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Mastermind is a Britishmarker quiz show, well-known for its challenging questions, intimidating setting and air of seriousness.

Devised by Bill Wright, the basic format of Mastermind has never changed — four contestants face two rounds, one on a specialised subject of the contestant's choice, the other a general knowledge round. Wright drew inspiration from his experiences of being interrogated by the Gestapomarker during World War II.

The atmosphere is helped by Mastermind's famously ominous theme music, "Approaching Menace" by the Britishmarker composer Neil Richardson.


Each contestant has two minutes per round. First, each contestant in turn answers questions on their specialised subject (see examples below). The contestant may pass if he doesn't know the answer, rather than guessing. If a question is answered incorrectly, the questioner will give the answer, using valuable time. However if 'pass' is given, then the answer is read at the end of the round. After the two minutes is up a buzzer is sounded, which is made up of four beeps; if a question is being read (or has just been read), then the contestant is given a short period of time to answer, leading to the show's famous catchphrase, "I've started so I'll finish." After this, answers to any passes are given.

After each contestant has answered his specialised questions, they are given general knowledge questions. As originally aired the contestants would return for the second round in the same order as for their specialised subject. The contestants are now recalled in reverse order of points scored.

The winner is the contestant with the most points. If two or more contestants have an equal number of points, then the contestant with the fewer (or fewest) passes is the winner. The possibility of passing leads to tactical play: passing uses less time, allowing more questions to be answered, but may count against the contestant at the end in the event of a tie.

Should the top two contestants have the same score and same number of passes at the end of the contest then a tie-breaker is employed, in which the two contenders are each asked the same five questions (one contender must leave the auditorium while the other answers). It is not clear what would happen should this fail to produce a clear winner, though it is implied that the process would simply be repeated as many times as necessary. It is, however, very rare for the tie-break to be required. In the version of the show hosted by John Humphrys, it has appeared twice in the main series and once in the Junior Mastermind spin-off, the latter being in the final broadcast on 26 February 2006.

The winner goes through to the next round, where he must choose a different specialised subject; if he gets to the final he may offer his first subject or a new one. The winner of the final of the BBC version is declared "Mastermind" for that year and is the only contestant to receive a prize, in the form of a cut glass engraved bowl.

Versions of Mastermind

Mastermind has appeared in numerous versions:
  • The seminal BBC version hosted between 1972 and 1997 by Magnús Magnússon. It was originally broadcast late on a Sunday night and was not expected to receive a huge audience. However, in 1973 it was moved to a prime-time slot as an emergency replacement for a Leslie Phillips sitcom, Casanova '73, which had been moved to a later time following complaints about its risqué content. The quiz subsequently became one of the most-watched shows on British television. Magnússon was famous for his catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish," which was also the title of his history of the show (by far the most authoritative work on the show — ISBN 0-7515-2585-5). The original series was also noted for the variety of venues where filming took place — often including academic and ecclesiastical buildings. The last program of the original series was filmed at St. Magnus Cathedralmarker in Orkneymarker. The original series also spawned an International Edition between 1979 and 1983.
  • A version on Radio 4 hosted by Peter Snow, running between 1998 and 2000.
  • A version on Discovery Channel hosted by Clive Anderson in 2001. This version shortened the amount of time available for the answering of questions and lasted just one series. This was also the first to go 'interactive'. By using the red button viewers could play the general knowledge section throughout the series. These questions had been written specifically to afford both standard and multiple-choice format in presentation. There was a one-off competition between the four highest scoring viewers.
  • A new BBC Two version hosted by John Humphrys, beginning in 2003. Whereas the original series kept talk to a minimum, asking contestants only their name, occupation and specialist subject, the new show includes some conversational elements with contestants between rounds. It is also distinguished from the original BBC TV series by the fact that many more contestants' specialist subjects come from popular culture, which probably reflects cultural changes in the British middle classes in recent years. Unlike the original version, this version is studio-based. It is made in Manchestermarker (although, due to asbestos being found at Granada studios, parts of the 2006 series were filmed at the Yorkshire Television studios in Leedsmarker) .
  • Junior Mastermind, also hosted by John Humphrys, is a children's version of the quiz programme and has the same format, the difference being that the contestants are only ten and eleven years old. The programme aired across six nights on BBC One, ending on 4 September 2004. The winner was Daniel Parker, whose specialist subjects were the Volkswagen Beetle (heat) and James Bond villains (final). There was another series in 2005 (subjects included Black Holes and the Star Wars trilogy), which was won by Robin Geddes, whose specialist subjects were The Vicar of Dibley and A Series of Unfortunate Events, with a third series airing in 2006 and a fourth and fifth series in 2007.
  • Mastermind Cymru, a Welsh-language version of the programme started on 8 October 2006 on S4C. It is hosted by Betsan Powys.
  • International Mastermind was an annual playoff between winners of various international versions of the show (or the nearest equivalents in some countries) and ran for five years between 1979 and 1983.
  • Sport Mastermind, a 2008 sports-themed version hosted by Des Lynam.
  • Celebrity Mastermind, following a similar format to the main show, but with the winner of each show being given a trophy.

