Over five Celebrity Mastermind episodes, airing Saturdays at 8.30pm, with the grand final on March 21, eight famous folk, including comedians Nazeem Hussain and Sam Simmons; chef Adam Liaw; and drag performer, Courtney Act are grilled on their special subjects that range from US sitcom The Nanny to mangoes.
“They were all fun but Jessica Rowe (special subject: cats) was a particular delight,” says Byrne. “She played her heart out and laughed so much that we all started laughing. She’s got a crazy laugh.”
On the regular Mastermind, returning next week, it’s back to business. Over 85 gruelling episodes, Byrne will delve into topics as obscure and diverse as they were when Huw Evans tested everyday geniuses back in the 1970s and ’80s.
“We still get Roman and Greek mythology but the difference is we get a fair bit of telly and movies in there. But we also get great mathematicians. The joy of this job for me is the unbelievably weird and unexpected subjects that people bring to us. Every time it bowls me over. The other day, it was Saladin, the great sultan from Middle Eastern history; Sherlock Holmes novels; Maximilien Robespierre from the French Revolution; and the band Savage Garden.”
The one variation on a show that sticks slavishly to a format Byrne confirms is inspired by a British World War II veteran’s experience of Gestapo interrogation, right down to the Approaching Menace theme tune and spotlit black leather office chair, is the host herself. She admits she doesn’t quite fit the sterner mould set by original BBC host, Magnus Magnusson.
“When SBS approached me, I said, ‘I’m a smiler. I love games. I can’t pretend to be a school marm’. They said, ‘This is Australia. The lights and the black chair are forbidding enough. You don’t have to stack on a serious face’. I think if I was really severe, it might put people off.”
As much as Byrne enjoys joking with the celebrities, it’s the “ordinary” contestants who most impress. The nature of the show means it “absolutely” attracts the neuro diverse. Her only gripe with the demographic is the under-representation of women.
“Please, women, come and play. I don’t know why there are so few of us. I want it changed because it reflects a different world than the one we’re in.”
Byrne relishes every opportunity to utter the Mastermind catchphrase, “I’ve started, so I’ll finish”.
“I love that line. I thought of it recently, when I read an article about women judges being interrupted more often and I thought, ‘This is for you’. When do women ever get to tell anyone to, ‘Shut up, I’m talking’?”