A black swivel chair sits in the middle of a room. Lights dim. Low music begins: ‘approaching menace’, it is dramatic... building. A solitary spotlight illuminates the chair. A small child sporting a flat cap, grubby white shirt, waistcoat, and an anxious expression approaches. He sits. “So!” booms a disembodied voice, “Welcome to Mastermind! Give your name, please.” The tiny child gives his name. “And your specialist subject?” The tiny child gives his specialist subject. “And your occupation?” The tiny child hesitates; he looks to me where I am crouching by the doorway. I try to mouth the word ‘job’ but he can’t see me and bursts into tears. “I don’t know what you mean!” he screams at his brother who is standing behind the iMac and the lights go up to reveal the squalid scene: mother and three sons huddled in a back bedroom office in a terraced house in south London attempting to make a DVD for a school project on the Victorians.
It’s late Sunday evening at the end of half-term. We’re all knackered. We shouldn’t have left it to the last minute: I know that, I do know that, but Youngest was ill with a chest infection and then he was recovering and then we went away so really there was no other opportunity and now we’re all tired and fractious and stressed and trying to help him and get it all over in a hurry. The Mastermind DVD was his idea, and it’s a great idea, he was meant to do it with a friend and write a script and research it but he didn’t get himself organised - of course. We don’t have time to edit the thing before school tomorrow so we’re trying to film it straight onto the computer in one two-minute take.
“Look, you idiot,” says the older brother, who is the question master and not helping things one little bit. “It means what is your job. You’re meant to say chimney sweep. We’ve been over this!”
“Oh my God!” joins in middle brother from where he’s perched on the other side of the room, his hand poised over the second computer mouse to cue in the music from YouTube, “I am not going to do this again! Get it right, you moron!”
“Don’t call him a moron,” I say. I can see Youngest is on the verge of a complete meltdown. His chimney sweep make-up is running down his little face in streaky black rivulets. Calm. I must remain calm. How hard can this be? “Look, we’ll do this one more time.” I turn to Eldest: “you need to ask the questions more slowly. Slow. Slow. Slow. It might feel too slow to you but it won’t be.”
“Yes you do,” chips in Middle One, “you’re completely crap, your delivery is rubbish, you’re gabbling."
“You are crap you mean, you idiot,” says Eldest.
“And,” continues Middle One, oblivious to the insult, “you don’t know how it works, you’ve never watched Mastermind, when he gets a question wrong you correct it and then you say all the passes at the end!”
“That’s not how they do it!” shouts Eldest. He has an incredibly loud voice.
“Yes it is!” Wails Youngest from the chair, “Oh my God, Oh my God! We’re never going to do this right! I hate you, I hate you all!”
“Okay,” I say, trying to calm them all down, “listen, let’s just try one more: fifth time lucky. I’ll cue in the music and then I’ll signal for you to walk on and for you to begin the questions…”
“I was cueing in the music then!" screams Middle One, “you just spoke over it and I’ll have to start it all over now. I’ve had enough!”
“No, no, no!” sobs Youngest, “we haven’t done it yet! You can’t go now!”
“Well, I’m off,” says Eldest, "you’re all losers.”
“Right! That’s it! You listen to me! I do this professionally! I trained at the BBC! I make videos in schools with whole classes of children and it’s a doddle compared to this! You just have to do exactly as I say, for once!” This lunatic screaming at the very top of her voice is me, of course.
“Oh you’ve done it now,” says Eldest. “I’m definitely not staying to listen to this, I’m off. I have homework to do.” And he leaves as Youngest throws himself to the floor and dissolves into hysterical tears.
God, how I hate school projects.