Alan Watson (unaired pilot)

Magnus Magnusson

Peter Snow (radio version)

Clive Anderson (Discovery series)

John Humphrys

Betsan Powys (Mastermind Cymru and Mastermind Plant Cymru)

Des Lynam (Sport Mastermind)


Scorer and Timekeeper: Mary Craig (often referred to as the "Dark Lady" who sat by Magnus' side but never spoke).


BBC 1, 11 September 1972 - 1 September 1997

BBC Radio 4, 1998-2000

Discovery Mastermind: BBC Manchester for Discovery Channel, 14 November 2001 - 16 January 2002

BBC 2, 30 December 2002 (one-off celebrity special featuring Adam Hart-Davis, Janet Street-Porter, Vic Reeves and Jonathan Meades)

BBC 1 (Junior and Celebrity versions) and BBC 2, 7 July 2003 to present

Mastermind Cymru: BBC for S4C, 8 October 2006 -

Sport Mastermind: BBC 2, 8 July 2008 -

Mastermind Plant Cymru: BBC for S4C, 8 December 2008 -


Considered by many to be "the ultimate test of memory and knowledge", Mastermind is a simple quiz. However, at times it can prove quite fascinating.

Originally set in the chapel of a college or hall, nowadays a studio in sunny Manchester, John (originally Magnus) puts four contestants through their paces. Each contestant has previously submitted a specialist subject, which can be anything you like as long as the subject is deep enough. These are judiciously researched beforehand.

The seating arrangements

The black chair that has become the programme's trademark.

In Round One, each contestant goes up to the famous black chair (pictured) one by one, and is asked "Name?", "Occupation?" and "Specialised subject?" The contestant is then subjected to two minutes of quick-fire questions about their subject. (Contestants can pass if they wish, although in the event of a tie these are taken into account.) At the end of the two minutes, a buzzer is sounded and, if John is in the middle of a question, he uses one of television's most famous catchphrases, originally used by Magnus: "I've started so I'll finish". (Though unlike Magnus, he does not follow this up with "And you may answer".)

Image:Mastermind name occupation subject.jpgName, occupation, specialised subject

And now, general knowledge

After each of the four contestants have had their go, the scores are read out in reverse order. Round Two is played similarly to Round One, but this time the subject is always general knowledge, and contestants play in the order of position, the person with the least points going first.

Image:Mastermind halfway.jpg Halfway through the 1990 final

After that, the scores are read out again and the winner declared. (If there is a tie on points, the player with the "fewer or fewest" passes is declared the winner; if there is still a tie after passes are taken into consideration - a very rare occurence - then there is a "sudden death" tiebreaker in which both players separately face the same five questions and whoever gets the most right, wins.) The winner goes through to the semi-finals, the four (later six) winners of them going through to the final for the chance to win the engraved punchbowl which signifies the title of Mastermind champion.

And that's it. Bells? Whistles? Not one (with the possible exception of the intriguing black chair). And it doesn't need it for Mastermind, despite being simple, has become something of a national institution.

The end... not quite

The very last programme (at least, that's what it seemed at the time) was in 1997, where the programme went for the ego-trip of a lifetime to the remote Scottish island of Orkney to film in St. Magnus (geddit?), an 860 year old cathedral. Anne Ashurst, a novelist for Mills and Boon, was crowned the 'last ever' champion, and Magnus Magnusson got to keep the black chair, as was only right.

St. Magnus Cathedral

But it wasn't quite the end. Peter Snow hosted a version on BBC Radio 4 (although the impact of the chair was a bit less...) and what felt like a slightly dumbed-down version ran for a year on the Discovery Channel, with a redeeming feature being a separate final for interactive play-along viewers.

And that really did seem to be it until a celebrity special aired in 2002...followed by the show itself returning the next year! Everything's remained pretty much the same, including the theme tune and chair (a replica of the original) though there is a bit more interaction between new host John Humphrys and contestant. Some believe the show has been 'dumbed down' seeing as more people are choosing subjects such as Doctor Who rather than The Crimean War, but it's good to see the show back again on the BBC.

