Friday, 5 October 2012

Harry Palmer's Mastermind

Nick sitting in the famous black chair
Deighton Dossier reader Nick Flindall recently informed the blog that he had competed – rather successfully, it appears – on an edition of Mastermind in in 2008, sat in the famous black chair, under the spotlight, waiting for John Humphrys to ask the first question on his special subject. That topic? The Harry Palmer novels.

So, last month the Deighton Dossier asked him: how did it all happen? Nick takes up the story:

“I have just passed my seventieth birthday: I was probably in the first cohort of the public to make acquaintance with Len Deighton's early novels. I read The Ipcress File shortly after it’s publication in 1962 and quickly realized that Len’s novel was something very special. Its unique combination of acerbic wit, complex plotting, detailed research and superb grasp of dialogue, characterization and location made it stand out from the rest; Horse Under Water, Funeral in Berlin and Billion Dollar Brain were to follow. I loved all of them; these were books that I re-read at periodic intervals as the years passed and they have never lost their freshness for me, even to this day.

Some forty-five or so years later, in a moment of slightly tipsy, late-night on-line bravado, I completed an application form for the BBC’s long-running quiz programme ‘Mastermind’ and pressed ‘apply’. To my great surprise, I was asked for audition and subsequently selected to appear on the programme. My choice of special subject was, naturally, ‘The Harry Palmer novels of Len Deighton’. After a little deliberation and experimentation, this was the best title the BBC and I could arrive at: namely, the four novels mentioned previously, which I have always regarded as the true ‘Palmer’ novels.

In preparation for the programme I read and re-read the books, obtained the Silver Jubilee editions, scoured the internet, made assiduous and detailed notes and prepared my own ‘Deighton dossier’ which I still have - it was a labour of love. I never tired of the research and found very many hidden gems which had escaped me previously.

I was pleasantly surprised to score fifteen correct answers and one pass on these novels, which was the major factor in my winning that round and appearing later in the semi-finals (this time with less success and a different special subject!)

I had time on the programme for a relatively brief chat with John Humphrys before the general knowledge round, about my specialist subject. He seemed more interested in my earlier experience in the late ‘sixties as an accountant on a NATO project – the Cold War, spies expenses and all that! However we did progress later more directly to Len and the novels.

In the February of the year following transmission it was Len’s eightieth birthday and I sent an e-mail congratulating him on that milestone and mentioning my Mastermind appearance, adding how much I had admired the books over many years. His reaction was very generous and positive. I was thrilled and touched that he wrote back personally from the USA and later signed some mementos of the programme and other photographs.

I was proud to have appeared on the programme and to do well on the books that I have enjoyed so much. They are memories I will treasure. Subsequently, Rob’s Deighton Dossier website introduced me to Len’s many and varied other works, both earlier and later, and I have expanded my research into those areas. I’m very thankful to both and I hope many new readers will consume the novels as avidly as myself and with the same pleasure.”

Below is a transcript of the questions (the answers are provided on the main Deighton Dossier website). See how many you get right and see if you guess which was Nick’s “pass” question.

Mastermind: Broadcast on BBC 2, 31 October 2008
Contender: Nicholas Flindall
Special subject: The ‘Harry Palmer’ novels of Len Deighton


  1. In The Ipcress File, what is the name of Harry Palmer’s new assistant whom he first meets at Lederer’s Coffee house in Soho? 
  2. The Funeral in Berlin is ostensibly arranged in order to bring which defecting Soviet scientist through the Berlin Wall, under the alias Paul Louis Broum? 
  3. What code name is Palmer given in the operation in which Johnnie Vulkan is code-named ‘King’, in Funeral in Berlin
  4. At which Thames-side pub does Chico lose sight of the man who had been tailing Palmer earlier in Billion Dollar Brain
  5. What code name is given to Christian Stakowski, who engineers the disappearance of several eminent British scientists in The Ipcress File
  6. In Funeral in Berlin who does Palmer use to break into Sam Steele’s flat, where he discovers a stack of books on the subject of enzymes? 
  7. In Horse Under Water which country’s revolutionary movement, the VNV, wants the money recovered from a sunken U-Boat to finance their activities? 
  8. To which Pacific atoll are Palmer, Jean Tonneson and Dalby taken to witness an American atom bomb test in The Ipcress File
  9. In Billion Dollar Brain under what name does Harry Palmer travel to Helsinki and to America on a false Irish passport? 
  10. In The Ipcress File which secret telephone exchange within the federal system does Palmer have to call in order to contact his department? 
  11. Which branch of the German Intelligence Service arranges to bring Semitsa out from East Germany in Funeral in Berlin
  12. What is contained in the shiny brown sphere the size of a golf ball that’s given by Midwinter to new recruits to his organization in Billion Dollar Brain
  13. In The Ipcress File, Palmer and Murray arrive too late at which London police station and find Housemartin already dead? 
  14. In Horse Under Water, what name is given to the plan for a new espionage network made up of people working in embassies or foreign governments that would feed information back to London? 
  15. Most chapters of The Ipcress File begin with an extract from a horoscope for which sign of the Zodiac? 
  16. What do the three “F’s” stand for that feature on the badges worn by the members of Midwinter’s organization? 

For the answers, visit the main Deighton Dossier website.

All questions and answer © BBC, 2008

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