Magnus Magnusson

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Magnus Magnusson

Magnus Magnusson.jpg
Magnús Sigursteinsson

(1929-10-12)12 October 1929
Died7 January 2007(2007-01-07) (aged 77)
Nationality Icelandic
Alma mater Jesus College, Oxford
  • Television presenter
  • journalist
  • translator
  • writer
Known for Mastermind presenter, translation work
(m. 1954)
Children5, including Sally and Jon

Magnus Magnusson, KBE ( [ˈmaknus ˈmaknusɔn] ; born Magnús Sigursteinsson; 12 October 1929 – 7 January 2007) was an Icelandic-born British-based journalist, translator, writer, and television presenter. Born in Reykjavík, he lived in Scotland for almost all his life, although he never took British citizenship. He came to prominence as a BBC television journalist and was the presenter of the BBC television quiz programme Mastermind for 25 years. [1] His catchphrase "I've started so I'll finish" was said whenever the time ran out while he was reading a question on the show.


Early life

Magnús Sigursteinsson was born in Reykjavík on 12 October 1929, but grew up in Edinburgh, where his father, Sigursteinn Magnússon, was the Icelandic consul. In Scotland his family adopted a British naming convention, and from childhood, Magnus used his father's patronymic as a surname.

Magnusson lived with his family in John Street, Joppa, an eastern suburb of Edinburgh. He was educated at the Edinburgh Academy and was in the school's marching brass band. [2]



After graduating from Jesus College, Oxford, Magnusson became a reporter with the Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman . Between 1962 and 1964 he edited the Saltire Society's magazine, New Saltire. [3] He went freelance in 1967, then joined the BBC, presenting programmes on history and archaeology (including Chronicle and BC The Archaeology of the Bible Lands ), as well as appearing in news programmes.


Magnusson presented the long-running quiz show Mastermind from 1972 to 1997 on BBC1. His catchphrase, which one of his successors John Humphrys continued to use, was "I've started so I'll finish". Magnusson made cameo appearances as himself, hosting Mastermind in Morecambe and Wise as well as the children's series Dizzy Heights and as Magnus Magnesium in The Goodies episode "Frankenfido".

Magnusson ended his 25-year run of hosting Mastermind in September 1997, and the original black chair was given to him at the end of the production, passing to his daughter Sally Magnusson after his death.

Magnusson later returned to present a one-off celebrity special, originally broadcast on 30 December 2002, on BBC Two to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the first ever Mastermind final. [4] This was a precursor to the main show returning to the BBC with a new host, John Humphrys. The first series of the main show hosted by Humphrys began on BBC Two on 7 July 2003. [5] Following the one-off special, Celebrity Mastermind began airing as a full series also hosted by Humphrys. [6] The celebrity version of the show has continued every year since, alongside the main show. Shortly before his death, Magnusson returned to the regular Mastermind series in order to present the trophy to the 2006 champion Geoff Thomas. His daughter Sally Magnusson presented the trophy to the next series winner, David Clark, while also paying tribute to her father and his legacy to the show.



Magnusson translated a variety of books from modern Icelandic and Old Norse into English. Among these are several works by Halldór Laxness, the Nobel prize-winning novelist from Iceland as well as a number of Norse sagas which he co-translated (with Hermann Pálsson) for the Penguin Classics series: Njal's Saga (1960), The Vinland Sagas (1965), King Harald's Saga (1966) and Laxdaela Saga (1969). In 1968 he appeared as a storyteller in five episodes of the BBC children's programme Jackanory , narrating English translations of 'Stories from Iceland'. Magnusson was also the author of a popular history of the Viking Age, called The Vikings (revised edition, 2000). [7]

Awards and charity positions

Magnusson was awarded an honorary knighthood (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1989. He was elected President of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, for a five-year period, at their 94th AGM in October 1995, succeeding Max Nicholson. He also became the founder chairman of Scottish Natural Heritage upon its inception in 1992. He was Lord Rector of Edinburgh University from 1975 to 1978 and later in 2002, became Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University. The Magnus Magnusson Fellowship, an intellectual group based at the Glasgow Caledonian University, was named in his honour. [8]

Later life

Magnus House near Aigas The Magnus House near Struy.jpg
Magnus House near Aigas

In later years, Magnusson also wrote for the New Statesman. [9] On 12 October 2006, his 77th birthday, Magnusson was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Magnusson mordantly noted that "This has to be one of my worst birthdays ever". His condition forced him to cancel a string of public appearances. He died on 7 January 2007. [10] [11] [12] The Aigas Field Centre has a building named the Magnus House in his honour.


Magnusson was married to Mamie Baird from 1954 until his death. [13] They had five children. Their eldest son, Siggi, died in a traffic accident in 1973, when he was struck by a vehicle close to the Glasgow Academy playing fields at Anniesland, Glasgow. Their daughter Sally is a journalist, writer and TV presenter, and youngest son Jon a TV producer, writer and director. [14] [15] [16]


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  1. ODNB, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2005–2008 ed. Lawrence Goldman 2013 page 740
  2. "Magnus Magnusson". Telegraph Media Group Limited. 8 January 2007. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  3. Magnusson, Magnus (ed.), New Saltire No. 11, April 1964, New Saltire Ltd., Edinburgh
  4. BBC Press Office (6 December 2002). "Mastermind Celebrity Special".
  5. BBC. "The history of Mastermind" . Retrieved 2 January 2016.
  6. BBC Press Office (27 October 2003). "Rt Hon David Blunkett MP to appear on Mastermind".
  7. "Magnus Magnusson". The Independent. 22 September 2011. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  8. Roger Crofts and David Breeze. "Magnus Magnusson" (PDF). Royal Society of Edinburgh. Retrieved 19 October 2015.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  9. "Magnus Magnusson". New Statesman. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  10. "Magnusson faces cancer treatment". BBC News. 12 October 2006. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  11. "TV's Magnus Magnusson dies at 77". BBC News. 8 January 2007. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  12. "Obituary: Magnus Magnusson". BBC News. 7 January 2007. Retrieved 18 November 2011.
  13. Davison, Phil (19 April 2012). "Obituary: Mamie Magnusson; made her name in journalism when women were rarely seen in news rooms". The Scotsman. Retrieved 22 August 2021. Open Access logo PLoS transparent.svg
  14. Rachel Carlyle (2 February 2014). "BBC presenter Sally Magnusson on her mum's battle with dementia". BBC Press Office. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  15. "Mamie Magnusson". 17 April 2012. Retrieved 19 October 2015.
  16. "Sally Magnusson, Presenter". BBC Press Office. March 2006. Archived from the original on 4 May 2009. Retrieved 19 October 2015.CS1 maint: bot: original URL status unknown (link)
Academic offices
Preceded by
Rector of the University of Edinburgh
Succeeded by
Media offices
New creation Host of Mastermind
Succeeded by