Tony Earnshaw: How I took part in Mastermind without answering one single question

The instantly recognisable Mastermind chair.The instantly recognisable Mastermind chair.
The instantly recognisable Mastermind chair.
For years I've been fascinated by the TV chat show. As a devotee of the old Parkinson format I see his programmes as little slices of entertainment history, harking back to a time when a guest was given air time because he or she was interesting, not because they were peddling a new book, film, record or tour.

Parky seemed to have the format sewn up. He certainly got the biggest guests. By his own estimation he missed only two: Katharine Hepburn and Frank Sinatra. And if there were others out there doing similar work – Michael Aspel and Russell Harty come to mind – it is Parky that everyone tends to remember.

I grew up watching the greats on his show. And they truly were great, numbering the likes of Orson Welles, Lauren Bacall, James Cagney, John Wayne, Muhammad Ali, Shirley Maclaine and Richard Burton.

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True, Graham Norton, Jonathan Ross and Alan Carr contribute their own versions of the Parky phenomenon but they lack depth and cannot be viewed as viable comparisons.

Part of my fascination with Parkinson’s shows is wondering what it would have been like to be a part of the audience as these living legends opened up about the golden age of Hollywood.

Back then it was still a rare thing to get up close and personal with film legends. Hence the appeal of having them as a guest in one’s living room, hosted by Parky.

So I was intrigued when a friend told me he had applied for tickets to the recording of a variety of television shows. It’s something I had never previously considered. But so many programmes need a studio audience. And back in the day it could have been anything from Morecambe and Wise to The Young Ones.

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I followed his lead and applied. Distance was an issue so I opted for Salford over Borehamwood. The reward was two tickets for Mastermind. As a subject for conversation it’s been illuminating. Another colleague revealed he’d been pursuing guest spots on game shows for years. He’d managed The Weakest Link but missed out on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Then yet another acquaintance, based in London, told how she applies for tickets to watch live performances in the BBC Radio Theatre. The list of acts she’s seen is impressive – everyone from Elton John to Jake Bugg by way of Florence and the Machine and David Gilmour. And all for free.

I guess it’s a little like being a film extra, only the hours are better and the payment is in the enjoyment of the experience.

Audience participation… it’s the next big thing. Now, where’s my Radio Times…?

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