In the United Statesmarker, the game show 2 Minute Drill on sports network ESPN had its roots in Mastermind. Contestants faced questions fired at them by a panel of four sports and entertainment celebrities for two minutes. The contestant with the highest score after two rounds would win the night's prize, and the winner would have a chance to double those winnings by correctly answering the "Question of Great Significance," as host Kenny Mayne called it. In each series, winners advanced in a bracket-style playoff format, with prizes increasing from $5,000 in the first round to $50,000 (doubling to $100,000 by answering the final question) in the final round. Prizes such as trips to the Super Bowl or ESPY Awards were also given. The show had three series over a 15-month period, September 2000 to December 2001. Like Mastermind, 2 Minute Drill featured a leather chair, dramatic lighting and sound effects. Willy Gibson of Columbus, Ohiomarker was the grand champion of the first two series; he was defeated in the second round of the third and final series. Unlike Mastermind presenters, Mayne had a very dry, quirky and sometimes sarcastic sense of humor, but did a very good job of keeping the game going; he would quickly jump in if one of the celebrity panelists was tardy in posing their question, so as not to penalise the contestant.


The highest Mastermind score is 41 points, set by Kevin Ashman in 1995. His specialist subject was "The Life of Martin Luther King".

The lowest score record is 7 points, first set by Colin Kidd in an edition broadcast in 2005. His specialist subject was "The World Chess Championships". This was equalled in November 2009, when gas fitter Michael Burton scored 2 for his specialist subject on Angels, get four out of his 13 questions wrong and passing on another seven, and 5 in the general knowledge round from a possible 15.

The next lowest score was 8 points, attained by Lt. Col. Duncan "Flash" Gordon during the Armed Forces special edition in 1986. His chosen specialist subject was "Naval Battles of the South Pacific", where he gained 5 of his points.

Arfor Wyn Hughes, dubbed "Disastermind" by the British press, has frequently claimed (most recently on a BBC tribute to Magnús Magnússon) that his score of 12 was the lowest ever, but in fact scores of as little as 9 points had been achieved several times prior to his 1990 appearance on the show.

Perhaps the most famous Mastermind winner was Londonmarker taxi driver Fred Housego, who won in 1980, who went on to become a television and radio personality.

In October 2006, Simon Curtis achieved the lowest ever score on the speciality subject round, scoring just 1 point. Curtis was at the Semi-final stages but passed on almost every question to do with "The Films of Jim Carrey". Curtis recovered in the general knowledge section, answering 7 questions correctly to avoid breaking or tying Kidd's record.

In February 2007, an 11 year old schoolboy named Callum became the new record holder for the highest score in the specialist subject round after scoring 19 points on his specialist subject, cricketer Andrew "Freddie" Flintoff. He didn't win the show, however, being beaten by one point after achieving a final score of 32.

