“Yeah, I’m listening to you mate. Yeah. He’s trying to put if off by doing a longer interview. He doesn’t want to go out on the set. OK. One minute.”
I’m perched on a table amid the spare lighting rigs, odd chairs and mysteriously huge pieces of metal lying around at the side of the George Lucas Stage at Elstree Studios, on the northern outskirts of London. I’m struggling to concentrate on interviewing Chris Tarrant, who’s about to limp (“I’ve done me ankle, that’s why I’m walking funny”) through the black curtain behind us and onto one of the most famous TV sets in the world.
Tarrant will shortly be hosting his 586th episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? The studio audience are in place. The warm-up act: me, playing the game. That there’s no real money involved isn’t helping my jitters at all.
“I still get a buzz out of it,” says the 66-year-old of the quiz he’s been presenting since 1998. The format has become a global phenomenon and has made him easily rich enough not to have to keep doing it unless he feels like it.
“When you sit opposite someone who says ‘If I can just win ten grand that would change my entire life’, you think, ‘Shit, that is so cool’. Even now most shows are like, ‘Oh, you could win two thousand pounds!’ We still give away so much money and it does change people’s lives.”
The night before I visit the set, just over two million viewers see the first of three The People Play specials, in which punters at home are encouraged to play along online or via the programme’s new app. It’s an artificially low figure – BBC1’s enduring reality berkfest The Apprentice is airing its series premiere at the same time – but it’s years since WWTBAM’s ratings were nudging 20 million.
Apart from apps and online games, the main gimmick that’s been brought in to try to sustain the show has been more and more celebrity specials, where already-famous folk play for the benefit of charities and their public personas. “I wish we did more shows with members of the public,” says Tarrant. “There is this obsession with celebrity. You know and I know that not that many celebrities are actually that bright. It’s not part of the job requirement.
“We have stayed away from the famous for being famous culture so far. I just hope we continue that because I really don’t want to be sitting there opposite someone from Towie or whatever. Because they won’t know anything. Winning a million quid, or £250,000, is hard. You need a bit of luck and you also need a brain. Which does eliminate an awful lot of celebrities.
“Last year when we had members of the public on, there were tears. It’s proper. You’re not going to get celebrities in tears. A lot of them work very hard for their charities, but they’re not going to cry.”
For the real people who have been on the show – only five of whom have won the £1m top prize, if you discount Charles Ingram, who triumphed in 2001 but was subsequently accused of having an accomplice in the studio coughing when the correct answers were read out (both were found guilty in court of obtaining the money by deception) – it can be an unforgettable experience. Many of them still write to Tarrant to update him on what they’ve done with the cash.
“Yeah, I find it quite weird. It’s none of my business, if you decide to piss the lot up against the wall, that’s up to you. It’s almost like I’m their moral guardian: ‘Yes I did buy a new car, but it’s not a Ferrari. We have done the extension, but we haven’t gone mad. The kids have had their first holiday in ten years.’ I just think it’s really sweet. It’s not my money, it’s ITV’s!
“This wonderful girl from the first series still writes to me now. Every six months I get a letter out of the blue from her, saying ‘I’m still here, I’m still with me old man, me kids are growing up.’ It’s hard to earn money these days. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of bunce.”
Millionaire only appears sporadically in the schedules these days, not so much because ratings are lower than they once were – they’re still healthy enough for ITV to put the show out at 9pm – but because Tarrant has other projects. He’s branched out into travel presenting with Extreme Railways for Channel 5, and is writing a book about his late father’s exploits in the Second World War (“He was a major with two military crosses, but he never talked about it”).
“When Millionaire started I thought oh my god, it’s so huge, how do I follow this? After five or six years I thought, I’m not going to try. I’d never bother to do another game show now. There’s no point. I’ve done probably the best one ever. I do what everybody else does, exactly what you do at home. I’m sitting there thinking: what are you like? How intelligent are you? How stupid are you, sometimes. How much of a gambler are you? How much do you need the money?
“I’ve always said I’d leave when I stop enjoying it. I still enjoy it, so I’ll hang on for a bit. As and when it finishes I’ll just lie on a beach and count me money.”
