My experience as a contestant on BBC Mastermind

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By Briony Havergill, Second Year, Film & Television

Last year, I decided to partake in something that was vastly outside of my comfort zone: I was a contestant on BBC's Mastermind. Here's how it happened.

The days were long and hot and empty; I had no routine and nothing to do, just like every other student I know. I was struggling with my mental health, too. The hours and hours spent sitting on my sofa, on my bed, outside, gave me too much time to overthink.

One of the only things I looked forward to was the weekly quiz that my neighbours, Rodney and Tracey, would host over Zoom. My family and I have a rare relationship with all of our neighbours – we live in a close of eight houses and all of us get on absurdly well. Since we couldn’t all go to the local pub every Friday, Rodney decided to host a weekly quiz to keep us all sane in lockdown.

Briony on Mastermind | Courtesy of BBC

My parents and I just kept winning. At first it was just a bit of fun, but very quickly my dad and I started to take it a little too seriously. That's when the ‘you should apply for Mastermind’ joke appeared. I took that a little too seriously, too.

I applied for BBC Mastermind in the last week of casting. I sat a video call interview, answered a few questions, discussed my specialist subjects and then received a phone call that afternoon telling me that the producers were interested. Two days later, I was shortlisted for the competition, followed by a confirmation of my place a week after that. Now all I had to do was learn 171 Greek myths in a month.

The set-up of the show was created to intimidate its contestants, and take my word for it, it does

It was a Herculean effort. I was still revising on my flight out to Belfast. It was the first time I’d ever been to Northern Ireland, and the first time I’d ever travelled without my parents. I felt quite alone, and overwhelmed. I reached the hotel late, checked in, ate dinner, and then somehow managed to fall asleep.

'The set up for the show was created to intimidate the contestants, and take my word for it, it does' | Courtesy of BBC

The next morning, we were taken across to the studio and put into the groups that we would be competing against. My three fellow contestants were friendly: one was a lecturer and so we discussed university for a while to keep ourselves distracted. They all seemed intimidatingly smart. The youngest was perhaps just under double my age. By that point, I was just hoping that I wouldn’t embarrass myself on national television.

The next few hours passed in a blur. I can remember enjoying my lunch, then being hurried off to wardrobe to pick up my clothes for the show, then to hair and makeup for final touch-ups. The makeup artist was lovely; she told me that I was the youngest contestant there for filming that day. After that, it was time to start the show.

Stepping into that vast, dark, freezing cold studio was one of the scariest things I have ever done. The lighting is harsh, and they actually play the theme music (appropriately titled ‘Approaching Menace’) whilst filming. The creator of the show, Bill Wright, took inspiration from his wartime experiences of being interrogated by the Gestapo. The set-up of the show was created to intimidate its contestants, and take my word for it, it does.

I thought that I couldn’t get any more nervous, and then John Humphrys walked in. He is a polite man, direct but genuine, and altogether quite terrifying. He introduced himself, then asked us to do the same. When I told him that I was a Film and Television student, one of the production crew joked that I was angling after his job, which seemed to amuse him. He asked why I had chosen Greek Mythology for my specialist subject, I pieced together an answer about how much I enjoyed A-Level Classics and how inspiring my teachers were. Then he was called away to address some minor notes, and I could relax for a second.

Last night's Mastermind contestants | Courtesy of BBC

I was the second contestant to sit in the chair, and as I crossed the floor to approach it, I had a bit of a vain crisis. What if I walk weirdly, or my hair looks strange, or I look hideous from that camera angle?

But most importantly, what if I answer every question wrong?

I needn’t have worried. The relief I felt after answering the first question was unparalleled. I got the highest score in the specialist subject round.

My second round in the chair was more intimidating than the first. I was last to face the general knowledge questions and I knew that I was at a disadvantage. My fellow contestants had the benefit of age and experience on their side; I was still just hoping that I wouldn’t come last.

Somehow, by the end of the round I was drawn for first with sixteen points. Not the highest of scores by any means, but a noble effort. I left the chair and returned to my seat with the others, fidgeting, waiting to hear a result that I didn’t really believe.

I had won.

It was the last thing I expected. In a daze, I accepted congratulations from everyone, asked for a cup of water, and then hurried over to film a short Q&A at the edge of the set. The entire experience had been surreal, it was only when John Humphrys congratulated me again in the corridor as I was leaving that the reality of the day sank in.

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Unfortunately, I was never going to make it back to Belfast for my semi-final. After revising my second specialist subject intently (Aardman Animations), I received a self-isolation alert from track-and-trace less than a week before I was due to fly out. I was devastated, but there was no way I would risk the safety of the airport staff, hotel staff, production crew, contestants, or John Humphrys. So, I phoned up the producers, told them what had happened, and wished my best to whoever would replace me. Since then, I’ve just been waiting for my episode to air, equally excited and terrified.

Perhaps in a few years I’ll return to the chair to settle my unfinished business. I wonder if I’d be lucky enough to achieve a place in the semi-finals twice?

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