On 20th November 2009 as part of the BBC's Children in Need appeal, Lucy Porter broke the record for the highest score on a Celebrity edition of Mastermind, with 35, answering questions on the specialist subject of Steve Martin. Another competitor on the episode Mark Watson scored 33, which John Humphries pointed out would also have broken the record, only for Porter to follow him and take the record for herself.

Specialised subjects

The following is a list of specialist subjects:

A special episode of Mastermind called Doctor Who Mastermind was broadcast on 19 March 2005, in which all four contestants had the specialist subject Doctor Who. The prize was awarded to the winner by the then current Doctor, actor Christopher Eccleston.

Some specialist subjects are considered not suitable to be used. The following are examples of rejected specialist subjects:


Year Winner Specialist Subject - Heat Specialist Subject – Semi Final Specialist Subject –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 J.R.R. Tolkien 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 North 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 Chris 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 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
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 Leoš Janáček
2001 Michael Penrice Professional Boxing to 1980 (No Semi Final) English History 1603-1714
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/Gone with the Wind
2008 David Clark Henry Ford The Prince Regent History of London Bridge
2009 Nancy Dickmann Amelia Peabody novels of Elizabeth Peters Life and Films of Fritz Lang Lewis and Clark Expedition



High Scores
  • 35 - Patrick Gibson (Semi-Final, Heat 6)
  • 33 - Patrick Gibson (Round 1, Heat 1)
  • 31 - Isabelle Heward (Round 1, Heat 3)
  • 31 - Patrick Gibson (Final)
  • 30 - Thomas Dyer (Round 1, Heat 10)
  • 30 - Peter Wright (Semi-Final, Heat 2)
  • 29 - Derek Moody (Round 1, Heat 14)
  • 29 - Amanda Hill (Round 1, Heat 16)
  • 29 - Hadrian Jeffs (Round 1, Heat 24)
  • 29 - Mark Grant (Semi-Final, Heat 1)

First Round Averages
  • Average SS Score - 11.50
  • Average GK Score - 9.16
  • Average Score - 20.66
  • Average Winning Score - 25.83

Semi-Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 12.08
  • Average GK Score - 10.83
  • Average Score - 22.92
  • Average Winning Score - 28.33

Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 13.33
  • Average GK Score - 12.33
  • Average Total Score - 25.67


High Scores
  • 36 - Geoff Thomas (Final)
  • 34 - Katharine Drury (Semi-Final, Heat 5)
  • 33 - Geoff Thomas (Semi-Final, Heat 1)
  • 29 - David Parker (Round 1, Heat 22)
  • 28 - Esther Kallen (Round 1, Heat 23)
  • 28 - Nick Duffy (Semi-Final, Heat 1)

First Round Averages
  • Average SS Score - 11.05
  • Average GK Score - 7.16
  • Average Score - 18.21
  • Average Winning Score - 23.33

Semi-Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 12.46
  • Average GK Score - 9.18
  • Average Score - 22.00
  • Average Winning Score - 28.00

Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 13.33
  • Average GK Score - 10.50
  • Average Total Score - 23.83


High Scores
  • 33 - Hamish Cameron (Round 1, Heat 21)
  • 32 - Stewart Cross (Semi-Final, Heat 4)
  • 31 - Alan Frith (Round 1, Heat 23)
  • 31 - Derek Moody (Round 1, Heat 24)
  • 30 - William Barrett (Round 1, Heat 8)
  • 30 - Jacqui Menzies (Round 1, Heat 9)
  • 30 - Ian MacFarlane (Round 1, Heat 19)
  • 30 - David Clark (Final)
  • 29 - Les Morell (Round 1, Heat 3)
  • 29 - Tom Rutherford (Round 1, Heat 5)

First Round Averages
  • Average SS Score - 12.20
  • Average GK Score - 9.23
  • Average Score - 21.43
  • Average Winning Score - 26.38