An example specialist round on Buffy the Vampire Slayer

There's even been a regular kids' series, a Welsh-language version for S4C, and (almost inevitably) a children's series in Welsh. In 2008, Des Lynam returned with a sport-themed version. It wasn't his first time in the question master's chair, as he used to host special editions of the quiz on FA Cup Final mornings, though he does seem uncharacteristically wooden in the role of questionmaster. It does however show what a good, no, let's make that great, format Mastermind is. As long as the basic structure is in place, it's almost impossible to mess it up, wooden host or not.

"Mastermind Cymru" host, Betsan Powys

Who's the greatest?

As if being crowned Mastermind wasn't honour enough, winners have often been invited to take part in further contests against other quiz show champions. In the 1970s there was Supermind, and the 1990s gave us Masterbrain, in which winners of Mastermind and Brain of Britain played off against each other. 1997 even saw a University Challenge crossover, with that year's four "last ever" Mastermind finalists making up a team to take on UC's reigning champions (the latter won). The 1997 winner, Anne Ashurst, also appeared on 'University Challenge - The Professionals' as part of the Romantic Novelists team, who were the defeated finallists in the 2005 series.

In 1979 Magnus hosted a special Mastermind International programme involving quiz show winners from around the world (including UK Mastermind champions David Hunt and Rosemary James, together with the champions of the Nigerian, Australian and New Zealand versions of the show, and winners from Ireland's Top Score and the Canadian version of The $128,000 Quiz), which was won by the Irish contender John Mulcahy. Following this, Mastermind International became an annual event for the next four years. In 1980 it was hosted by Magnus again, but after that it followed a Eurovision-type "winning nation hosts next year" system. In 1981 the programme was filmed in the Sydney Opera House with questionmaster Huw Evans, who hosted the Australian version of the show. The 1982 edition was made in New Zealand and hosted by Peter Sinclair, who was the questionmaster on the local versions of both Mastermind and University Challenge. Finally, after the first British victory, 1983 saw Huw Evans fly to the UK to present what turned out to be the last edition, made at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford.

Image:Mastermind_champions_82_2.jpgTen champions and an interrogator

There was also a Mastemind Champions contest aired over three consecutive nights in 1982 (in lieu of a proper series that year) featuring the first ten series champions - five in each of two heats, top two from each progressing to the final. The winner was David Hunt, with the specialist subjects of the history of Crete, and Alexander the Great.

Key moments

The final of each series attracts a lot of attention, the most famous winner being Fred Housego, a London taxicab driver. Mr Housego was the first of three drivers to win the series, since Christopher Hughes, a London Underground train driver, won it in 1983 and Ian Meadows, a hospital driver, did so in 1985.


"I've started so I'll finish."

"May I have our first contender, please?"

"And at the end of a close competition, let's glance at the scores."

"So on now to the second round, the general knowledge round - and remember, if there is a tie at the end of this round, then the number of passes will be taken into consideration, and the contender with the fewer or fewest passes will be declared the winner. And if there is still a tie on passes, then there will be a sudden death play-off" (or "shoot-out", as John Humphrys usually puts it).

(Magnusson-era): "...and you may answer". Also: "Our thanks and commiserations to our three gallant runners-up!"

Magnus Magnusson normally signed off with, "All that it remains for me to do now is to thank the authorities here at (wherever) for all their great kindness and hospitality to us. Next week, we shall be at (wherever else). Until then, from 'Mastermind' in (wherever), it's goodbye!" John Humphrys signs off more simply, but equally effectively, with, "Do join us next time for more 'Mastermind'. Thank you for watching - goodbye!" In fact, nowadays he says "Join us next time for more Masterminds", which is really rather cute. He's not going to like us for saying that, is he?


The idea for the show comes from the experiences of the producer (Bill Wright) when he was a Prisoner of War during WWII. He was often asked for his "Name", "Rank" and "Number" (the only information he was obliged to give under the Geneva Convention). He decided to change this to "Name", "Occupation" and "Specialised Subject". Note the dark mise-en-scene, which is meant to give a sort of individualised, cross-examination feel. In the early days, this theme was even carried through to the on-screen credit for Magnus Magnusson, who was described not as "questionmaster" or something fluffy like that, but as "Interrogator".

