Do you expect me to talk?

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.

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6 thoughts on “Do you expect me to talk?

  1. I look forward to seeing the episode. Did the reading of triva or general knowledge books help in any way with the GK round? I’ve thought about entering TV quizes (I have in fact auditioned, unsuccessfully, for one) and had thought that I would swot up in a similar way… But then, the chances of reading a question that actually comes up must be tiny.

  2. “Because it’s shot in Manchester, it’s acting as a canary down the coalmine of the BBC’s financially-driven migration north”

    Hi Andrew,
    Am I being overly sensitive and chippy northerner here if I say that this comes across as if the BBC is venturing into the abyss? I think you mean that these shows are testing the water in a new facility, but the canary/coalmine analogy suggests poison and imminent danger. Salford has its rough spots but it’s not exactly the pit of despair.

    Having been all critical an that, can I ask you to throw your support behind the e-peitition to ask Parliament to re-examine the reorganisation of BBC Local Radio? I think babies may be being thrown out with the bathwater of these cuts, and we are going to turn round in ten years and wonder how we could have been so stupid. On The Wire, the brilliant and renowned BBC Lancashire music show, has run for all my adult life, and is a perfect example of what the BBC can do so well that wouldn’t be viable on commercial radio. It would be a crying shame to lose this gem of ‘alternative’ music, and I hope people will rally round as they did for 6Music.

    I’ll try to catch the Mastermind thing though I’m not much of a telly person (I had to google Erin Boag).

    • You really are “chippy” to take my daft canary/coalmine analogy at face value! It was meant to be humorous. If anyone insults London, I will probably shrug and say fair enough. There’s good and bad everywhere. Where did I suggest Salford was a “pit of despair”? MediaCity seemed very nice in that docklands kind of way that every port city seems to follow (London, Bristol, Liverpool). I was talking to some nice people at Mastermind who had come to support Justin, who lives in Manchester (they were from Liverpool) and I was celebrating the fact that the centre of gravity is moving northwards. There’s no reason for the BBC to be exclusively based in London, but then, it hasn’t been for years. If I object to anything it’s the selling of prime real estate just to save money when that real estate was doing a decent job for decades. It’s not about how handy it is for me. I always used to travel up to Manchester to appear on Radcliffe and Lard’s show, even though it meant a 14-hour round trip and an overnight stay. It was worth it.

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