Filming day arrives. I have crammed in just about everything I can manage. There is no capacity for any more, I’ve done what I can. What is inside my head at this point is it. I am now in the lap of the question gods and my inner resources in the moment.
Three friends and son Sam are coming along to support me as part of the audience. I am grateful for this, more than they can ever imagine. Brett is competing in a surf tournament in New Plymouth. He’s allowed. He’s doing what he loves, down country, and I’m doing something I never, for a moment, dreamt I would be doing. I’m not a surfer or water-babe but, right now, the thought of facing a giant wave seems less daunting than what I am about to do.
I have no idea how the next few hours will unfold. With a vision of cameras and questions and darkness and me in the middle of it all under a spotlight, I try not to think about what might happen. Will I make a fool of myself, will I trip over on my way to that sacred chair, will the answers get stuck in my head and not come out when required?
I try to lose the pessimistic thoughts and start to think of what it might be like to win. I am jolted back to reality from these fleeting thoughts based on fantasy. The prize is the chair and a rather large and lovely glass trophy. I have no space for either.
The first dilemma of the day is what to wear. No stripes or patterns that might strobe. Black will just blend into the chair. White will stand out far too much. I realise most of my wardrobe is patterned and colourful, or black or white. Unlike most sensible people, I have put no thought into this until this morning. I choose a dress (less patterned), a jacket (black) and a pair of shoes that won’t trip me up, and off I go. I leave behind several discarded options flung across the bed.
I turn up at the Clock Tower at the University, where filming is to take place. Two heats were filmed yesterday, three today and three more tomorrow. Eight heats in total – 32 contenders preparing to sit in the chair. It is early afternoon and it is a very warm day.
Once in the Green Room I’m introduced to Ian the journalist, Mark the canoe operator and Simone the debt management officer (who used to be Simon). My fellow contenders, the ones I will compete against. Four human beings cast together on the premise that we know stuff.
I also meet the four contenders in the heat before mine who are preparing to go into filming. I feel for them. But I feel for me more. I still have some waiting and angst to do. Their waiting and angst is over. For them, it’s now game-on, no going back. They are almost over the threshold.
The Green Room is a large boardroom, there is nothing intimate and cosy here. We chat away about nothing in particular as the sun shines brightly outside. We talk about how nervous we are, except for Ian who appears quite cool, calm and collected. He’s been on Mastermind before. He made the semi-finals in the 1990 season. He therefore has a huge head-start. Huge. He also has a rather small specialist subject. It is finite. I realise the magnitude of mine – David Bowie, for god’s sake. It’s a life without end, even when he’s dead. I console myself with the thought I would much rather be familiar with Bowie’s genius than Bart’s antics. I wish I had chosen a block of years, or a period of music or maybe just his last two albums. Too late now, I have taken on Bowie from start to finish.
Mark is doing the novels of Nevil Shute. I don’t think I’ve ever read one of his books. Mark has read each of them dozens of times. Simone is doing the four big Shakespeare tragedies. That’s big. The two of us grimace at the scale of what we’ve taken on.
All this is not helping my state of mind.
I open my Bowie folder and my eyes run over some facts and info. They take nothing in and I realise it’s a pointless pursuit. I look at the list of films he had roles in (quite a lot) to refresh my memory. I’ve seen just about all of them. My eyes rove over the name of the film I haven’t seen – Twin Peaks Fire Walk with Me. It’s the one with the dull character name that I can never remember. I never engaged with Twin Peaks and the name is just too boring to memorise. The only thing that sinks in is a hope that, of all the films he did, I do not get asked about that one. I try again to capture the name in the net of my brain but, as always, it just fades off into oblivion. There are far more fabulous things to remember. (Which film question do I get? Sadly, yes, it is that one. When it comes at me, all I remember is that I can't remember the answer and all I can think is that I absolutely should know it!)
I flick my eyes over the albums, the songs on each album, the producers, the lead musicians, the dates and years and cover artwork. The concerts and iconic moments. There are many. I think I have them locked in – although, as I look, I realise how quickly the details can fade away like a puff of smoke, in an instant, leaving only the possibility of trying to make something out of nothing. And that means a “pass”. The room seems disturbingly smoky and I close my Bowie folder.