Image:Mastermind billwright.jpgBill Wright

Theme music

The theme tune is called Approaching Menace by Neil Richardson (who, incidentally, co-composed and conducted the score for the film Four Weddings and a Funeral).

Scoring records

Low scores:

  • The famous Arfor Wyn Hughes is not, and never was, Mastermind's lowest scorer - he scored 12. The lowest score record for the regular (non-celebrity) series is 7 points, set by Colin Kidd in the 2005 series. He scored 4 on the history of the World Chess Championships and 3 on general knowledge.
  • A year earlier, Gill Perry scored 8 points, 4 on her specialist subject (Babylon 5, series 1 & 2) and 4 on general knowledge.
  • Previously, scores of 9 points were 'achieved' by Armando Margiotta, Sally Copeland and a community worker from Warwickshire who wishes to remain anonymous. 9 points have also been scored by Michael Kane in the 2004 final, and in 2006 by Steve Bolsover in the first round and Simon Curtis (who fell into "pass hell" and scored just one point on his specialist subject, the films of Jim Carrey) in the second. Mr Curtis was not the first contestant to score only one point on a specialist subject, however - Arabella Weir had also done so in a 2004 celebrity special, her subject having been 'Dallas' (the television series). Two other contestants to score 9 points have been Cliff Hughes and Andrew Hesford, both in the 2007 series.
  • The lowest-ever score on the programme was achieved by both Arabella Weir and Tara Palmer-Tompkinson in the above-mentioned 2004 celebrity special: 6 points. Only the previous week, Murray Walker had scored 7 points, despite the fact that his specialist subject was 'Formula One'. Politicians had mixed fortunes - David Blunkett and Gyles Brandreth both only scored 11, Neil Hamilton and David Lammy did somewhat better, Lembit Opik and Diane Abbott better still and Edwina Currie won her game.
Image:Mastermind kevin ashman.jpgCan nobody beat this Egghead?

High scores:

  • The highest score was 41, set by Kevin Ashman in 1995. Jennifer Keaveney, Mary Elizabeth Raw and Anne Ashurst all scored 40. Keaveney did so twice.
  • Probably the highest score in a specialised subjects round was achieved in 1979 when Joe West, a helicopter pilot from Shetland, scored 22 points on the life of Lord Nelson.
Image:Mastermind keaveney magnusson grade.jpgJennifer Keaveney, the only person to score 40 twice, with Magnusson and Michael Grade


  • In a 2005 celebrity special, former Popstars winner Myleene Klass may have set a record for the most asynchronous performance - scoring 17 points from 18 questions about Sex & The City series 3, but only answering one question right in the general knowledge round.


Over 57,000 questions were asked over the course of the original series.

The last ever question asked on the Magnus version of the programme was virtually the same as the first one asked back in 1972 (concerning Picasso's Guernica). This was plotted beforehand as an in-joke to be played only if the scores did not depend on it.

By 1981 the programme had visited every British university, with Aberdeen the last to play host to the show.

Magnus Magnusson claimed that he once got a letter from an irate viewer who accused him of blasphemy for saying that Jesus' first name was Reginald. It turned out that the correspondent had actually misheard a question concerning Jeeves's first name!

Magnus Magnusson, not the sort to confuse Jeeves with Jesus

One quirk of the show is that participants are always referred to as "contenders", never "contestants".

Because the first three Mastermind champions were women, the BBC were once apparently on the verge of debating whether to change the title of the programme to 'Mistressmind'. And if you believe that, you'll believe anything! Nevertheless, it's true that the 1975 series was accompanied by a lot of speculation in the press about whether a man would ever - or could ever! - win the title, which all proved somewhat academic at the end of that year's contest when a man, John Hart, did just that.

Magnus-era scorekeeper Mary Craig also filled the same role on Television Top of the Form and its international spin-off Transworld Top Team.

The 1994 champion George Davidson received his prize from none other than Bamber Gascoigne. It is surely no coincidence that this final went out just a month before the BBC revival of University Challenge began.