Semi-Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 14.00
  • Average GK Score - 9.96
  • Average Score - 23.96
  • Average Winning Score - 26.67

Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 14.17
  • Average GK Score - 12.67
  • Average Total Score - 26.83


High Scores
  • 30 - Nancy Dickmann (Final)
  • 29 - James Corcoran (Round 1, Heat 3)
  • 29 - Richard Smyth (Round 1, Heat 24)
  • 29 - John Beynon (Round 1, Heat 6)
  • 29 - Richard Heller (Semi-Final, Heat 3)
  • 28 - Mel Kinsey (Round 1, Heat 8)
  • 28 - Richard Heller (Round 1, Heat 14)
  • 28 - Nancy Dickmann (Semi-Final, Heat 2)
  • 28 - John Beynon (Semi-Final, Heat 3)
  • 28 - Ian Bayley (Semi-Final, Heat 5)
  • 28 - Stuart MacDonald (Semi-Final, Heat 6)
  • 28 - Ian Bayley (Final)

First Round Averages
  • Average SS Score - 12.56
  • Average GK Score - 9.49
  • Average Score - 22.05
  • Average Winning Score - 26.13

Semi-Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 13.04
  • Average GK Score - 9.96
  • Average Score - 23.00
  • Average Winning Score - 26.83

Final Averages
  • Average SS Score - 13.50
  • Average GK Score - 10.17
  • Average Total Score - 23.67

The Chair

Perhaps the most famous icon of the show is the black leather chair in which the contestants sit, lit by a solitary spotlight in an otherwise dark studio. The inspiration for this was the interrogations faced by the show's creator, Bill Wright, as a POW in World War II. The original black chair was given to Magnús Magnússon as a souvenir when he retired from the show.

The chair is an Eames Soft Pad Lounge Chair designed by Charles and Ray Eames in 1969. Today these chairs are made under license by Vitra .


The programme has been the target for many television spoofs, most memorably the Two Ronnies sketch written by David Renwick, featuring Ronnie Barker as Magnús Magnússon and Ronnie Corbett as a contestant named Charlie Smithers, whose specialist subject was "answering the question before last". This continually led to humorous and often rude answers. A similar sketch featured Monty Python alumni Michael Palin as Magnússon and Terry Gilliam as a contestant whose speciality was "questions to which the answer is two."

The 2003-onwards version has been spoofed by the Dead Ringers team, with Jon Culshaw playing John Humphrys. One episode included Mastermind: The Opera. [40245]

Another spoof was featured in Armando Iannucci's 2004: The Stupid Version, where a contestant's specialist subject was "The television series Thunderbirds and Lady Penelope's Cockney chauffeur".

Also in 2004, Johnny Vaughan's BBC Three show Live at Johnny's featured a version called Mastermind Rejects -- the premise being that the specialist subjects were too ludicrously obscure even for Mastermind. In the final show of the series, Magnús Magnússon took over as the quizmaster - it was the last time he would utter the catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish" on any form of Mastermind. The specialist subject was The History of the Home Video Recorder, 1972 to 1984.

On their 2005 Christmas Special, comedy duo French & Saunders parodied the show with Jennifer Saunders playing Abigail Wilson, a pensioner whose special subject is Ceramic Teapots. She passes on all but one question, which she answers incorrectly anyway.

In 2005, the show was spoofed on BBC Radio 4's The Now Show where the specialist subject was "Britishness", relating to the proposed test immigrants may have to take, to prove they can fit in with British society.

In the 1970s a young viewer of Jim'll Fix It had her wish granted to sit in the black chair and answer questions from Magnús Magnússon on the subject of the "Mr. Men".

In 1974, Morecambe and Wise performed a sketch based on Mastermind, which featured Magnússon and the black chair. The format was different, however, with Wise, then Morecambe, being asked 10 questions each.

