Dr Paul Sagar was returning home from a trip to Scotland in 2018 when friends suggested he sign up to appear on the long-running BBC quiz show.
Having sent off his application, Dr Sagar admits he had forgotten about it when he received a call from producers some six months later asking if he’d like to attend an audition.
Dr Sagar, from the Department of Political Economy, said: “I filled out the application on my phone as a joke on the drive back from the Isle of Skye. I completely forgot I had done it when, about six months later, the production team called me and asked if I had time to answer 12 questions on the phone. I got nine or 10 of them right, and based on the form I’d filled in, they asked if wanted to attend an audition.
“I thought ‘Oh, go on then’. It was all still a bit of a joke and I didn’t believe I was going to get on.”
After attending an interview with a group of about 20 other hopefuls, which included answering some live questions and completing a general knowledge test, Dr Sagar received another call – this time inviting him to appear on the actual show.
Though filming took place in the summer of 2019, the episode featuring Dr Sagar didn’t air until Monday, 17 February, during which time he had to keep the result a secret.
His specialist subject was ‘the life and works of Adam Smith’ – a man whom Dr Sagar knows well as the subject of a book he is currently writing – and it proved to be a good start for the King’s College London academic as he scored 11 out of a possible 13.
With victory in sight heading into the general knowledge round, however, one question proved to be a stumbling block for the lecturer in political theory – who is the current prime minister of Hungary?
Dr Sagar said: “I knew the answer but the time was running down and my mind just froze. All I could think in my mind was Erdogan [Recep Tayyip, the president of Turkey] but I knew that wasn’t the answer. It was a little but embarrassing because I’m a lecturer in politics. I’m sure my friends will have a good laugh at me about it!”
And it proved to be a decisive moment as Dr Sagar finished in second place on 19 points, one behind the winner, Stephen Connor. The prime minister of Hungary is Viktor Orban.
“I was actually a bit relieved not to have got through [to the semi-final] because I would have had to teach myself a whole new specialist subject!” added Dr Sagar.
And there was another silver-lining for the academic too, his parents – who are regular watchers of Mastermind – had no idea he had made it onto the show, until he made an appearance on their TV screens as the episode aired on Monday.
You can watch Dr Sagar on Mastermind on BBC iPlayer.