From Sats to Mastermind

3rd September 2004 at 01:00
A veteran broadcaster used to quizzing politicians for breakfast has at last got some straight answers - from bright11-year-olds. Adi Bloom reports

A small boy sits in an oversized leather chair, his feet kicking the air inches above the ground, his expression one of intense concentration.

"Of what is entomology the study..." A series of high-pitched beeps pierces the air. Then the voice again: "I've started so I'll finish... of what is entomology the study?"

This is the final of Junior Mastermind, a primary-school version of the BBC's 32-year-old quiz programme. Hundreds of 11-year-olds were entered by their schools for the TV special, and were whittled down to five for the final.

Few concessions have been made to their age, according to John Humphrys, the broadcaster who has presented the series since 2003.

"The general-knowledge questions are slightly easier, but I don't think the specialist questions are," he said. "I thought we'd end up with lots of precocious little prigs. But their sophistication is extraordinary."

Reassured by the children's maturity, Mr Humphrys treats the first contestant, introduced as Lucy from Manchester, to a grilling usually reserved for recalcitrant politicians.

"So, you go to a girls' school. Do you miss boys?"

"No."

"You meet boys after school?"

"No."

"But surely you will want to know boys one day?"

"Umm... No?" Lucy shifts uncomfortably in the leather chair. "Right. First question: which ocean washes the shore of western Australia?" Lucy looks relieved that the difficult questions are now over.

Jacob Richler-Kleiman, from North Cheshire primary, in Stockport, takes the seat next. His specialist subject is frogs. In the audience, Paul Richler-Kleiman, Jacob's father, bites his lip. He has researched frogs with Jacob, quizzing his son on their newly-acquired knowledge.

"I know more about frogs than I ever wish to know," he said. "If I never see another frog again..."

Revision methods vary among the contestants. Rose Jones, from Willaston primary, in Cheshire, wrote notes on her bedroom window with a whiteboard marker.

"I tried to read the encyclopaedia," said tall, poised Sophie Burge. "But it can be really boring. I only got to A."

Sophie, soon to start at St Marylebone comprehensive, in London, has been calculating in her choice of specialist subject, the Meg Cabot children's novels, The Princess Diaries. "One person chose Mozart," she said. "But there's so much to read about his life. A book is a book. You just read it."

Wider reading was required, though, for the general-knowledge questions. In rapid-fire succession, the children are asked how many people rule in a triumvirate, where in the solar system one might find the Sea of Nectar, and which animal is referred to by the adjective "porcine".

When Daniel Parker, from Corpus Christi high, in Cardiff, correctly names the South African city overlooked by Table Mountain, the audience gasps in collective awe.

"It's harder than Sats," Daniel said. "But you get into a rhythm, thinking about the questions, rather than how you're doing."

Mr Humphrys is impressed. "I was desperately worried they wouldn't get anything right," he said. "I thought it would be embarrassing for me and embarrassing for them. But, bloody hell, they did well."

The Junior Mastermind final will be shown on BBC1 on Saturday.ANSWERS: entomology is the study of insects; the Indian Ocean washes the shores of western Australia; the Sea of Nectar can be found on the Moon; a pig is porcine; Table Mountain overlooks Cape Town

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