Magnus Magnusson

MAGNUS MAGNUSSON KBE (Hon) Broadcaster and historian

Born: 12 October, 1929, in Iceland. Died: 7 January, 2007, in Balmore, Dunbartonshire, aged 77.

WITH his ready smile, avuncular and kindly nature he was for 25 years an institution on television. From 1972-97 Magnus Magnusson presented Mastermind - the programme that sat a contestant in that forbidding black leather chair while Magnusson fired questions thick and fast. The questions varied from the contestant's chosen subject to general knowledge. It was always done with a wit and style that gave the programme its central energy. Magnusson himself was a learned and well-read man, so he knew when to accept an answer. But it was his warm and genial personality that enlivened the programme; he came across as a benevolent senior master who was willing his pupils to do well.

The catchphrases came to him by chance - he never sought such accolades - but the nation knows both "I've started so I'll finish" and "you may answer". They were delivered in a silken, suitably serious, tone. The nervous contestants, however, saw a more relaxed and openhearted side. His last words of reassurance to calm them down was invariably a jolly: "Remember, it's only a bloody game!"

Magnus Magnusson was the son of the Icelandic consul-general to Scotland and although he spent most of his life in Scotland, he retained his Icelandic nationality and was proud of it. He spoke fluent Icelandic and returned to the country often. He was, however, brought up in Edinburgh and attended the Edinburgh Academy where he enjoyed an outstanding few years: being dux of the school in 1948.

Contemporaries remember his appearance as Little Buttercup in HMS Pinafore in 1945. "Even his treble voice cracking on the day of the performance didn't deter Magnus" recalls a friend. "He got an encore for his solo arias and the audience gave him a great ovation." The school's Chronicle wrote approvingly of Magnusson's singing and ended with a contrast between Magnusson's subtle Buttercup and "JJ Clyde's Josephine. The Academy has never had better leading ladies." JJ Clyde is now Lord Clyde.

Magnusson won a scholarship to read English at Jesus College, Oxford, (and later studied Old Norse, for good measure) and joined the Scottish Daily Express as their Highlands and Islands correspondent in 1953. He moved to The Scotsman as an assistant editor in 1961 and was responsible mostly for leader writing but was one of a talented trio (with Gus Macdonald and David Kemp) who headed a team of bright young journalists which investigated political and social issues. Magnusson started doing television at this time and was often seen on STV before fronting documentaries for BBC TV Scotland.

His calm and relaxed manner on screen resulted in Magnusson being offered a post with the national early evening Tonight programme in London. Again, he joined a campaigning group of reporters who were fronted by the jolly Cliff Michelmore and had stars such as Chris Chataway, Alan Wicker, Fyfe Robertson and Kenneth Allsop. They conducted incisive and searching interviews in the studio and covered the often downright unusual around the country. The programme's editor, Alasdair Milne, ensured that a fine mix of light and serious items made up a cocktail of exacting television.

In 1968, Magnusson became the founder-presenter of Chronicle, a monthly programme devoted to discovering (and uncovering) archaeological facts. It inquired into some of the more controversial aspects of history and it allowed Magnusson to pursue two of his most favoured subjects: the Holy Land and the Viking Age.

In 1965, Tonight was axed by the BBC and although he was asked to stay on for its late night successor (Twenty Four Hours), Magnusson by then had a young family and wanted to bring them up in Scotland. He returned to The Scotsman to write leader columns but was still no stranger to television viewers. He was a reporter for Current Account from 1968, and then presented, also for BBC Scotland, Mainly Magnus from 1971-73.

In the ongoing Chronicle series, he presented a much-acclaimed episode entitled Vikings!, which expanded on several of his earlier programmes.

But it was the advent of Mastermind in 1972 that firmly seated Magnusson in the nation's living rooms. It was an ideal marriage. Magnusson brought a cultured ease to the programme and responded to the contestants' speed of answering with his questioning. When the answers came flying back to him Magnusson seemed to go into verbal overdrive. It made for exciting television and the viewers were able to pit their own knowledge throughout.

The programme visited many historic locations and Magnusson was always keen to return to Scotland. He greatly enjoyed presenting one edition from the McEwan Hall, in Edinburgh, in 1986, and the final programme (1997) was recorded in St Magnus's Cathedral, in Kirkwall. It was a tight fit and much of the set had to be cut up. "But since it was the last programme," Magnusson wrote "it didn't matter".

Before he went into the cathedral, Magnusson was given a letter from John Birt, the BBC's then director-general, who called the programme "a national institution ... it has been a marvellous combination of entertainment and erudition, expertly hosted by Magnus." At the end of that programme, Magnusson was presented with the black leather chair.

The prize never varied: a Caithness Glass rose bowl. Magnusson was always proud that "to my certain knowledge no winner has ever sold it, given it away or broken it."

Magnusson maintained his Scottish connections and became involved in many aspects of the arts and sciences. He was, among many other public appointments, Lord Rector of Edinburgh University 1975-78, on the boards of the Scottish Youth Theatre (1976-78), Age Concern Scotland, National Museums of Scotland (1985-89) and founder chairman of Scottish Churches Archaeological Heritage (1978-85). Heritage and ecological matters were important to him and he served on a working party on the Cairngorms in 1992 and was a most active chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage 1992-99.

It was in the latter capacity, he had an enjoyable reunion with his old colleague from The Scotsman Gus Macdonald (by then Lord Macdonald) in August 1998. The two went to Nethy Bridge to open the local visitor centre, Explore Nethy Bridge. The new footpath by the river up the Dell Road was walked by the two friends and they planted a tree together, by all accounts amid much hilarity.

Magnusson was a prolific writer, covering a wide range of subjects: these included Scotland: The Story of a Nation; Fakers, Forgers and Phoneys: Famous Scams and Scamps; Lindisfarne; Iceland Saga; The Vikings; Treasures of Scotland; The Nature of Scotland; Keeping Your Words: An Anthology of Quotations; I've Started So I'll Finish, the story of Mastermind; and The Family Quiz Book. One of his more quirky books was The Clacken of the Edinburgh Academy, a history of his old school on whose board of directors he also served. He also co-authored numerous biographies and books on Scottish and Icelandic history.

Because he maintained his Icelandic nationality, his knighthood (in 1989) had to remain honorary but it was presented to him in a ceremony at Edinburgh Castle. He received many honorary degrees (Edinburgh 1978, Strathclyde 1993, Paisley 1993, Napier 1994 etc) and was voted Scottish TV Personality of 1974. He was also chairman of the Mastermind Club.

The poet Roger Woddis wrote a poem to celebrate the 1980 series.

All roads lead to the seat of anguish,

The bitten lip and the nervous knee -

All for the sake of a smile from Magnus,

All the joy of the third degree.

He broke down the barriers of academia and entertainment with that smile. Magnusson contributed much to life in Scotland and was an enthusiastic Scot in all but name. His lifelong passion was the preservation of the Scottish countryside and maintaining its flora and fauna: his knowledge of the bird life, the plants in the Cairngorms and the west coast was legion. Magnusson had a charm and a wit that made an instant impression: he was a wonderful companion and devoted to his family. It was his unfailing modesty and courtesy, which is remembered with affection by friends and colleagues.

Magnusson married Mamie Baird in 1954. She and their son and three daughters survive him: all of whom work in the media. Another son died in 1973.