22 April, 2009
Magnús Magnússon was an Icelandic television presenter, journalist, translator and writer. He was born in Iceland but lived in Scotland for nearly all of his life, although he never took British citizenship. He came to fame as presenter of the BBC television quiz programme Mastermind, which he hosted for 25 years.
Magnússon was born in Reykjavík but grew up in Edinburgh, where his father, Sigursteinn Magnússon, was the Icelandic consul. Under Icelandic naming conventions, his name would have been Magnús Sigursteinsson (Magnús, son of Sigursteinn), but his family adopted British naming conventions and used his father's patronymic. He was schooled at the Edinburgh Academy.
After graduating from Jesus College, Oxford, Magnússon became a reporter with the Scottish Daily Express and The Scotsman. He went freelance in 1967, then joined the BBC, presenting programmes on history and archeology as well as appearing in news programmes. He was Lord Rector of Edinburgh University from 1975 to 1978, and later became Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University.
Magnússon presented the long-running quiz show Mastermind from 1972 to 1997. The popularity of the show made him one of the best-known faces of the BBC. His famous catchphrase, which the current presenter John Humphrys has continued to use, was "I've started so I'll finish".
Magnússon made a one-off cameo appearance as himself, hosting Mastermind in the children's series Dizzy Heights.
Magnússon 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, and 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). Magnússon was also the author of a popular history of the Viking era, called The Vikings (revised edition, 2000).
Magnússon was awarded an honorary knighthood (Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in 1989, and 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.
In 2002 he became Chancellor of Glasgow Caledonian University.
In the early years of the 21st century, Magnússon also wrote for the New Statesman.
On 12 October 2006, his 77th birthday, Magnússon was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Magnússon mordantly noted that "this has to be one of my worst birthdays ever". His condition meant he was forced to cancel a string of public appearances. He died on 7 January 2007.