29 July 2015

Mastermind & Peter Sinclair

Peter Sinclair (screencap via The Spinoff)
Steve Braunias' column today about the penultimate grand final of the New Zealand edition of Mastermind in 1990 brought back fond memories. I was fortunate to appear in the final series of Mastermind the following year (indeed, I'm fond of claiming my appearance was its death knell) and can endorse the appraisal of the hugely experienced host Peter Sinclair as the consummate professional and just a decent, nice guy. Like the 1990 winner Hamish McDouall (now Deputy Mayor of Wanganui District), I was a relatively young competitor - either 17 or 18 at the time of filming, and from memory I may have been the 2nd youngest competitor in the programme's NZ run. 

It proved surprisingly easy to get onto Mastermind. At the time I was reading anything and everything, which is one of the benefits of doing the first year of a BA degree, so I made up for my lack of experience with a reasonable amount of book-smarts. And I surmised that in a country of three or so million, not many would actually put their hands up to be on Mastermind, which turned out to be accurate. My specialist topic was a series of books I was mad about at the time - the Belgariad fantasy novels by David Eddings. Not high culture by any means, but I knew them back to front, or so I thought.

My first appearance on the programme - also my first appearance on TV in general - went by in quite a daze.  It became obvious that the all-black background was convenient because it meant TVNZ could spend the bare minimum on set-dressing.  I don't think I met Sinclair before the recording, but I knew what to expect and my specialist questions were all straightforward. The general knowledge round wasn't particularly hard either, and I emerged the winner of my heat by quite a decent margin. The main memory of the night is the thickness and orangeness of my caked-on TV makeup, which was required due to my noxious teenage skin, which of course could not be permitted on viewers' primetime screens.

Some months later I returned for the first semifinal with three fellow contestants including, I think, a father and son duo, Olaf Peek and his son, whose name I can't recall. The competition was much keener, and the questions on my books had been toughened up quite a bit. University exams were on at the same time, so I hadn't had time to re-read the the five books before the recording. In the end I came something like 3rd in the semifinal - not good enough to progress to the final - and kicked myself for never having heard of Don McLean's 'Vincent', which was admittedly released two years before I was born.

Afterwards I was able to talk briefly with Sinclair, and he was particularly kind when he saw how disappointed I was. Rather than winning a much-coveted trip to England, it would take me six more years to finally reach London under my own steam. Sinclair revealed that he and the crew had thought I might be able to go on and emulate McDouall's feat of the previous year, which was a very nice thing to say. And I witnessed a moment of quiet dignity too, when some numbskull audience member asked Sinclair if it was alright to have his picture taken in Sinclair's hosting chair in front of the Mastermind sign. Sinclair of course offered to be in the photo too, and the man replied, 'Nah, that's fine'. It may have just been a thoughtless remark but it struck me that Sinclair just smiled and let him get on with it, ignoring the insult. A true gentleman through and through.

[The above text is a lightly edited cross-post of a comment I posted on the Braunias blog]
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