What I know, I know and what I don’t, I don’t. By now, it’s as simple as that. Only, there’s nothing simple about any of this.
I go for a hair and make-up spruce and then go off for a promotional shoot. It’s fun and the crew are great, putting me at ease. This is out of my comfort zone, but they guide me well. I’ve been on camera before in The Golden Hour (see separate post) but that was quite a different experience all together.
Back to the Green Room and time is ticking. I’m wondering when the warm-up questions will come. Surely, surely, there will be warm-up questions. Someone right there with us, popping random questions into the air for us to warm our brains up with. Alas, this is not, it seems, in the plan. There will be a debrief from the producer about what to expect once in the studio, but no warm-up questions. This freaks me out. I cannot imagine going in stone-cold but I realise, aghast, that this is what I will be doing.
It’s akin to a singer going on stage without lubricating the vocal chords, a lead violin taking their place without a tune-up, a 100m sprinter running a final without limbering up – you get the picture. Our moment in the spotlight is looming, and there will be no warm-up. Mastermind comes with an extra layer of tough.
By now they are running behind time. We wait and we chat. We get “mic’d up”. We sip water. We wait some more and chat some more. And then the people from the previous heat emerge.
Some are jubilant, some are not. It throws me. How will I emerge from my session? Time will tell.
We are walking towards the set – the mosaics, the pillars, the high ceiling, the lighting. It looks fabulous. The opposite to how I feel. Gulp, this is it.
I catch the eye of Sam and my friends. I smile but I think it is a grimace. They smile with encouragement. I need it.
I take my seat. I am the second contender. This is it. The floor manager takes control, telling us and the audience what lies ahead. I realise we won't even get the chance for a practice run to seat ourselves in THAT chair. We had been told that it swings. "Make sure you don't swing it," we had been told. Scary. I have no idea how swingy it actually is.
Ian is up first with his specialist subject. He nails it and this daunts me to the extreme.
I sit in the chair. It is comfortable and I make it there without stumbling or making it swing. The Bowie questions come. The first one is simple (WTF?) and others I nail, but I find myself stumbling. The high heels have hijacked my mind rather than my feet. Too many questions are about those hangers-on, cover versions, other people's albums. And things I know but suddenly don't. My brain is whirling, as per the lyric from Bowie’s “Lazarus”. And, amongst it all, the dreaded question about Twin Peaks. Try as I might to pick that name out of my folder, I can’t. Pass. My mind is not operating properly.
A line from Bowie's song “Where are we now” (from The Next Day, 2013) is “the moment you know you know you know”. Well, I can tell you that, when it comes to Mastermind, it’s much more a case of “The moment you suddenly don’t know what you know you know”.
It is almost 5pm by now. I needed those warm up questions. I need a wine. But I am sitting in front of a tv audience and camera with more rounds to complete.
The specialist subject round over, we move onto the General Knowledge round. My set of questions is hideous. There are some I should have nailed but the questions are so long, by the time I get to the end I’ve forgotten what the essence of it is. The mind plays tricks, the words get lost and it’s impossible to claw anything back once the mind goes AWOL.
As I listen to my fellow contenders’ sets of questions, I have question envy. Could there be such a thing? Believe me, there is. It is agonising to know I would have done better than any of them in their rounds. But, perhaps that is just because I wasn’t sitting in THAT chair.
Next up, the New Zealand round. I’ve got Science, Nature and Geography. The questions are much more reasonable than the last lots and I move through them without too much problem. It should have been a clean sweep but a bit of mind sabotage got in the way. I redeem myself to some extent.
I am relieved not to come last but I feel for Simone, who does. It’s not really to do with what we know or don’t know, it’s to do with the moment, the pressure. I will say that the chair is comfortable, but that’s where it ends. The rest is a true test of courage and composure. Hey, we got this far, we can be proud.
By 6.30pm a surreal, somewhat exhilarating, totally nerve-wracking and absolutely extraordinary experience is over. Peter Williams is understandably exhausted and, after an afternoon like no other, I’m off for a well-earned wine.