As the presenter of 500 Questions, a new TV quiz show described by ITV as “the toughest on television”, how clever is Giles Coren?
“How clever am I? I’m really quite clever,” he says without hesitation. “I mean, look, I’ve got a first-class degree from Oxford. [Not just any old first from Oxford, mind, but one of the best awarded by the university that year.] I got six out of nine papers with leading Alphas.
“I have quite good general knowledge and I had a very drilled education from an early age. I do know more than most people. I know more than most journalists. I know more than most columnists on big, important newspapers.”
Coren is not, he will admit, over-burdened with modesty. “I always used to boast about how clever I was,” he adds. “I was just re-reading a school report of mine the other day. My English teacher said: ‘He will do well when he realises he is not the only star shining in the firmament.’”
Maybe it’s refreshing to hear someone who doesn’t buy into the traditional British default position that boastfulness is, well, vulgar. Maybe if you’ve got a light you really ought to rush out and buy a bushel to go with it. Maybe.
Coren’s new show is a departure for both the presenter and for ITV. It’s his first foray into mass-audience quiz shows – having been The Times’s restaurant critic since 1993, his TV work has focused on the culinary world, with shows like Edwardian Supersize Me, which he presented alongside Sue Perkins, and the Bafta-nominated Back in Time for Dinner.
And for the first time since the heyday of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, ITV is putting out a shiny-floor game show four nights this week at peak time. There’s booming music, there are pulsing laser beams, heavy drumbeats. And there’s the opportunity for ordinary people to win a wad of money – or lose it in an instant. But is it really the toughest quiz on TV?
Modestly perhaps, Coren parts company with the official line. Bear in mind that his sister Victoria, three years his junior, presents Only Connect, and his brother-in-law, Alexander Armstrong, hosts Pointless. “I’m not going around saying it’s the hardest quiz show in Britain,” he smiles, “because it’s not even the hardest quiz show in my family.”
Did he ask Victoria for any tips on presenting a quiz show? “Funnily enough I didn’t. Normally we talk a lot about what we do but we both don’t really listen to what the other one’s saying, so you never really know if it’s gone in. Victoria’s always incredibly busy, so I didn’t mention this. I thought I’d let her find out.
“She knows now because one day she phoned me up and asked if I wanted to come around, and I said: ‘I can’t. I’m in Germany.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, I’m hosting a quiz show.’”
He says there was silence when he first told her. “I said: ‘Do you have any strong feelings about that?’ She said: ‘No… though I suppose I would rather it wasn’t a quiz show.”
Are Giles and Victoria competitive? You bet. The day we meet, Victoria’s picture is on the front of Radio Times. This fact has not gone unnoticed. “She’s on the cover. Amazing. Of all the ironies. Typical. I get interviewed by Radio Times the week my sister’s on the cover. I’m not going to get on the cover, am I?”
Giles attributes the Coren competitiveness to their father, the late satirist Alan Coren, main-stay of Radio 4’s News Quiz. “The world’s most competitive man, my dad. Wouldn’t let us win at Monopoly… he wouldn’t cut any slack for his children. My sister’s also very, very competitive but she is more concerned than I am with being liked. So she hides it away. I try to make my competitiveness part of my charm.”
The late Alan Coren photographed in 1977
At its heart, 500 Questionsis simple. You choose a category, you’re given a question and you have five seconds to get it right. You go from question to question, building up a cash jackpot as you go along. But if you get three wrong answers in a row, you’re kicked off the show and the baton passes to the next contestant. Whoever is still standing at the end of the programme gets to keep the money. Everyone else gets nothing.
“I think that it’s got the balance between luck and knowledge, which is how pub quizzes are,” says Coren. “And pub quizzes are much harder than people think.” Interestingly, although ITV is hoping this could be their new Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, they won’t be creating any millionaires with this show. “I was talking to ITV and they said to me that after the credit crunch and the recession, viewers weren’t interested in seeing people win £1 million. It didn’t sound convincing to me – but this is what I was told. And they research these things very heavily.
“In 500 Questions, you could win £25,000 but the chances are you’ll win about £15,000. If you lose, it’s not the end of the world. They’re not taking £1 million away from you.”
Here’s a strange fact: the show, based on an American format (there have already been two series over there), is recorded in Cologne. Which means that Coren is asking questions in English, to British contestants, in front of a German- speaking studio audience. Why did they not film over here? Because a German broadcaster has also bought the rights to make 500 Questions, and it was cheaper for ITV to use RTL’s set rather than build one for itself.
That will no doubt change if the show is re-commissioned for a longer run, which Giles must no doubt be keeping his fingers crossed for – he would hate, above all, to be outdone by his little sister.
500 Questions starts tonight at 9pm on ITV