Sorry Tom Gleeson.
Marc Fennell has thrown down the gauntlet.
“Mastermind is undeniably the hardest quiz in Australia,” he insists.
“I respect that Tom calls his show Hard Quiz. But this is an actual hard quiz. It may take a few episodes for people to see if they’ve never watched it before, but longtime viewers of the show will know: there is no harder quiz on Australian television, than Mastermind. And I’m happy to back that.
“It is much harder than what they have to do on Hard Quiz -or any other show.”
Fennell steps into the anchor chair on the SBS quiz, succeeding Jennifer Byrne, following a network reset. The versatile Feed host has previously stepped in for Byrne in 2019 due to illness, as well as competing as a celebrity contender with his specialist subject, Star Trek: The Next Generation.
“I’ve actually watched back the footage and I cringe”
“I’ve actually watched back the footage and I cringe, because I realise all the clues were there and I should have just taken a swing at it. But I didn’t, and it actually causes me physical pain! So when I’m talking to the contenders at least I know the shame!”
Mastermind owes its success to the UK original, running for nearly 50 years. Fennell, whose career spans film critic, technology journalist, author, podcaster, radio and television presenter -now adds quiz show host to his CV. Having filmed 40 episodes, he has grown to appreciate the format, even in its strict rules.
“There’s a whole bunch of rules that come from the BBC”
“There’s a whole bunch of rules that come from the BBC that once you start adopting, you don’t go back. So contestants are actually contenders. When they get something correct, you’re only allowed to say ‘Yes’ or ‘Correct.’
“I respect the history of the show, and I think it’s really important to pick and choose what parts of the iconography we own. I’m also mindful of the fact that this is six o’clock weeknights, it is dinner time, before the news. It has to have light and shade within the format for it to work.”
While the ‘playability’ may be limited for home viewers, there’s no denying the show’s longevity and its celebration of specialist -even obscure- subjects.
“Everybody is a nerd about something,” Fennell suggests. “Everybody has that one thing that they know, and they love above all.
“So when people come on the show they are saying ‘Here is this thing that I love, that is character-defining about me.’ Then in effect, what we do for the first half of the show is put that love to the test.”
“When the lights go down, and the spotlight is on you, you can’t see anything”
Technically the show also uses visual language to emphasise the drama, from its ‘interrogation’ lighting to intense camera close-ups.
“When the lights go down, and the spotlight is on and the timer has started, it is just you versus the questions. There is no humour, no joy… it is entirely up to you to crush these questions.”
“I’ve had a lovely, long chat with Jen”
While SBS maintains the host change is part of a plan to ‘evolve’ the series, Fennell insists he had no part in the switch from Jennifer Byrne.
“I was not involved in the decision to refresh in any way, shape or form. I’ve had a lovely, long chat with Jen, who I’ve known for quite some time. She wishes me and the show well. But I have zero insight into what motivates that decision. I have given nobody any assurances about better ratings! All I’ve said when approached is, I want to find a way of bringing some light and shade to it,” he adds.
“Whether people like it or not, is really up to them. All I will say is I find watching the contenders absolutely riveting, and I hope other people think so.”
Mastermind screens 6pm weeknights on SBS.