The rules were changed in 1995 to allow previous contenders, except finalists, to return. This has since been changed again to allow defeated finalists another go as well. Isabelle Heward has been a contender four times (1983, 1996, 2003, 2005) and reached the semi-finals on each of her last three entries. All of her specialist subjects have been related to the cinema. Sheila Altree has also appeared in four series (1980, 1985, 1997, 2007), the first time under her first married name, Sheila Denyer. She won her heat in 1985 before the producers noticed that Altree and Denyer were the same person and disqualified her. Geoff Thomas won the title at his fourth attempt: he was a semi-finalist in 1994 and again in 2001's one-off Discovery Mastermind series, runner-up in 2003 and finally champion in 2006.

There was a Doctor Who special in 2005, with Christopher Eccleston awarding the trophy.

Image:Edwards david mastermindwin.jpgFuture millionaire David Edwards

1990 champion David Edwards subsequently scooped the top prize on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, while Millionaire winner Pat Gibson completed "the double" the other way around in 2005 (and made it a treble by going on to win Brain of Britain as well). There was also a victory for 1995 champion Kevin Ashman at Torquay in the live, touring stage version of WWTBAM.

In the Magnus Magnusson years, the questions and responses were carefully measured to give an optimum 20 questions per two-minute round. Each contestant's general knowledge round included one question about their home region, history, geography, literature, and science.

In 1987, married couple Paul and Christine Hancock competed in the same edition of the show. Both scored 34 correct answers and two passes; Mr. Hancock won the play-off by one question. Magnus very appropriately entitled that edition 'Hancock's Half-Hour'. The couple also later appeared on Masterteam, along with Mr Hancock's brother.

Another family event occurred during the two 2007 series of Junior Mastermind. In the series screened early that year, twins Robert and Tintin (real name Antonia) Stutter competed in separate heats. Although they both scored impressively, only Robert made it into the Grand Final, which he duly won - with the specialised subject of Tintin, appropriately enough! Their younger brother Edmund took part in the later series and also performed well: he was one of the defeated finallists.

Although Junior Mastermind did not make its debut until 2004, there had been a few children's versions of Mastermind during the Magnus-era. Around 1980/81, a special edition was made on Jim'll Fix It with a girl answering questions on the 'Mister Men' books by Roger Hargreaves: she achieved a very impressive score. There had also been a special edition screened as part of one of the BBC's Saturday morning programmes (either 'Swap Shop' or 'Saturday Superstore') around 1981/82.

A panel of clergy contested a heat at Norwich Cathedral in 1996 and the winner, Dr Richard Sturch, went on to win that series' grand final.

Many of the celebrities' appearances on their version of the show proved memorable. Vic Reeves did a silly walk to the black chair and Magnus (rather sourly) asked him, "Occupation? - as if I needed to ask!" When John Humphrys asked Edward Stourton for his name, Stourton responded in mock-indignation, "John - we practically sleep together!" (He was, of course, referring to the fact that he and Humphrys work together on the 'Today' programme). When Peter Serafinowicz was presented with his trophy, he returned to the black chair and pretended to drop off to sleep, as if indicating that the whole experience was a very draining one. Humphrys was somewhat nonplussed and tried nudging him - but to no avail. In addition, thanks to Humphrys, we got to find out how Spoony got his nickname - apparently, his head was shaped like a spoon when he was a kid.

A modified version of the Mastermind format was used for the US sports quiz series 2 Minute Drill (2000-1). Confusingly, there has since been a US quiz show called MasterMinds, which isn't based on this programme, but is rather a version of the College Bowl (UK: University Challenge) format.

Magnus Magnusson on one of Esther Rantzen's chat shows revealed that Mastermind's success was due in part to TV campaigner Mary Whitehouse. Mastermind was originally intentioned as a quiz for "insomniac academics" and shown in an appropriately late-night slot (with a daytime repeat later in the week, around 3pm). In 1973 the BBC were showing a sitcom called Casanova '73, written by Galton & Simpson and starring Leslie Phillips in full-on "hellllo laydees" mode. It wasn't exactly The Borgias, but nevertheless Whitehouse cast a glance at the BBC and they moved it to late night, leaving a gap for Mastermind to fill in the interim. And the rest, as they say, is history. So there we are.

