SBS’s new quiz show continues a 47-year tradition of tense moments, obscure special subjects and THAT black chair.
Kylie Walker

14 Apr 2019 - 5:55 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2020 - 3:00 PM

For the nervous twitching, toe-tapping, butterflies-in-the-stomach contestants, these are possibly the four most terrifying words on television: “Your time starts now”.

With iconic quiz show Mastermind back on Australian television, there’s no predicting who will shine, and who will crumble under the pressure of being in THAT black seat, under the spotlight, facing a rapid gunfire of questions from host Jennifer Byrne.

'Mastermind' is bringing us spiders, Monty Python and a very excited Jennifer Byrne
Jennifer Byrne can barely contain her excitement at taking the 'Mastermind' helm.

It doesn’t matter how well you know your special subject, or how good your general knowledge is, nerves can get the better of you (just ask the poor contestants who have the embarrassing honour of the lowest scores in the 47-year history of the show – including two who scored just one point in their specialist round). It’s what John Humphrys, who has hosted the UK version since 2013, has dubbed “black chair syndrome”.

That pressure, that dramatic tension, is part of the reason the show became such a success after it kicked off in the UK on BBC1 in 1972. Creator Bill Wright drew on his experiences as a prisoner of war in Germany during World War II in coming up with the intimidating format. 

But for viewers, the show offers another layer of fascination: the specialist topic. Just how obscure will tonight’s topics be?

The show consists of two rounds of questions, one on the contestant’s chosen specialist subject, one on general knowledge. And that first round has, over the years, delved into some very small niches, from hip-hop to Heath Ledger and Blackadder to birds and bees (er, no, that’s not a euphemism; separate contestants have chosen each of those as a specialist topic).  

For the new Australian version, each night four contestants will have 90 seconds to answer as many questions as possible on their special subject. In round two, they again face 90 seconds of rapid-fire questions, this time on general knowledge. The winner, with the highest combined score, will go on to compete against other nightly winners for a place in the grand final.

The host of the new version, respected journalist Jennifer Byrne – who apparently loves quizzes – follows in the footsteps of the original 1972 host Magnus Magnusson (who the BBC describes as “a formidable Scot of Icelandic parentage”); subsequent hosts including Clive Anderson, who led the show when it was briefly on Discovery Channel; and Huw Evans, the host of the original Australian version, which ran from 1978 to 1984.

Likewise, the new SBS version also joins an elite club: that of the international editions of the hit show. Versions have been produced in India, Ireland, Israel, New Zealand, Russia, Turkey and Wales (and, under the title 2 Minute Drill, in the US).

That international roll-call reflects the wide appeal of Mastermind. The show wasn’t an immediate success – the BBC admits it initially thought the show was too high-brow for prime time and aired it in a late-night slot. But when it was moved to an earlier slot, it clocked up a huge audience.

Since then, the Mastermind family has included not only international editions, but also special versions including an episode devoted to Doctor Who, broadcast in 2005 to mark the return of the science fiction series to the BBC; Junior Mastermind, a children’s version; and two champion’s versions, pitting previous series winners against each other.  

We can’t predict who’ll win the Australian version. We can’t guess who will suffer from black chair syndrome. But what we do know is that across Australia, contestants have been swatting up on topics ranging from Harry Potter to parrots. And that, just as it has for more than 40 years in the UK, Mastermind will be fast and fascinating and probably a touch controversial – there is a reason there are adjudicators standing by, ready to rule if a contestant challenges an answer that's deemed incorrect.

It’s Australia’s toughest quiz show, and for each contestant, “your time starts now” will kick off three minutes they will never forget.

Watch Mastermind weeknights at 6pm on SBS Australia. All episodes will be available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.

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