Mastermind: Lessons from the black leather chair

When I agreed to appear on BBC1’s Celebrity Mastermind at Christmas, nobody told me I would be subject to makeup mishaps, psychological intimidation and pain in the brain.

Relief after winning by 1 point

I know, I know. The word “celebrity” in a programme title is surely a no-go for a serious journalist. But it was Mastermind. Who didn’t grow up watching Magnus Magnusson, that sombre music, and shouting  answers at the telly? I was an academic girl. And unlike my experience of the adult world of work, exams seemed fairer;  judging you on actual performance and ability.

As I forced my own children to study hard for exams, here was a chance to show them I was still prepared to revise.  And here’s what I can tell you in case you ever go on.

My first choice specialist subject (classic TV serial Star Trek) was verboten. Apparently someone had done star Trek movies last year. My husband suggested the novels of Laura Ingalls Wilder, as I’d been raving about them since buying them up on eBay a year or so earlier. You can find out why by reading my Guardian article about her from November 2010.  A quick phone conversation and email exchange  back in August with the producers agreed the parameters of revision – nine novels (the last published posthumously) and a biography to include her life as well.

And that was pretty much it. I read the novels and biography making a book of notes. In the green room after the recording, decathlete Dean Macey admitted to doing exactly the same, except while watching the Back to the Future movies.

‘Revise your specialist subject’
As the recording date approached I used my journalistic instincts to research other areas. An ITN makeup artist told me one day that ITV News’ Alastair Stewart had won his Celebrity Mastermind last year, so I contacted him for what turned out to be the most important advice. “Oh, you’re a journalist,” he said reassuringly. “You don’t need to worry about general knowledge. Just make sure you’ve revised your specialist subject.”

Of course that wasn’t enough for me. As  M-day approached I approached friends on Twitter to help me strengthen my weak areas. The editor of New Scientist, @RogerHighfield, came up with a list of key scientific developments of the past decade; my father-in-law, Glen Millar, produced a fact sheet of sporting trivia, including FA cup winners going back to the 1970s and the names of every British cricket ground. Sadly it turned out he’d have been better off including a definition of “wicket”. On the day of the recording my sister, Saira MacNicol, tested me on the periodic table over the phone.

None of these came up. I was deeply jealous when Dr Pixie McKenna got a question on converting 32F to Celsius.

Psychological warfare
And then, with just four days to go, there was the psychological warfare. Robert Webb and Giles Coren declared in their newspaper columns, and then  via Twitter, that they’d done no preparation. Ah, the old boy versus swotty girl mind trick. I tweeted back that  I had laminated note cards – which was a lie (though perhaps marking my notebook with highlighter pens is no less Hermione).

An old university contemporary, Richard Herring, had already recorded his show and told me about his friendly banter with John Humphrys about his Hitler moustache. Well, I wasn’t going to be able to compete on that.

Two days before the recording I finally tried out the Mastermind website where you can play a multiple choice version of the game. It was impressively highbrow with plenty of questions about medieval art and politics, and proved very addictive. But I was wary of taking comfort in my scores, given even a blind guess had a 20% chance of being correct.

Channel 4 News presenter Samira Ahmed in the green room of Celebrity Mastermind

Makeup mishap
On the day of the recording I did have the largest entourage in the audience as loads of friends and family  came down from as far as Cheshire to watch. In fact they make up most of the front row visible behind the contestants. The children got permission to take the day off school, but in return I had the burden of all the teachers very keen to know how I did. Who was the school child again?

I wore my comfiest trainers, wary of negotiating the walk of terror to the chair. In the makeup room a last-minute mishap could have thrown me. A lipstick brush broke as the makeup artist  was giving me a final touch up and I stared in horror at the big glob of lippy down the front of my lucky 70s Nasa T-shirt.

The warm-up comic had to keep filling while the makeup team dabbed me with dry cleaning fluid, water and then aimed a hairdryer at my chest. The other contestants had to stand around watching. You can see me clutching my jacket defensively each time I sit down in the chair.

The producers had given us some rules. No interrupting the question. They’d timed the two minutes so that in theory we would all get asked the same number of questions. Passes count against you in a tie, but passing would save time for more questions, than answering incorrectly. That’s what I went for.

Pain in the brain
They’d also told me that when the lights go down, it can be quite calming. In fact halfway through the second round I had actually turned off my ears and missed key words of several questions. The question about a pop star divorce needed repetition as I’d not heard the words “Paul McCartney”. I also missed the word “shadow” in the Chancellor question about needing to buy a book on economics. I’d like to think my answer of George Osborne might be interpreted as witty satire rather than political bias.

On close-up I could see the pain in my brain when I knew I knew the answer but it wouldn’t come (hence Macao rather than Manila as my response to the capital of the Philippines.) It’s like the engine is spinning, but the gears won’t engage. I promise I won’t shout at the telly at others anymore.

Many friends and viewers have since commented about whether I was distracted by John’s psychedelic purple tie and shirt combo. I have, of course, had years of experience of dealing with wacky ties in the studio. And at least I didn’t have to look at his socks.

In the end it came down to luck and maybe a bit of nerve. It’s been interesting finding out  who’d been asked to take part before, but was too scared to go on. I hadn’t expected to win, but it’s a relief I did. The trophy sits on top of my piano next to my Stonewall award for broadcast of the year. I won it a year ago for a report on the horrific so-called “corrective” rape of lesbian women in South Africa, because Action Aid approached me about their campaign to tackle homophobic crime. I was proud to choose Action Aid and the Fawcett Society as my charities on Mastermind because of the great work both do to promote female equality at home and abroad.

I am a little sad that I’ve lost the Newsround Newshound badge John Craven sent me when I was nine. But the Mastermind one is too big to lose. And I can at least hold my head up high in the office and at the school gate when term starts again.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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