Some of the show's 1996 editions were screened back-to-back with a very different show, namely Small Talk and the BBC produced an amusing trailer for both shows as a result. Magnus's voice would be heard saying, "May I have our first contender, please?" and a little boy would appear and announce, "My name's Jamie, I'm six years old and I'm a genius!" Magnus would then ask, "Occupation?" and a little girl would say, "I can do a magic trick - watch!" (This 'trick' was putting a pencil on her top lip as a moustache - and the pencil duly fell off, surprise, surprise!) Finally, Magnus would ask, "And your chosen specialised subject?" and a rather serious little boy would say, "Er - I'm not sure about that question!" A clever way of trailering two very contrasting shows and certainly a cut above the average BBC trailer!

The black chair was voted the second most iconic chair of the 20th century in a 2009 survey for House Beautiful magazine. Now that's trivial! It was beaten to the top spot by the copy of an Arne Jacobsen model 3107 from that famous photo of Christine Keeler.


The classic Two Ronnies sketch

We also have the script from the extended stage version of this sketch for you to read.


Winners are listed with their specialist subjects. Before 1992, contenders could revert to their original subject for the final if they so wished. Discovery Mastermind, Junior Mastermind and Mastermind Cymru did not have a semi-final phase. There were two Junior Mastermind series in 2007. The 2007 Mastermind Series ran on into 2008.

Regular series
Year Name Heat Semi-final Final
1972 Nancy Wilkinson French Literature European antiques History of music 1550-1900
1973 Patricia Owen Grand Opera Byzantine art Grand Opera
1974 Elizabeth Horrocks Shakespeare's plays Works of JRR Tolkein Works of Dorothy L Sayers
1975 John Hart Athens 500-400 BC Rome 100-1 BC Athens 500-400 BC
1976 Roger Prichard Duke of Wellington 20th Century British warships Duke of Wellington
1977 Sir David Hunt WW2 British campaigns in N.Africa WW2 Allied campaign in Italy Roman Revolution 60-14 BC
1978 Rosemary James Roman & Greek mythology Works of Frederick Wolfe Roman & Greek mythology
1979 Philip Jenkins Christianity 30-150 AD Vikings in Scotland & Ireland 800-1150 AD History of Wales 400-1100 AD
1980 Fred Housego King Henry II Westminster Abbey The Tower of London
1981 Leslie Grout St George's Chapel Windsor Burial Grounds of London St George's Chapel Windsor
1983 Christopher Hughes British Steam Locomotives 1900-63 The Flashman novels British Steam Locomotives 1900-63
1984 Margaret Harris Cecil Rhodes Postal history of Southern Africa Cecil Rhodes
1985 Ian Meadows English Civil War History of Astronomy to 1700 English Civil War
1986 Jennifer Keaveney Elizabeth Gaskell E. Nesbitt Elizabeth Gaskell
1987 Dr Jeremy Bradbrooke Franco-Prussian War Anglo-American War 1812-15 Crimean War
1988 David Beamish Nancy Astor British Royal Family 1714-1910 Nancy Astor
1989 Mary Elizabeth Raw Charles I Prince Albert Charles I
1990 David Edwards Michael Faraday Benjamin Thompson, Count Romford James Clerk Maxwell
1991 Stephen Allen Henry VII Dartmoor & its environs Sir Francis Drake
1992 Steve Williams Surrealist art 1918-1939 Peter the Great Post-Socratic Philosophy
1993 Gavin Fuller Doctor Who The Medieval Castle in the British Isles The Crusades
1994 Dr George Davidson English coinage 1066-1662 History of Chemistry 1500-1870 John Dalton
1995 Kevin Ashman Martin Luther King History of the Western film The Zulu War
1996 The Reverend Dr Richard Sturch Charles Williams Emperor Frederick III Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan
1997 Anne Ashurst Frances Howard, Countess of Somerset Regency Novels of Georgette Heyer Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland
Radio 4 version
1998 Robert Gibson The Solar System Charles II Robert The Bruce
1999 Christopher Carter Birds of Europe The House of Tudor British customs and traditions
2000 Stephen Follows Benjamin Britten T.S. Eliot Leos Janacek
Discovery Mastermind
2001 Michael Penrice Professional Boxing to 1980 (no semi-final) English History 1603-1714
BBC Revival
2003 Andy Page The Academy Awards Gilbert and Sullivan Golfing majors since 1970
2004 Shaun Wallace European Champions League Finals since 1970 English football team at the European Championships since 1960 FA Cup finals since 1970
2005 Patrick Gibson The films of Quentin Tarantino The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks Father Ted
2006 Geoff Thomas Edith Piaf William Joyce Margaret Mitchell
2008 David Clark Henry Ford The Prince Regent History of London Bridge
2009 Nancy Dickmann The Amelia Peabody novels Life and German films of Fritz Lang The Lewis and Clark Expedition
Junior Mastermind
2004 Daniel Parker Volkswagen Beetle (no semi-final) James Bond villains
2005 Robin Geddes The Vicar of Dibley (no semi-final) A Series of Unfortunate Events
2006 Domhnall Ryan The Spitfire (no semi-final) Animals of the African plains
2007 Robert Stutter Madame Tussaud (no semi-final) Tintin
2007 David Verghese The Jurassic Park films (no semi-final) George Lucas
Mastermind Cymru
2006 Emyr Rhys Jones The Simpsons (no semi-final) The Eurovision Song Contest to 1990
2007 Siôn Aled Welsh Religious Revival of 1904-06 (no semi-final) Life and poetry of Goronwy Owen
Mastermind Plant Cymru
2008/9 Seren Jones Doctor Who revival series 3 (no semi-final) St. Clears books by Enid Blyton
Sport Mastermind
2008 Chris Bell British and Irish Lions (no semi-final) Life and career of Geoffrey Boycott

