Mastermind: I started, but I finished second

Sat, Jun 9, 2012, 01:00

As a quizz buff, EOIN BUTLERjumped at the chance to try out ‘Mastermind Ireland’, but even if modesty is his specialist subject, things didn’t quite go to plan

MASTERMIND? WELL, I wouldn’t be one to toot my own horn. But in recent years I have seen off all-comers at table quizzes in aid of Shell to Sea, a gay and lesbian choir, the Flat Lake Festival, the anti-household-charge campaign, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and the Communist Party of Ireland.

Once, after interviewing the actor Aidan Gillen at his home in Dingle, I stopped off to visit a friend in Limerick. Two hours later we were Garryowen Women’s Rugby table-quiz champions. Please don’t think me arrogant, but when it comes to table quizzes, at least, I believe that I, too, am a “special one”.

So when an invitation is offered to take part in a dummy run of TV3’s Mastermind, staged for members of the press, I don’t wait around to be asked twice. Filmed at the Royal Irish Academy, in Dublin, this is the first time the long-running quiz franchise has been adapted for Irish television audiences.

Posing the questions, and (of course) finishing because she has already started, is Mastermind Ireland’s quizmaster, Nora Owen. The former minister for justice cut her teeth as a television presenter on TV3’s Midweek programme, and, when this opportunity arose, she says, she didn’t hesitate to accept.

It might have been a different story, though, she admits, if she had been asked to participate as a contestant. History is her strong card, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, she nominates the life of her great-uncle Michael Collins as her most likely specialist subject.

Nonetheless, she admires the courage of the 20 Irish “celebrities” who have risked public humiliation to take part. They include memory man Jimmy Magee, the journalist Nell McCafferty, Owen’s fellow former minister Mary O’Rourke and . . . well, let’s just say Bono and Liam Neeson had prior commitments.

While we’re waiting in the green room for the dummy run to go ahead, a researcher mentions that Mastermind’s format was originally inspired by a TV producer’s experience of being interrogated by the Gestapo. This isn’t reassuring. Then, as we’re making our way on to the set, I overhear one of my fellow competitors castigating themselves for having “no general knowledge”. That’s more reassuring.

I select the middle chair, figuring I’m unlikely be called on first. The gambit pays off. The man from TV Now is first in the hot seat, and, truth be told, he is in the zone today. The questions aren’t very difficult, admittedly, but this is just batting practice for the guy, who knocks question after question out of the park. He finishes with a score of 12.

Next up is the woman from the Irish Sun. She doesn’t fare as well. At one point she is asked to identify the head-dress commonly worn by members of the Sikh religion. She knows the answer, but when she opens her mouth the word “burka” pops out, and she appears to be kicking herself even before she has finished saying it.

This is the show’s peculiar challenge. Unlike Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, say, or a table quiz, the questions – or at least the ones we’re given today – aren’t very difficult. In fact, some are comically easy (“What is the largest planet in our solar system? Who wrote the books The BFG, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?).

Knowing the answers often isn’t the problem. With the lights blaring, and an audience staring, the challenge is simply not blurting the first word that pops into your head. Or is it? With two minutes to answer as many questions as possible, and no penalty for an incorrect answer, is a swift, stupid answer preferable to a drawn-out correct one?

I’m up next. “Which has the larger ears,” I’m asked, “an African or an Indian elephant?” Indian, I blurt. Incorrect. I recover some ground, correctly identifying the author of Pygmalion and the composer of Ireland’s Call in record time. But then I stumble again, rashly describing crimson as being a shade of purple rather than red.

Ultimately, I score nine points and wind up in joint second place. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.

And tellingly, whereas quizmasters such as Anne Robinson and Jeremy Paxman tend to make contestants feel like idiots for not answering difficult questions, the former deputy leader of Fine Gael consoles me for fluffing questions a child could have answered correctly.

“Crimson?” she says. “Sure, no man was ever going to know that one.” While kind, this attitude rather undermines any Gestapo vibe the show’s creators intended. It’s hard to say if Mastermind’s format is outdated or I’m just annoyed about having come second.

Either way, I’m reminded of the old line Larry Gogan trotted out for contestants who fared badly on his Just a Minute Quiz. Maybe the questions “just didn’t suit me”. But I’m reminded of one unsuccessful contestant’s famous reply to Larry that . . . Well, you can look that up.


Celebrity Mastermind is on TV3 on Sunday, June 17th

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