As a total quiz show nerd, I have always loved Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? to an almost tragic extent.
Having launched in 1998 with host Chris Tarrant, WWTBAM sits alongside Supermarket Sweep and The Crystal Maze as a relic of my childhood. I can still remember furiously chewing my fingernails as Judith Keppel first reached the all-important million pound question, and whooping with joy when she knew that Henry II was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine…despite my being six years old and not having a clue who any of these people were.
So when my editor offered me the chance to go and actually play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? for real, I had booked my train to Manchester Piccadilly and raced to London Euston quicker than she could say “Is that your final answer?”
The new incarnation of the show is filmed in Manchester’s MediaCityUK , having moved from Elstree Studios, but the new studio is as claustrophobic as the original. We weren’t joined by a live audience for our press day run-through, but the beady eyes from producers, PRs and executives from ITV (paired with the sweltering heat as we filmed on the hottest day of the year) was enough for sweat to begin to bead on my forehead. How no-one noticed Tecwen Whittock’s coded coughs in 2001 is almost unbelievable – the studio is so poky I could hear one studio exec’s stomach rumble as they fiddled with the camera set up.
As with the real show, we started with Fastest Finger First. I’ll be honest, I pride myself on being a reasonably intelligent person. I did okay at school. Friends always insist I join them for pub quizzes “because I know about telly and books and stuff.” Every now and then I get an answer on University Challenge.
But nothing will make you feel as comprehensively stupid as sitting in that chair. I didn’t know army rankings in descending order. I didn’t know which tennis opens take place first. Under the flashing lights and REALLY LOUD bursts of theme music, I barely even knew my own name.
After failing to get through on Fastest Finger, ITV took pity on me and fast-tracked me to the actual hot seat, opposite a thoroughly unimpressed Jeremy Clarkson.
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At six foot five, Clarkson stands a whole foot taller than me. I offered him a slightly soggy hand for him to shake, which he took with trepidation.
This season marks Clarkson’s third time in the chair after taking over from Tarrant in 2018 – and in spite of my general jitteriness, he now seems perfectly at ease at the helm of the show.
When he first took the role he was deemed meaner than Tarrant, but Clarkson explained to me later that he genuinely does back those who make it to the hot seat.
“It is very exciting when a brave contestant comes in,” he said, slapping a large packet of Nicorette gum on the table before we talk. “You can risk a lot of money on this show, sometimes they can have £400,000 riding on an answer. That money can completely change someone’s life.”
It’s a feeling that I don’t get to enjoy, as the “money” I win on this press day isn’t mine to keep. As I stumbled on a question about koalas for a pitiful £2000, Clarkson laughs, and I awkwardly have to ask my audience of ITV execs for help.
But Clarkson’s love of the show is evident, as is his love of performing to an audience. As the last season of The Grand Tour came to an end, Clarkson famously teared up as he bid goodbye to his audience segments, with the new series’ of the show set to favour ‘specials’ away from the infamous tent.
“I love quiz shows, and I like being in front of an audience,” he said. “So I chomped at the bit to do this. Plus I get to sit down, which is nice.
“I never got a chance to say goodbye to the Top Gear audience. [I teared up] as I was saying goodbye to audiences and sitting with James [May] and Richard [Hammond] and nattering about this, that and the other. I was sad not to be doing that anymore.”
Despite missing Top Gear fans, Clarkson is guarded with his opinions about his former BBC show, although he did admit he doesn’t watch it.
“No. Never saw [Chris] Evans do it either,” he said dismissively. “This is on now.”
I clearly misspent my youth watching Millionaire as none of my prior quiz show knowledge seems to help at all. All my brains seemingly crawled out my ears and deserted me in the studio. Eyeing my watch, I find myself eager to leave, capping out at £16,000 and using every single lifeline in the slow and painful process.
However, Clarkson is keen to stay for the long haul, making a thinly-veiled dig at his former employer.
“You find when you’re employed by someone, whether you stay there or not is usually down to your employer rather than you,” he scoffed.
“I’d like to stay. I really enjoyed hosting this show. I’m not just saying that, I know everyone you ever interview on any show says their life has been leading up to this and it’s all they’ve ever wanted, but I genuinely do [want to stay].”
He added smilingly, “It’s definitely this now. I’ve got other projects, and I want to continue doing this if they’ll have me. It’s nice.”
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? continues Sunday at 8pm on ITV