Mastermind International

1979 John Mulcahy (Ireland): Irish History (1916-22)
1980 Rachel "Ray" Stewart (Australia): Life and times of Julius Caesar
1981 David Harvey (New Zealand): The Lord of the Rings trilogy
1982 Leslie Grout (UK): Windsor Castle
1983 Christopher Hughes (UK): British Steam Locomotives

Celebrity Mastermind

The following have won their respective show, which is not in a tournament format:

Jonathan Meades
Shaun Williamson
Bill Oddie
Stephen Fry
Edwina Currie
Matt Allwright
Steve Rider
Hugh Quarshie
Tom Ward
Jeremy Beadle
Monty Don
Graham Le Saux
Paul Ross
Iain Banks
Steven Pinder
Edward Stourton
Todd Carty
Iain Lee
Dave Spikey
Peter Serafinowicz
Jan Ravens
Steve Cram
Kaye Adams
Dave Myers
Philippa Gregory
John Sessions
Sally Lindsay
Tim Vine

How to apply

Apply Online:

Or send a SAE to:

Mastermind Applications, 
Room 4012, 
BBC Manchester, 
Oxford Road, 
M60 1SJ

Application details are provided as a service to readers, but please note that all contestant enquiries should be directed to the named production company and not to Addresses can be found on our list of contact details for production companies.


I've Started So I'll Finish - The Story of Mastermind by Magnus Magnusson (ISBN: 0-316-64132-4) is an exhaustive account of the programme, by the person who knew it best.

Mastermind CD-ROM game for Windows 95/98

Image:Mastermind book.jpgA tie-in quiz book

See also

Hobby Horse, a short-lived team version for children.



Past specialised subjects

Web links

Mastermind Contestants

Off the Telly review

Wikipedia entry

BBC: Junior Mastermind 2005 press release and 5min showreel

BBC: Junior Mastermind 2004 showreel (Real Media)


To correct something on this page or post an addition, please complete this form and press "Send":
If you are asking us a question, please read our contact us page and FAQ first.

Name: E-mail:   
A Labyrinth Games site.
Design by Thomas.
Printable version
Editors: Log in