The Black Chair- being on “Mastermind”

The BBC kindly arranged for me to stay in the Palace Hotel in Oxford Rd the night before my apperance as a semi-finalist on Mastermind.

I had been in it once, but had not realised what a carvernous building it was. I felt uncomfortable especially at meal time and was put off by the richness of the place beside I was on a budget and I knew that the BBC would cover my expenses but thought that I would practice frugality instead and had a steak sandwich in the “Cornerhouse” over the road. The Cornerhouse were holding a quiz that night as well and devilish hard it was. An example of the questions being what links the 1st,3rd,16th and 26th American Presidents. I knew that the 1st and 3rd were Washington and Jefferson and I guessed that the 16th was Lincoln, but the 26th? My hunce that it was William McKinley and the answer was that they had all mountains named after them. I was one out and the 26th was Theodore Roosevelt. The answer was that they were all carved at Mount Rushmore. Suitably chastined I went back to the hotel.

The hotel was opulent and very large and as I told the producer the following day my unease might have something to do with seeing a clip of “The Shining” . A customer had come into the supermarket with a “Here’s Johnny” tee shirt although curiously he had not seen the film and my comment that ” he had always been the caretaker” when I made the comment. I half expected to see an effusion of blood come seeping out of the lifts as well as the caretaker comment when I walked back through the rain.

Nevertheless, I slept well and breakfasted and managed to have a last lingering look at my notes on Thomas Paine before walking to the Granada studios in Quay St.

Why choose Thomas Paine the 18th century political writer? Well its a very rich life and as the man said involvement in two revolutions- the American and the French- is living life to some purpose. As I said during the interview that will be screened when the quiz is shown I think that Paine has something to say about society today. the relationship between the governing class and the governed, the role of the church, what do we do wiith the poor, popular sovereignity and the defence of minority rights are all in Paine’s writing way before they had entered the political mainstream. I also am fascinated by the man because of his lowly origins and the action that he packed into his life. He was a soldier in the American revolutionary war, a member of the French convention and the author of the “Rights of Man” only beaten by the Bible as the most sold book in English. And above all on most of the issues of his day he was right. I felt that more people should know about Thomas Paine and Mastermind was a good vehicle.

I managed to ring my daughter before I set out and put the little talisman in my pocket before setting out.

My walk took my past the Grapes pub. I found the pub that we sat in in late 1977 as part of a York University Challenge team that had been hollow in the rehersals by Merton College, Oxford. We decided that we might as well have a few beers before transmission and the beer served to loosen us up and we then went on to beat Merton and a number of the Oxbridge colleges before loosing to Magdalene Cambridge in the semi finals. In 1977 I seemed to remember the pub was something of a dive with women’s underwear adorning the walls. It looked a little more upmarket now.

In the Green Room I met the other contestants. A Bloke from Buckinghamshire taking a crime novelist I had never heard off, someone from Nottingham doing “the TV series ” Our Friends in the North”, a Welsh guy answering questions on Glamorgan Cricket Club and finally some light to be shed on the Dark Ages by a chap from Sale. They all seemed to be decent blokes, unlike my previous apperance where I was on the on the same team as a supercilious Deputy Head Teacher from a private school from Buckinghamshire. The others in the previous round were from the South although the young lad from Reading was nice enough. We had a conversation about Dave Kitson.

We went to make up and the dressing room. I had selected a green shirt and black trousers. One was dressed in a yellow shirt, one in purple, another in red and finally a bloke in light blue. We were, I remarked, the Rainbow coalition.

In the Green room before I went on I found out that the man from High Wycombe had won his round answering questions on Mott the Hoople. we had a discussion on bands we had seen and I remarked that I had seen Mott the Hoople on the ill fated Rock and Roll Circus gig of 1972 in the Victoria Hall. Max Wall was on the bill and got booed off. The chap from Nottingham joined in who had a grandfather who was born at the Chell workhouse. he said that the most oddest gig that he had ever seen was a double bill of Jimi Hendrix and Englebert Humperdinck!

We were miked up and one of them mentioned Robert Maxwell as the guy was another Reading supporter. I said that the night that Maxwell fell off his boat that Gerald Kaufman was asked about Maxwell’s frame of mind on Channel 4 news. Kaufman replied that he seemed buoyant. We all laughed at that one.

We sat in our chairs as John Humphrys arrived and shortly afterwards Ted Robbins the warm up act. humphries had said that they had just filmed a celebrity Mastermind for Christmas and that some soap star had been asked a question on what breakfast cereal do you associate with prison assuming that the guy would know the answer was porridge. Cheerios he answered. Humphrys did not know whetehr he was being ironic or thick. he was scathing about some of the politicians who had been on such as Blunkett who scored very low and David Lammy whose answer to who discovered radium was Marie Antoinette and more strangely still who succeeded Henry VIII answered Henry VII. Thereby getting both his history and maths wrong. Lammy was the Minister for Higher Education.

The lights darkened, the ominous music began and I am in the black chair facing the man.

Bill Cawley from Leek

Supermarket cashier

Answering questions on the Life and works of Thomas Paine

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