People like to pretend”
That will come as a relief to contestants about to square up with her as the host of Mastermind, the highbrow quiz show soon to relaunch on SBS.
It will be Byrne’s first TV gig since leaving the ABC in 2017. “I planned my exit for some time because I have a real principle you shouldn’t stay anywhere for more than seven or eight years.”
She gave special dispensation to her beloved book club, staying for just over a decade. Then, Byrne says, there came a point where “I felt like I’d done the job I came to do” – which was proving an audience exists for a show about literature. If she nurses any disappointment towards the ABC, it’s that they haven’t followed through on a promise to launch a new book-focused program to fill the gap.
When SBS called, Byrne was coming to the end of a self-imposed gap year. “I wasn’t looking for a job or thinking about what I was going to do next,” she says. “But it seemed like the universe
gotconspired to invent the one job offer that could blindside me – it was so perfect and out of the blue.”
As a longtime fan of the show’s format, it was – for want of a different phrase – a no-brainer. “To be really honest, I don’t think I was ever going to say no.” (The one trick for the first female host in the Australian version’s 41-year history would be deciding whether to go with the traditional title of quizmaster – ultimately a yes since, as she admits, “quizmistress sounds faintly perverse”.)
Denton was in full support of his wife’s return to the screen. “He rolled around laughing and said, ‘You’ve to take it,’” she says, putting paid to any suspicion that working in the same field must be a source of friction between husband and wife. “The simple answer is no. Whatever issues we have, like any couple, they’re not connected to that.” If there’s any shop talk, she says, it’s shared strategising about what to do next.
The pair took a similarly collaborative approach to parenting son Connor, now in his early 20s. “When my boy was young, I was still doing Foreign Correspondent, Andrew was at home. But when he started Enough Rope, he said, ‘We need to talk about your job…’” As she explains, in those years for working mothers, “the issue was not about having it all. The fight was between the women who worked and the women who didn’t – the Mummy Wars. It was a time of great female conflict. Really, it’s so different now. Women have much more solidarity.”
Despite the advances being made by women in media, ageism remains an entrenched problem for those who, especially in television, can expect to be benched after turning 50.
“I didn’t get that note,” says Byrne squarely. “It hasn’t been my experience –