Snowdon

At last, it’s in the public domain: episode 8 of the ninth series of Celebrity Mastermind. It’s on the iPlayer here but if you want to avoid knowing the score, please look away now and read this another time. I’ll throw in the traditional screen grabs to give you the chance to bail out before we talk numbers.

Right, if you’re still reading, you obviously either saw it, or don’t care enough to see it, so I can compare scores with impunity. I’ll tell you this much, if being in the famous chair is nerve-wracking, it turns out not to be half as nerve-wracking as watching the programme go out, on the television, with a roomful of your relations! All I have been telling people since recording the show in mid-November is: I didn’t make a total tit of myself. Which is, I think, true. My final score of 23 is not exactly off the charts, and it must forever genuflect at Richard Herring’s mighty 35 (which should please him), but it’s respectable and I think I can hold my head up in public, despite saying Snowdon to a general knowledge question whose answer was obviously Everest. (In mitigation, as if mitigation is required when you’re on bloody Mastermind, the question was to do with the height of the mountain being recalculated, and the keyboard in my brain called up the Hugh Grant film, The Englishman Who Went Up A Hill But Came Down A Mountain, in which he was sent to measure a mountain in Wales, so the wrong synapse crackled as a split-second result. Carve it on my gravestone if you must.)

I was no match for DCI Barnaby off Midsomer Murders, who scored a copper-bottomed 29, having stoically stormed his specialist round on Philip Larkin, and kept the same cool head for general knowledge. The close camera angles were not kind to Barnaby’s method of calling up information which involved physically pressing buttons on the keyboard inside his brain using only parts of his face, but like many actors, I doubt he will be watching his performance back, so we may snigger all we like: he won by a mile.

I had hoped that Canadian comedian Stewart Francis, who’d been called up off the subs’ bench at midnight after David Gest sent a sick note, would be unprepared, but he did well with his specialist subject of the Toronto Blue Jays – he may have been cooler than the rest of us because he’d already done a comedians-only Children In Need special edition of Celebrity Mastermind in 2010, when his subject was the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Spotting a theme?)

I had also hoped that Sandie Shaw would be nuts, and to a charming degree, she was. The life and soul of the green room from the moment she stepped glamorous and surprisingly shod foot in it, she really made our edition of the programme fun. What you didn’t see on television was the moment when, on the walk back to her seat, the battery pack of her microphone slipped from its moorings somewhere up her minidress and it fell down between her knees, dangling in a most unbecoming way. She laughed it off, and I asked if it was her puppet on a string, a wisecrack that went pretty much unheard. That’s showbiz.

Here are the final scores anyway.

I must admit, I am kicking myself over the questions I got wrong in my specialist round. I thought I’d revised disaster movies thoroughly, but gave the name of the director of The Medusa Touch when the question required the name of the man who wrote the novel. (“Jack Gold!” “Peter Van Greenaway.”) This just shows you how easy it is to give the wrong answer when you know the right one – who else would know the name of the director of The Medusa Touch, never mind the novelist? Both are, by definition, useless bits of information. But in this artificial situation which you have volunteered to be in, they become vital bits of information. Actually, unlike Richard’s experience, mine is not one bedevilled by retroactive frustration. Even if I’d got the Medusa Touch question right, and the Everest one, and the one where the answer was my favourite film The Poseidon Adventure and I said The Towering Inferno, I still wouldn’t have caught up with Barnaby. So I am able to sleep easy in my bed.

Lots of nice, supportive comments on Twitter, which I really appreciated. My parents thought I did well, although my Dad admitted that he was shouting, “Everest!” at the screen in Northampton. Oddly enough, after the show had aired, I was demonstrating how Twitter works to a family member who didn’t understand its appeal or how it worked but was curious to see it in action. He started an account and I was steering him around the basics. I showed him how to search for an account and he put in my name. In doing so, as well as my Twitter account coming up, he also started reading the stream of Tweets mentioning me by name, but not referring to my Twittername. I never do this, and was of course dismayed to find some less complimentary comments, which, in fairness to those who wrote them, were never aimed at me. Best not to dwell on them, especially not the one from the person who said I looked old, but one basically accused me of choosing a “nostalgic” subject, as if perhaps I was only capable of thinking about the past. I’m afraid I politely replied to them and said that I had asked the producers if I could ask questions about the future, but they had turned down my request, so I had to do the past.

Another asked me why I didn’t shake Stewart Francis’s hand, or at least why I left him with his hand out for seconds without shaking it. Here’s why: it is, as far as I know, Mastermind etiquette to congratulate the winner at the end. We all shook DCI Barnaby’s hand. However, Stewart thought he should shake my hand as well, which is very nice, but having shaken Barnaby’s, I  was not looking to my right, but straight ahead. I shook it when I noticed it though.

Honestly, it’s a social minefield! When you are on Mastermind, remember my mistakes. Ultimately, I am proud to be listed on the Wikipedia entry for Celebrity Mastermind, even if I am not a winner. I am among friends there. And I am still not a celebrity, thank God.

2012: TV highlights

Apologies. No time for long blog entry as I’m really up against a scriptwriting deadline (something I’ve started, so I’ll finish). But the nice people at Celebrity Mastermind sent me these pics and they give me the chance to tell you that the series begins on BBC1 on Tuesday December 27 and I make my appearance on Thursday January 5. That’s it really. Make a note in your 2012 diary, Mum and Dad!

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.