08 January 2007

Those Who Knew Them: Magnus Magnusson 1929-2007

For the latest in our series of personal tributes from those closest to the recently deceased, we at As A Dodo are honoured to have been granted an audience by one of Magnus Magnusson's most famous co-workers, the Mastermind Chair.

I doubt there can be anyone in Britain over the age of 20 for whom the death of Magnus Magnusson will not cause a moment's pause as they ponder the passing away of a significant period in their past. As host of Mastermind - a programme in which I am proud to have played a significant, though non-speaking, role for 25 years - his was one of the faces that stared out from the screen at a whole nation. He was a significant star in the televisual firmament at a time when all of us would gather before it to gaze at its wonder. As host of Mastermind throughout the seventies and eighties he belonged to that curious pantheon of on-screen figures - Morecambe and Wise, Tom Baker as Doctor Who, The Two Ronnies, Jack Warner's George Dixon, newsreader Kenneth Baker - who were worshipped by families sitting on their sofas on dark winter evenings, tucking into tea and biscuits as they bathed in the glow from the cathode-ray tube. Such was his fame that he was even to stand alongside Harold Wilson, Frank Spencer and assorted members of the cast of Coronation Street as one of the people 1970s comedians really couldn't do an impression of.

What was he like? Ask any of the Mastermind contestants and they will tell you he was charming, courteous, humorous, kind. It was a side, I regret to say, I was not to see myself until our joint retirement from the programme in 1997. Before that I could only sit opposite him - usually more than a little encumbered by the bottom of some obsessive tax-office worker, local council accountant or other person with too much time on their hands and too few social skills in their personality - and watch his magnificent performance as the programme's quiz master. Introduced by the lumbering, threatening tones of "Approaching Menace", Magnus asked his questions in a manner more usually associated with Laurence Olivier plunging a dentist's drill into Dustin Hoffman's premolars. As inquisitor he was dour, unsmiling, intolerant of error and more than a little surly, somehow succeeding in giving the impression of being beyond such petty human concepts as pity or mercy. Not only did this brilliant charade help to give the programme its bite and attract an audience of up to 22 million, it was also to prove the inspiration for Gordon Brown's on-screen appearances.

It was as the programme came to a (thankfully temporary) end on terrestrial television in 1997 that I was finally united with the man I had for so long admired from a distance, when he freed me from my BBC shackles and allowed me to join him in Scotland. Over the years I have been sat on by many rears, the rears of winners and losers, brewing technology supervisors and polytechnic lecturers, barristers and bus conductors, but out of all of them there has only been one set of buttocks by which it has been a pleasure to have been graced.


Colin Campbell said...

I'll have "Eating Habits of the Pre-Byzantine" for 10 points, Magnus. What a standard bearer for the golden age of family television. I can visualise it clearly over 30 years later. Very sad.

Andy said...

Excellent, funny yet warm and compassionate obituary from the great perspective of the famous chair. x