Mastermind: The nervousness of being a contender on 'prestige' quiz show

Grant Shimmin in the chair.

Grant Shimmin in the chair.

For just a split second, tears dampened the corners of my eyes, momentarily easing the nervous impulses trampolining around my gut.

As I turned back to the door which would soon open, inviting us, via an obstacle course of cameras and cables, into that 'sacred' chamber, it was with a sense of how privileged I was to be there.

Fortunately I was first in line, having been assigned seat one, so my brief display of emotion remained private.

Fairfax's Timaru news director Grant Shimmin on Mastermind.

Fairfax's Timaru news director Grant Shimmin on Mastermind.

It had been brought on by a well-timed word of encouragement from one of the Mastermind casting directors to the four of us awaiting our 'fate' outside that door.

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In a couple of hours in the show's green room, it had become obvious we all shared a common fear: embarrassing ourselves on national television. How we might actually fare competitively seemed secondary to settling into that expensive, iconic chair for the first time and answering a question from Peter Williams correctly.

But as we waited, the aforementioned casting director offered some perspective. We'd made it into the top 32 from "Oh, hundreds" who had entered, she reminded us.

Which is what had me welling up a wee bit. It was months since I'd been asked to audition, I'd spent weeks poring over a bulky tome on the history of the Cricket World Cup, trying to add as many new facts as possible to those already in my head about my specialist subject. Now, here I was. The feeling was utterly surreal.

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My nerves might have been making me feel like I'd arrived at my own execution, but I knew being there was a rare honour, and that sense increased as we entered the stunning octagonal arena, with its mosaic floor, at the base of Auckland University's famed Clock Tower. Could there be a better place in this country to test the wide-ranging knowledge of a cross-section of contestants? It seemed impossible to me at that awestruck moment.

Reaching my seat, with some audience members just a few metres away, felt a bit like the culmination of a journey. Of course, the real 'battle' still lay ahead, but getting to the front had been something of a marathon in itself. It was a victory of sorts.

I hadn't hesitated late last year when I first saw the promo for the returning show, calling for entries. I've always been fascinated by trivia - as a primary school child, my brain just seemed to soak it in - and loved quizzing in any form. Being on a TV quiz show was a long-held dream, and here was my opportunity. I talked up my chances in my entry with no real idea of where my knowledge might rank me, indicated my two preferred fields for New Zealand questions - sadly, sport couldn't be options one and two - and fired it off.     

Even so, it took me a little by surprise when I got the call one afternoon asking me to audition, via Skype. Two rounds of questions, the first New Zealand-focused, the second running the full gamut of general knowledge. I think I had three days to prepare, and with nervousness increasing, I got into it, mentally preparing for my late evening date with trivia overload.

I won't go into the Skype problems that stalled it, heightening my nervousness. When we did get going, I felt good. There were enough New Zealand questions I knew not to get bothered by those I didn't, and I quickly discovered I could pass quickly and decisively when I wasn't sure of an answer.

In the infinitely broader second category, I felt even better. I'm a great fan of The Chase, and I've heard the original Chaser, Mark Labbett, talk about the importance of "getting on a run" to being able to chase down a total. In that second round, I experienced that for a while, reeling off answers to a fairly lengthy run of questions without hesitation. I don't know that all of them were right, but it felt like most were.

I thought that might have been it, audition-wise, but three days later, the same casting director called to tell me I'd got through, and there was a second round. More frantic cramming, another nervous wait in an armchair for the Skype connection. I wasn't quite as happy with that second outing, which convinced me history would be a better second choice of New Zealand category than science and nature, which includes geography. There were too many obscure plants, not to mention archipelagoes, I hadn't heard of.

Round two took place with the Christmas break beckoning, so I wasn't sure just how nervous to be as I awaited news of its outcome, but in due course I got an email from the show's producer, provisionally offering me a place on the show. There were some forms to fill in, and dates and flight details to be confirmed, but mostly there was study, methodically ploughing through the details of seven Cricket World Cup tournaments, from 1992 to 2015.

Hundreds of pages of reports, scorecards, hour upon hour, for 90 seconds worth of questions on the subject. I'm sure to many that sounds too much like hard work. Fortunately I'm wired - or should that be weird? - that way. To me it sounded like the opportunity of a lifetime.

Mastermind returns to TVNZ in early May.            



 - Stuff

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