It’s been a long time (35 years, in fact) since we had a homegrown version of iconic game show Mastermind on our screens. And who better to revive the Antipodean instalment than Jennifer Byrne? We put her under the spotlight, in a black chair, and gave her the third degree on what we can expect.
G’day Jennifer. You haven’t started filming yet, have you?
No. I am basically in what they call a state of nikhedonia, which means I have got all the excitement ahead of me, and I am all anticipation, and I have done none of the work. We start filming next week. Basically, this has been under discussion since December. So, it's been a secret well kept, and I'm raring to go. I just really want to start doing it.
You’ve done a fair bit of TV over the years. What’s it like being at this stage of a project?
Look, it’s a very different feel, which is one of the appeals to me. Because I have been on telly on and off since my mid-twenties. And they were very different days, in that it was Sunday and 60 Minutes, and that era. I did Sale of the Century when I was in my early 30s, and that was a really exciting thing, but I'd never signed up for anything like this before. It's a completely different role. And a bit like my last outing, which was with The Book Club, it was that thing where all of a sudden, you're not just reporting on other people’s lives. Books were a private passion, and always have been. And I never imagined the opportunity would arise, to actually tap into my private world of something I so loved – let alone for 11 years.
And you’re a puzzle aficianado at home?
This is what's so extraordinary, Shane. This is my other private passion, which the people who were looking for a host, and contacted me, didn't even know. So, I don't know what stars are aligning where in this mysterious universe, that they found me. This is the other thing I love to do: I love games and quizzes. And I always have, all my life, but it's always been something that I do in the privacy of my own or other friends’ home. And so, I'm way excited about the whole thing. I just can't wait to get started.
Mastermind has been around for a long time. How will you make it your own?
That's a good question because it's such a distinctive format and such an iconic format. Not just for itself but for the patterns of game shows that came after. Mastermind was always a reference point. It was the gold standard. We've been given this great gift: a beautiful concept which combines the human drama and weirdness. Let's not take away the weirdness. Of people’s knowledge of incredibly unknown things with a more general knowledge thing. Which is what elementally drives most game shows. You sit at home, and you think, “Oh, I would have got that.”
So it's got these two really powerful elements. And we're taking what we want, which is the chair, the lights, the music, getting through as many questions as possible. But we're going to have Australian questions, we're going to have Australian contenders, we're going to have an Australian host and be produced by an Australian television company. So, we're not going to sit there and tease out, “How do we need to change it, to make a character?” It's going to happen. But it's going to be within a deep respect and love, in my case, for the original.
So, it's going to be organic. We're going to take the great bits, and we're going to do it in an Australian environment. And I hope people really love it.
Let’s talk special subjects… is there a spectrum of topics? Any hard limits on what people can choose?
No, the only hard limits are the amount of research that we need to do. The world is full of people who spend much of their life obsessing over various things. We've got to encourage those people to come forward. They range from Harry Potter to… I don't know. I mean, they're just so broad, so extreme and so particular. Some of which will be highly amusing, some of which will be just fascinating. Because you can't believe that someone has spent so much of their life acquiring knowledge of the biological cycle of a particular kind of snail, in the Northern Territory. I mean, you just can't believe that, but they do.
The challenge for us is not finding the special subjects, because by definition people are bringing them to us – and we are just bowled over by the riches. But the challenge is going to be getting the right questions, and being ready for the challenges. Because they are incredibly well informed. They have spent decades learning about what we're asking them about. And there will be challenges, there will be adjudication issues. That's going to be one of the fascinating elements and, for us, is the real challenge – being ready. Monty Python: yep. Japanese bullet train: tick. Battle of Gettysburg: that's coming on. Australian spiders: yep. Kylie Minogue. We're going to be doing a really wide range. But it's going to be at a level that I don't think is going to be familiar for the audience. Because no one knows as much as these contenders.
"It's the reverse of Married At First Sight!"
You're going to become an expert on a different subject every week!
And that is just my idea of heaven. I will, for a very brief time, appear an expert on everything. And then basically my mind will just start flipping. What's the real name of a funnel web again? I am a great acquirer of knowledge, which I then drop off, and the next shiny new bit of knowledge comes along. Which makes me a perfect host. Because they'll always know more than me.
I imagine there’ll be some intense personalities in the mix.
That's right. These are not everyday people. It's the reverse of Married At First Sight. But I'll take the ratings figures thank you very much. She says optimistically.
Ha! Lots of people are already talking about their special subjects on social media, so there’s already some buzz…
That's so great. I'm one of those people who’s never really had a special subject. I kind of pick up bits of knowledge as I go along. I love to go dig about five inches deep, and I'm going to be mixing with people who are five metres deep. I'm really going to enjoy that; it's going to be fun. I think they're going to be fascinating people. And that's part of my job, which is to help them shine. Because it's a big challenge. You’re presenting yourself as the authority on this subject. You're under the lights, you're competing, it's hard. And I just want them to do their best, and create an environment for them [where] they actually feel they can shine, rather than be nervous, or trip themselves up. You know, I want it to be great for them, too. Which means it'll be great for the audience.
Mastermind premieres on SBS Australia Monday April 15. It will screen weeknights at 6pm, with episodes available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.
Mastermind is a BBC UK format and is produced for SBS by BBC Studios.