Monday, 8 January 2007


The British public will remember Magnus Magnusson as the question master of the long-running BBC general knowledge contest, Mastermind, whose catchphrase - when interrupted during the asking of a question by the time-up bleeper - was the oft-quoted: "I've started, so I'll finish".

But Magnus’ achievements were considerably more than merely the twenty-five years in which he fired questions at the contestants who sat in the famous Mastermind black chair.

Born in Reykjavík, Iceland, he grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland where his father was Icelandic consul. Educated at The Edinburgh Academy and Jesus College, Oxford, he began a distinguished career in journalism with the Scottish Daily Express (where he met fellow journalist and future wife, Maimie Baird) and The Scotsman before joining BBC television as part of the reporting team on Tonight and later going on to front major television documentary series on history and archeology.

An honorary knight and Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University, Magnus Magnusson was a masterly writer whose books include the compellingly written Scotland: the Story of a Nation, The Vikings and (the work of an honest-to-god agnostic) Archeology of the Bible. Popular journalism was matched with works of high scholarship in the form of stunning translations of the Norse Sagas as well as of the work of Iceland’s Nobel prize-winning novelist, Halldór Laxness.

My own memories of Magnus are more personal and date from the marriage of his eldest daughter Sally to my good friend the film director Norman Stone. As Best Man at the wedding I spent some time with the family although, on the first occasion on which we met, I was so daunted by the encounter that I feared that I had come across as a complete dunderhead.

Since, at the time, I smoked a pipe, however, and liked malt whisky I was not without hope and I managed to redeem myself after dinner on my first evening in the Magnusson home when I joined in the family Gilbert & Sullivan singsong around the piano.

Magnus wandered into the room and joined me in singing a duet of ‘Tit Willow’ from The Mikado and, from that moment on, I felt that I was elected to honorary membership of the family.

The wedding was an extraordinary event with paparazzi invading the village of Milngavie and staking out the tiny Church of Scotland kirk at Baldernock, followed by a wedding breakfast and a three-hour improvised concert of which Mag - as the family called him - made me master of ceremonies.

A few years later, I was far from well and facing an impossible deadline I order to complete the writing of Shadowlands, my book about C S Lewis and Joy Davidman.

I was at my wit’s end when the telephone rang. It was Mag. “Pack two cases,” he said, “one with some clothes the other with your books, and get the first flight you can to Glasgow. You can stay with us while you write the book: you’ll have good food, good Scottish air, good nights’ sleep, company when you want it and, whenever you prefer it, peace and quite.”

I spent several weeks with Mag, Maimie and her sister Anna (responsible for the promised "good food") and whichever Magnusson offspring happened to be passing through. I was deliciously fussed over and mollycoddled and the book was written and delivered on time.

It was an act of great kindness and charity, characteristic of a man who, despite his austere persona of the Mastermind interrogator, was a warm, deeply sensitive and affectionate man with one of the most winning smiles and gloriously chuckling laughs I have ever known…


Scrooge said...

Like most people, I only 'knew' Magnus from the show.It always amazed me that he kept in touch with his previous winners afterwards.That fact alone made him special.

Phil said...

Thanks for giving such a detailed and personal appreciation of Magnus. I was disappointed that the two radio obituaries I heard this morning (World Service, Five Live) reported him solely as quiz show host, and missed the opportunity to remind us of his other great work.