If you like pub quizzes I suggest you keep clear of Monmouthshire because you might find yourself up against one CJ De Mooi – and he’s an Egghead. If you’re a quizzer you’ll know exactly who I mean as his face was on our TV screens (BBC2) almost daily for eight years. Yes, he was one of the almost unbeatable Eggheads quiz team and scanning the web it seems he’s a bit like Marmite – you either love him or hate him. He fed into both views when, as an amateur quizzer, he was voted off The Weakest Link in round three and reputedly launched into a rant against his fellow contestants in the walk-of-shame, post-sacking interview. A rant it wasn’t but, admittedly, he did call them idiots and said he’d crossed them all off his Christmas card list. Mild, I would have thought, compared to some of the things the vituperative Anne Robinson comes out with. But fair dos, CJ did get his revenge when he returned in the ‘sorest losers’ show and won it. His combative attitude sparked interest from TV producers and appearances on a whole string of other quiz shows followed – a road which eventually led to Eggheads.
Clearly, CJ has a brain the size of an aircraft hangar – 10 ‘0’ levels, 4 ‘A’ levels, an ‘S’ level, two degrees, diplomas, a member of Mensa and President of the English Chess Federation. For several years he was a competitive chess player with a ranking of 158EFC – which makes him Class A, just a smidgen below ‘candidate masters.’ With just six ‘O’ levels and an inability to remember where I’ve left my car keys, I felt at a distinct disadvantage when I interviewed him. I contented myself with the thought that with this extraordinary intelligence, CJ couldn’t be other than vegetarian.
There’s a slight defensiveness about CJ, a brittleness and I’m not at all surprised when he says that once he makes a decision he is unmoveable, that he is bloody minded. It’s as though strength of mind, strength of purpose are central to the self- protective edifice he has constructed around himself and that any change of heart might usher in a weakness that could be threatening. The more he tells me about his background, the clearer become the reasons for it.
Conversation about his upbringing in Barnsley is circumscribed, not to say brief in the extreme but at that time, according to the Web, he was called Joseph Connagh. He loathed school (that we do have in common) but had an extremely good memory and always knew there had to be more to life than Barnsley. From the age of six or seven years old he knew he did not want to eat animals – saw it in the same light as human rights – but the choice was denied him.
“From very early on, much as I adored meat, loved the taste of it, I realised it was not essential to life. I carried out research into farming in libraries and the like and what I discovered, the conditions in which animals were raised and killed, frightened me. I was scared that this was going on all around me. Why should I deprive an animal of its life when I didn’t need to?”
At the age of eight, something happened that was to lay the foundations for his future. He was cast as the lead in his school’s musical Rooster Rag and he knew he wanted to be an actor. Eggheads, it seems, temporarily diverted him away from that goal. Anyone who refers to his parents as ‘those people’ has had experiences I can only imagine and so I choose not to pry further – I was not invited to pry further. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that at the age of just 17, CJ left home with no support and no plans, other than to become vegetarian, and headed first for Sheffield and then Central London. There were no streets paved with gold, no bright lights, just Waterloo’s Cardboard City and other desperate, homeless people.
CJ lived with them all around him, dulling their desperation with drink and drugs and perhaps it was here that his strength of character had its first trial run – he avoided both entirely and still does. He begged for food and whilst meat and fish were accepted, they were not eaten but handed to others.
He stowed away in order to reach Amsterdam, where he spent 18 months sleeping on a back staircase at the Central Railway Station. Three years on the streets, with its accompanying constant risks, exerted its toll and CJ describes it as extremely hard but necessary – for him. I couldn’t quite grasp why but the strength that he now shows probably had its genesis here. But things did change:
“As German was the only foreign language I could speak fluently, I decided to spend the last of my teenage years in Cologne. As luck would have it, a purely chance meeting in the first week resulted in the offer of a modelling contract and it kept me in the city for five years.
“I went as far as I thought possible in the profession and then decided it was time to move on. I went back to Amsterdam but under very different circumstances and this time I was able to fall in love with the city and become fluent in Dutch before returning to the UK.”
This was also the time when CJ severed the final link with ‘those people’ and changed his name by Deed Poll, choosing the Dutch de Mooi, perhaps as homage to his one-time hosts.
To viewers, Eggheads is a quintessentially gentle, genteel, middle-class, late afternoon quiz show where politeness is the lingua franca. The making of it is anything but. Five shows a day are recorded in two week stretches, which is hectic by anyone’s standards. After eight years, CJ backed out in December 2011 to pursue his acting career but with so many shows in the can, he was transmitted until August 2012.
Looking down CJ’s diary, it appears he isn’t going to be idle in the coming months. Charity quizzes rub shoulders with book signings; rehearsals for Jack and the Beanstalk in Northampton sit side by side with talks to the Humanist Society. There’s a date in December for Viva!’s EP release, of course, on which CJ sings, and several for Renata Road , rehearsals and filming.
Renata Road started life as a nine-minute short film and is now being shot in Lytham as a full-length feature, directed by Ed Greenberg and starring CJ – funded by public subscription. It’s described as “an intensely dark, psychological thriller. Oh, and there’s a couple of fundraising marathons thrown in for good measure.
In the New Year diary are also dates for his performance in Safe Sex and On Tidy Endings, part of Harvey Fierstein’s trilogy following the lives of those who were close to man who has died from AIDS.
CJ is involved with a string of charities, including Viva!, Amnesty International and Stonewall. The latter came into conflict with his chess interests when he was banned from presenting prizes to the winners of the British Chess Championship because he was wearing a Stonewall T-shirt with the slogan ‘Some people are gay. Get over it.’ Given the choice of removing the T-shirt or presenting the prizes, the T-shirt stayed in place. CJ de Mooi doesn’t do U-turns.
There’s one little entry in his March diary that will please (or get up the noses of) quizzers. It says; ‘Filming Eggheads in Glasgow.’ Yes folks, the memory man is back in harness.