This will not be a long entry about Celebrity Mastermind, which I filmed at MediaCity, Salford Quays, in Manchester, on Tuesday. I am under strict orders not to reveal anything about the show, for self-evident reasons. I have not even told my Mum and Dad how I got on, other than to say, it was fine. That’s all I will say. Having done this most surreal thing, what can I safely tell you? Well … they film four editions in a day, over three days, which is quite an endurance test for host John Humphrys and the producers, directors, floor managers, technicians, runners and caterers, not to mention the audiences who I assume sit there for the whole day, too. Because it’s shot in Manchester, it’s acting as a canary down the coalmine of the BBC’s financially-driven migration north, as are Blue Peter, CBeebies, 5 Live and various other TV and radio shows, including 6 Music’s Manc outposts, Radcliffe, Maconie and Riley, who only moved in this week.
MediaCity is vast, custom-built and labyrinthine, but then so was Television Centre. It’s clean, slick, digitised and freshly painted and thus has zero character – it’s more like the backstage part of a large arena venue – but it seems to work. Though the celebrities who take part very much occupy the full spectrum of “celebrity” – starting at me and Escape To The Country presenter Jules Hudson, and rising to the dizzier heights of, say, Jason Manford, Erin Boag, Sandie Shaw and cricketer Michael Vaughan OBE – all are treated equally. In this respect, it was fun for me to travel First Class to Manchester (not that I was truly able to relax and enjoy the journey as I was wracked with self-doubt and nerves), and to have a dressing room, and be escorted about the building by designated young men and women in headsets. When I met my fellow contestants – won’t spoil it by naming them, you’ll find out soon enough – I was fully aware that they probably didn’t know who I was, but that I knew who they were. This is fine. In many ways, Mastermind is a great leveller. You don’t score points for how many times you are recognised.
Here’s the weird thing. I was so nervous about the whole thing in the days leading up to Tuesday, and terrified when I woke up on the day. But once I arrived at Manchester Piccadilly and found my cab, the nerves started to dissipate. I think this was something to do with the inevitability of my fate as it got nearer. There was really no more time to revise. I had done all that I could. I had been using quiz books to “revise” general knowledge, and once I put my final quiz book in my bag around Macclesfield, I knew that I would not be needing it again. I liken the whole experience to my fear of flying. I don’t like flying, and yet I have flown a lot. What happens is: I get nervous and uneasy in the days leading up to a flight, and feel a bit sick when I wake up in the morning, but the closer I get to flying, the less nervous I become. Thus, my nerves dissipate when I travel to the airport, when I check in, when I go to the gate, and finally, when I board the plane, by which time, I am no longer nervous.
As we were introduced to the audience by warm-up man Ted Robbins and trooped to our seats (I was placed third from the left), I realised that there was no escape. It was happening. I was going to sit in one black leather chair and eventually be directed to sit in another one, there to be asked questions on my specialist subject for a minute and a half, and subsequently on general knowledge for two minutes. (I liked the fact that the two rounds were referred to by the production team as “SS” and “GK”.) Like all TV studios, especially ones you are used to seeing on TV, the real thing is oddly unimpressive and commonplace. I remember thinking this when I went to a studio recording of Have I Got News For You – the set looks like the pieces of wood it is actually made from, as opposed to being made of TV magic, which is what we expect. TV Burp is the same. With re-takes and pick-ups, Mastermind is no less real, but the one thing that isn’t faked is the answering of the questions: these take place in real time, by and large, and the buzzer actually sounds at the end. The main difference between watching it and being on it is that you are on it.
It was a treat to be recording on the same day as Justin Moorhouse, whom I haven’t seen since we lived together in Edinburgh last year. He kindly put me up for the night in his house, too, which meant I could hang around afterwards in hospitality and eat what amounted to three lots of catering, one after each show. It was only at the end of the day that John Humphrys turned up backstage, all relaxed and without a tie, to have a couple of cans of bitter. So we nabbed him for a photograph. I’m glad we did. Although, frankly, there will be enough visual evidence that I was on Mastermind in December. I’m such a star-struck passenger, I took the little insert from my dressing room door. More proof that this ridiculous thing actually happened to me. Now time to move on with my life.