Someone’s talking in Tarrant’s ear. He stands up and puts his face, thick with orangey TV make-up, two inches from mine. “But in the meantime,” he says, “I want to frighten the shit out of you.”
Two minutes later, I’m cowering in the wings and Tarrant is on the floor, bantering with the crowd and explaining that they’re about to record two shows, for broadcast on the next two Tuesdays.
“But first,” he says, “we have to do a brief thing for… the Radio Times!”
“Oooooh!” say the audience.
“But he’s… a journalist!”
“Oooooh!” say the audience again, not picking up on Tarrant’s pantomime thumbs-down gesture. Tarrant gives up on them and starts talking to the director in the gallery. “How many questions are we gonna do? Let’s stitch him up like a bloody kipper.”
The floor manager asks if I’m ready. I’m just giving him the internationally recognised high-pitched noise for yes-no-dunno-oh-Christ when I hear Tarrant introducing me. The crowd applauds. I walk out.
It’s true what everyone says: TV studios are tiny. If I were to vomit now, which isn’t impossible, I could easily hit the front row of the audience. Millionaire is also intimidatingly sparse: Tarrant and I have got a stool each and a bog-standard computer monitor on a glowing plinth, and that’s it.
Tarrant, grinning broadly, shakes my hand. “You’re absolutely shitting it, aren’t you?”
I’m fine, I assure him, concentrating on getting onto the stool without tipping it over.
“Shall we do a de-de-de-de-de-de-de?” says Tarrant to the gallery, referring to the show’s trademark dramatic music sting that starts each game. “Can we do one of them?”
Someone says something in his ear. “OK. Let’s play Who Wants to be a Millionaire!”
Yes, they’re just playing around as a favour to me, but even with no money involved this is a strange and scary experience. First of all, I discover I don’t know how to sit, or what to do with my expression. It’s like when you’re meeting someone, they’re there first, and seeing them watching you approach makes you forget how to walk. But, er, with my face. As you can see from the video below, I’ve gone for “pale, clenched and bewildered”.
I’m also constantly having to stop myself nervously bursting out laughing, and I keep wanting to talk in the middle of Tarrant’s trademark dramatic pauses. Here’s how on edge I am: it’s only on the way home that I realise I’ve completely forgotten to be hilarious and address Tarrant as “Chris” at the end of everything I say, as Millionaire contestants traditionally do. (“Final answer, Chris. Yes, Chris. It’s B, Chris. The Marriage of Figaro, Chris.”) Something’s badly wrong when I fail to do a stupid gag.
Then there’s the game itself. Again it’s true what they say: it’s very easy when you’re watching at home, shouting at the TV (Tarrant says Millionaire “has the ultimate shoutability. I’ve been in pubs and seen people screaming at this TV on the wall”), but when you’re under the lights with Chris Tarrant and 100 members of the public staring at you, it’s completely different.
With the first four, relatively easy rounds waived to save time, I’m plunged in at the £10,000 question and immediately falter, having to methodically eliminate three wrong answers and trust that the other one is right. The clock, which was introduced in 2010 as part of a revamp to speed up the game, seems to career downwards from 30 seconds to zero at double speed. And yes they do play that tense, murmuring music in the studio while you’re trying to think.
Slightly dazed, I move on to my second question, which would be worth £20,000 in a real game. There’s no friendly chat from Tarrant, who is playing this absolutely straight. Not immediately knowing the answer to the first question has knocked me a bit already, but my stomach really lurches when I realise I have an even vaguer idea on this one. I use my 50/50, which inevitably eliminates the answer I was favouring, so I must ask the audience. Tarrant tells me their preferred answer but it doesn’t come up on the screen and for a moment I forget what it was. I scrape through.
The fifty grand resting on the next question might be imaginary, but just the thrill of the game has given me a taste of what it must be like for the actual contestants. Do I know what an apiculturist is? In five minutes’ time when someone else is in the chair, questions like this are going to be life-changers.
“Weird, isn’t it?” says Tarrant when it’s all over. Yes, it is. I go back down the steps at the back of the set, where Stuart Hurren, a postman from Lincolnshire, is waiting to play for real. I try to have a joke with him.
“Yeah, it’s quite easy actually,” I say. It isn’t.
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? continues its 15th-anniversary shows at 9pm tonight on ITV