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Jackie Collins taught me everything I know. So why was being grilled about her books on Mastermind so terrifying?

- by Helen McGinn ■ Helen appears on BBC1’s Celebrity Mastermind on Saturday at 5.30pm. For more informatio­n on Art Against Knives go to artagainst­knives.com

Ican’t remember exactly where I was when I saw the email back in august with the words ‘ celebrity Mastermind’ in the subject, but I remember how I felt. In a word, nauseous. I took a deep breath and opened it, scanning the first few sentences. Indeed, it was an invitation to be a contender on the BBc’s long-running quiz show.

an image of the empty black chair with a spotlight shining down on it popped into my head. I could practicall­y hear the theme tune — da da da daaa da-da! — echoing in my ears. My palms were beginning to sweat and I hadn’t even got to the end of the email.

How on earth could I survive the actual show, with its two rounds of high -pressure questions, if this was my reaction to the invitation?

I was being asked thanks to my role as tV wine expert on the BBc cookery show Saturday Kitchen Live. I wondered if I could persuade them to let me nominate wine as my specialist subject — I’d have aced it — but that wouldn’t have been in the spirit of the game.

What about the general knowledge round? I could feel the sweat again. I’m patchy at best on geography and history because instead of reading books about actual stuff at school, I mostly had my head buried in a novel.

not improving Victorian novels, alas, nor even Booker Prize nominees. no, as a teenager I was obsessed by one author above all others: Jackie collins.

Of course, I loved Jilly cooper, too. Who didn’t? But whereas Jilly’s heroines often went from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, Jackie’s were always phenomenal from the start. Sometimes her characters weren’t even that likeable, but one thing was for sure.

HER women knew who they were, and they always got what they wanted. I loved that about them. throw in the Hollywood settings, palm trees and parties, the affairs, the film sets, fast cars and fabulous clothes and I was hooked.

I re-read the email. What would Jackie do? She’d say yes — her life-long mantra was ‘girls can do anything’.

I typed out a reply and pressed send before I could change my mind, setting in motion one of the most brilliant yet utterly terrifying experience­s of my life.

a reply followed swiftly and a few days later I had a meeting with one of the programme’s researcher­s to agree my specialist subject. With booze out of the question, there was only one other subject I knew inside out: Jackie. collins wrote more than 30 novels, so my first job was to narrow it down to a manageable number to be quizzed on.

I picked the Hollywood Series, a collection of five novels including her bestseller (and my all-time favourite) Hollywood Wives.

Other books in the series include Hollywood Husbands, Hollywood Kids, Hollywood Wives: the new Generation and finally Hollywood Divorces.

the following week new copies of all five novels from the show’s producers duly landed on my doorstep with a thud (each is at least 500 pages long) and for the next few months all I read was Jackie collins.

I wrote notes on my phone, listing the characters from each novel — who was married to whom, who had affairs, who stayed, who left . . . it was a long list. reading the books again transporte­d me back to my teenage years. When I say these novels taught me everything I know, I’m not kidding.

I’d forgotten quite how rude they were. at times I wondered just how risqué the Mastermind questions might be. I could just imagine clive Myrie’s deep, authoritat­ive voice asking me to name the couple who get stuck in flagrante in Hollywood Wives and have to be carted off to hospital to be separated!

So, my research for my specialist subject was fun. not so swotting up on my general knowledge skills. the thing that terrified me more than anything was getting the simplest of questions wrong.

I couldn’t help but think of the audience at home shouting the answer at the telly. and I’d be there, sitting in the black chair, looking daft. I knew I had work to do. It’s a family joke that I can only answer the pink (entertainm­ent) questions in trivial Pursuit.

I downloaded a trivia app on my phone and did so badly on my first attempt I nearly deleted it. But soon my scores started to improve. the date of the recording was set for november, and I flew to Belfast, where the show is filmed, the evening before.

after a fitful night’s sleep, we met at 7.30am for our briefing, then headed straight to the studio. It was every bit as scary as you might imagine — an enormous high-ceilinged room with a small stage. On that stage sat the ominous black chair and clive’s desk, and, to the side, the four seats for the contenders.

We were allowed one practice walk to the chair. My legs felt like jelly — and this was just the rehearsal! Moments later, Clive joined us and took his seat, smiling warmly (I swear I saw pity in his eyes). thankfully, there was no live audience, but it did make the studio feel cavernous. the lights went down, the music started playing and, in that moment, the nerves kicked in.

I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience.

Having watched the show for as long as I can remember — from the Magnus Magnusson years when I was a child and the John Humphrys era to now — I couldn’t believe I was in it.

When clive called my name, I concentrat­ed hard on putting one foot in front of the other. this was not the time to fall over. I forced myself to focus on why I’d said yes to putting myself through this most public of stress tests.

It was for the donation to my chosen charity — art against Knives, which I have a very personal connection to.

In 2002, my 25- year- old brother tim was stabbed outside his flat in London by a man trying to steal his car.

It was one of Britain’s first car-jacking murders and it was truly shocking.

art against Knives is an incredible charity, working to help young people to break cycles of violence, unlocking their creative talents so they can build better futures.

Before I knew it, we were off, questions about Jackie’s books and characters flying at me relentless­ly. On some questions my mind went blank, the answer seemingly vanishing from my brain even though I knew it was in there somewhere. that feeling of wanting to kick yourself when you hear the correct answer is as painful as it looks.

I even got to hear clive say those famous words, ‘ I’ve started so I’ll finish . . . ’ as the buzzer sounded. Phew, it was all over! Well, the specialist subject half of it.

Finally, we were on to the general knowledge round, the part I dreaded most of all.

Would those hours spent trying to beat my personal score on the trivia app pay off? Or would I — a 50-year- old woman who frequently forgets why I’ve walked into a room — fluff the first question and thereby live my ultimate nightmare and humiliate myself?

Well, not quite. the first question was easy, though even then I struggled to get the answer out. But the questions got harder as the round went on and, as I suspected, my geography skills let me down. Sadly, there were no drink-related questions.

I won’t give away the result but, suffice to say, you might not want me on your team next time you play trivial Pursuit. When it is shown on television this Saturday, I’m not sure I’ll be able to watch.

Perhaps I’ll just listen from the next room while my family shout the answers at the screen. Would I do it again? absolutely not. Do I think Jackie would have been proud of me? Damn right.

 ?? ?? Specialist subject: The novels of Jackie Collins
Specialist subject: The novels of Jackie Collins
 ?? ?? Quiz queen: Helen McGinn
Quiz queen: Helen McGinn

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