In the late 1970s, Noel Edmonds radio Sunday lunchtime show used to feature a send-up called "Musty Mind" where a phone-in contestant would be asked ludicrous questions on a parody of a serious subject, such as the "Toad Racing" or, on another occasion, "The Cultural and Social History of Rockall" - Rockallmarker being a bald lump of uninhabited rock in the eastern Atlantic.

Benny Hill parodied Mastermind on The Benny Hill Show on at least two separate occasions. In one of the parodies the show was called "Masterbrane". In each, Benny played the role of Magnússon while Jackie Wright played the hapless contestant.

Spitting Image used the Mastermind format in a sketch where a Magnús Magnússon puppet asked questions of a Jeffrey Archer puppet whose specialist subject was himself. The twist was that Archer's puppet, being incapable of answering questions about himself without exaggeration or evasion, ends the round with zero points.

The BBC's satirical current affairs quiz show Have I Got News for You has parodied the show several times, by turning the lights down - except for spotlights above select chairs - and playing the theme tune, before subjecting at least one of the panel to some rigorous questioning. The first occasion happened on the 1995 video special, where every member of the panel were asked questions on specialist subjects relating to the news. The second occasion happened in 1998, when Magnus Magnusson appeared as a guest. His specialist subject was his most embarrassing moments on TV quizzes, including the moment on Quizball when he confused playwright Arthur Miller with the name of the surgeon who had once operated on his mother's kidneys. After Magnusson's questioning, the spotlight then turned onto the other guest, John Simpson, who was informed that his "specialist subject" was Christmas cracker jokes.

More randomly, HIGNFY turned the Mastermind spotlight on one of its favourite guests, Boris Johnson, when he appeared in 2001. He was told his specialist subject was then-Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith "whether you like it or not". The programme's final Mastermind moment to date came when John Humphrys guest-hosted an addition in 2003, shortly after taking over as Mastermind presenter. After the opening round, HIGNFY regular Ian Hislop mentioned that in accordance with a long-running theme of Humphrys' other well-known role as anchor of BBC Radio 4's Today Programme, he was about to spring a surprise on him. Hislop then asked Humphrys several questions about quotes said by him or about him, including the revelation that Iain Duncan Smith had once remarked about his "nicely balanced package".

In his early routines Bill Bailey would often parody the Mastermind music as he found it very sinister. He would then play the music on keyboard with an over-the-top hellish sounding climax.

The programme Balls of Steel parodied Mastermind with its sketch The Alex Zane Cleverness Game, in which experts were quizzed on their specialist subjects (included were "The Life of Anne Frank", "Eurovision Song Contest Winners", and "Hercule Poirot"). Unknowingly to the experts, the show was a complete hoax, and blatantly incorrect answers were included in order to frustrate them whenever they supplied the correct answer.

The comedy show Snuff Box had the two main characters Rich Fulcher and Matt Berry both appear on Mastermind. Berry chose his specialist subject as Alton Towersmarker and only scored 3 points before a blackout, in which he apparently shoots the host after being told to sit down. Fulcher chooses 'Anglo-saxon architecture', though displays no knowledge of the subject and makes up answers such as 'Toto from The Wizard Of Oz' and 'Elvis', and scoring no points.



Series Start date End date Episodes
1 11 September 1972 ?? ??
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11 ?? ?? ??
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21 ?? ?? ??
22 ?? ?? ??
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24 ?? ?? ??
25 ?? 1 September 1997 ??

BBC Radio 4

Series Start date End date Episodes
1 ?? ?? ??
2 ?? ?? ??
3 ?? ?? ??

Discovery Channel

Series Start date End date Episodes
1 14 November 2001 16 January 2002 ??


Series Start date End date Episodes
1 7 July 2003 3 November 2003 17
2 21 June 2004 5 December 2004 31
3 8 March 2005 8 November 2005 31
4 ?? 13 November 2006 31
5 9 July 2007 ?? ??
6 ?? 24 March 2008 ??
7 ?? ?? ??


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