastermind is on Fridays at 8pm on BBC2

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