Being in the famous black chair on Mastermind

OU student, James Davidson, chats about the Mastermind experience.

OU student, James Davidson, tells The Hoot all about the experience of being on the 2022/23 series of Mastermind, ahead of the airing of the Grand Final on Monday 24 April 2023 at 8pm on BBC Two. You can catch up on previous episodes on BBC iPlayer

“I applied to go on Mastermind on a complete whim, filling in the application form during one slow lunch hour at work. Several months passed before I got an email inviting me to audition over Zoom, where they asked some general knowledge questions and we spoke through my specialist subject options – most of which I had forgotten as they were cobbled together from things I was vaguely interested in and wouldn’t mind learning a bit more about. A couple of days later I was told that I would be going on the show with The Films of Nicole Kidman as my specialist subject. 

This was my preferred option and they let me narrow that down to 12 films that they would base the questions on so it wasn’t as intimidating as covering her entire filmography of over 60 films. Revising was actually a lot of fun watching films like Moulin Rouge, Practical Magic and The Hours through a couple times each, with the subtitles on to make sure I got every line of dialogue and pausing frequently to pick up every bit of detail. 

Mastermind is filmed in Belfast so it was a good opportunity to go somewhere I had never been before and I took the opportunity to take a break from revising to visit the Titanic Museum. When it came to the day of filming, I was very nervous at breakfast as there was several people sitting alone pouring over massive folders of notes which made me feel woefully under prepared, luckily my episode was the last one filmed that day so I had several excruciating hours to fill in which I did by cramming. 

The studio experience itself was lovely and all of the crew were very aware that this was a nerve-wracking environment and were suitably supportive. The other contenders all seemed to be as nervous as I was which was also reassuring. I luckily went first so I got my specialist subject out of the way which was a blessing because it didn’t give me much time to overthink things and I got to sit back and watch the other contenders go once I was finished. The specialist subject was the part I struggled with the most because I felt I was expected to be knowledgeable about the subject and which led to it feeling like a televised exam. I was happy with how I did, passing on one question and getting one word wrong in another but 10 questions correct out of 12 was not bad in my books. 

Surprisingly I came first in the specialist round and this meant that I went last in general knowledge. I was looking forward to this part of the programme, as I knew my specialist was out of the way and I would never have to think about it again. I had a target of 18 to beat in my round if I wanted to win but I didn’t think about it in the chair instead I just focused on taking each question as it came. In the end I managed to win with 21 points and had to do the dreaded contestant interview which was more intimidating experience than the actual programme. 

For the semi-finals I had to put forward a new specialist subject as the other ones I had put forward were either too similar to ones done on the current series or had been done too recently. I chose Queen Anne because I had seen the film The Favourite where Olivia Colman plays her several times and wanted to learn more about her. This proved to be a big mistake as I then had to revise and make notes from a 600-page biography of her. 

The filming of the Semi-final was more intense because I knew I was up against people who had done well enough to win the first time, although luckily no episodes had gone out so I didn’t know how well any of my competitors had done. Again the specialist subject was the biggest hurdle to overcome, but 9 points was good enough for second with 2 other contestant a point ahead on 10. Going second for general knowledge meant I didn’t have a target but I just wanted to enjoy it as this could be my last ever time in the black chair. I managed to get to 20 which I thought was respectable but probably not a winning score. My space spoke for me as I was stunned I managed to squeak into the final by 1 point. 

Preparing for the final was even tougher than the first two rounds as I started studying two level 3 English Literature modules the week after the semi-final was filmed which along with a full time job meant that I was very stretched for the six weeks before the final. I chose the Emperor Augustus as my specialist subject as I love Roman history and wanted a topic I really loved for the final. 

Overall, my experience on Mastermind was as intimidating as I thought it would be although I did still manage to find it fun, even when I was studying for a specialist subject for hours at a time. I would highly recommend anyone having a go because even the experience of filming and being on TV is not something everyone gets and you’ll get to meet some likeminded people along the way. Although, make sure you pick a subject you love because you have to spend a lot of time studying.” 

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Lara Munday

Lara is a member of the OU Students Association staff team.


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