My phone rings, and I scramble out of bed to answer it. ‘Hello Alexia? Its Chris Tarrant here!’ I feel like I’m on the end of a Who Wants to be a Millionaire? lifeline, called upon to rescue some struggling friend from losing several hundred grand at the drop of a hat.
So it is that I find myself, a little bleary eyed, on the phone with Chris Tarrant, the game show presenter that made Who Wants to be a Millionaire? both a national institution, and launched it to untold international fame. This morning Tarrant has a self-professed stonker of a hangover, but nonetheless is as chirpy over the phone as he comes across in the studio. He claims he can ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’, and he certainly can.
Chris Tarrant is the original presenter of one of the world’s most famous money game shows Who wants to be a Millionaire? Started in 1998, the show has gone through several different versions, including a celebrity Who wants to be a Millionaire? for charity, and is watched all over the world. There is even a board game, I’m told.
Tarrant has presented the programme from its inception, and he still seems as enamoured with the show as ever. He does, however, expresses gratitude that more recently he hasn’t been doing it ‘every day of the bloody week’. He still, evidently, gets a buzz out of it and his enthusiasm is not lost down the phone. ‘The thrill is all in watching the person in the hot seat. I’m sitting there looking at people thinking how bright are you, how stupid are you, how brave are you, how much do you really know, how much of a gambler are you? I think its fascinating what people know and what people don’t know. Often I’m sitting there thinking for god’s sake you must know that.’
His tone is almost a self-caricature of the worn-out TV presenter, lamenting the stupidity of the British general public. Tarrant is comically objective: Who Wants to be a Millionaire? remains today, after fourteen years, one of Britain’s best loved game shows. I ask him what he thinks it is about the show that has kept the public so enraptured with a money game show like no others. ‘The reason why it works is that it’s the most ridiculously simple but brilliant formula. People turn it on the telly and understand it within about three minutes. Clearly it just strikes a chord with people and I’m very proud that it came from us.’
The show has gone from strength to strength, and is now played in over 128 countries around the world, and Tarrant puts this down to the sheer simplicity of it. This is something he is extremely proud of, but nonetheless, as is almost archetypal of a national British treasure, expresses a degree of callousness where America is concerned.
‘The Americans hate the fact that the most successful money gameshow of all time, particularly money gameshow of all time, came from England. I went out to America and promoted for the UK and they were stunned.’ He impersonates a downtown New York accent – ‘but it’s from New York!’, before adopting a frosty British tone – ‘Well no it’s not. It’s from London. We were going for about a year before you lot bloody bought it!’ His gratuitous cursing, perhaps not helped by his liver-pickling hangover, is almost typical of such a famous British persona.
The show goes out now in what Tarrant calls ‘some of the weirdest places’. It’s played from Argentina to Vietnam. He mentions that Afghanistan is one of the most recent countries to have taken it up, but nonetheless is delighted that in a war-ravaged nation families can still sit down round the telly together and watch Who wants to be a Millionaire? It seems bizarre the extent to which consumerist ethos has spread. The top prize may be eleven grand, but the show has been put in perspective and this is why it works.
In recent years the international side of the show has by no means been played down in the media. The release of the film Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 was almost a tribute to how far afield the show had spread and how popular it was. ‘It was just bizarre that an idea that was dreamed up in a London office in 1997 was suddenly an Oscar-winning movie. I found it very difficult to watch it, not because it wasn’t a good film, but because of my own unique position I could not watch it as a story, because I was mainly concentrating on the host.’
He mentions the darker episodes that happen during the show in the film, citing the part in particular where the host takes the contestant off to the ‘bog’ as odd. ‘Its not something I’d ever do or have ever done, it just seems bizarre, and I’ve done the show over six hundred times.’ It was what Tarrant calls ‘Millionaire Mania’ – that year, ‘everyone just went crazy about it’.
We discuss the end of the show. Tarrant is a realist, and knows that he can’t go on doing it forever. He himself admits that he cant top this. Yet it is a tribute to his success on Who wants to be a Millionaire? that in fourteen years they have changed the format and the type of contestant, but never the host. ‘I never knew it would have such a long lifespan,’ he says, ‘if you’d said to me in 1998 that I would still be doing this in 2012 I would have thought you were just completely potty, but its got easier now I don’t have to do one every day.’
He is trying to bring the show back down to earth again, quizzing members of the public. It’s all got a bit too ‘celebby’ for him. That being said, he recounts with relish the failings of some of the worlds richest and most famous: ‘I am sitting there thinking: you’ve travelled the world, how can you not know that! I don’t really want to go down the route of Jordan or The Only Way Is Essex because they wouldn’t know anything. I’m sorry to say it but there is only a limited number of intelligent celebrities. Stephen Fry, on the other hand, was just perfect as he’s obviously really intelligent. I think that it’s tough on celebrities because they win nothing and come on and make complete arses of themselves.’
I suggest that Tarrant is the centrepiece of the show. He is flattered but cites the number of countries around the world where it can survive without him. ‘I am clearly their role model, there was a huge great fat man doing it in Kazakhstan basically trying to be me. But I was just there from day one, and it’s down to my style.’
I mention that they changed the format a few years ago, including more lifelines, which Tarrant is tentative about. It would be hard, he argues, to change the format outright. ‘Simply having the answers on the screen is obvious but no one has ever done it before, and that’s why it works.’ Tarrant doesn’t actually have the answers on his screen, something I’d always wondered about, and part of the thrill of it is that the show is still something of a game for him. ‘It makes it easier not to give away an answer in something in my face when I’m thinking ‘this is just so obvious’.’ The thrill is something that keeps people going, people want the money, but some of them want to beat the machine.
I ask him about his career at Capital Radio, and why he left. ‘I was just knackered! I was there for twenty years and I absolutely loved it. I just wanted to get my life back a bit’. He says that he loved it and misses it still. ‘Live radio is just instant and daft and irreverent and you just get to play all your favourite tunes.’
Tarrant is trying to slow down now, though. After the recent loss of his father, on top of years of travelling the world with Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? he is looking forward to getting back to his family and enjoying two of his great loves: his family and fishing, and he tells me of his plans with great zeal. He has just done an episode of a programme for the BBC called War Hero in my Family to find out about his father’s role in the Great War as a tribute to his recent death.
‘It was obviously a labour of love, but it was just really emotionally draining. There was a great gap- we knew he’d been there at D-Day and won a few military crosses in World War II but he never talked to us about it. We went on a pilgrimage of finding out about my dad.’ Tarrant is now writing a book about it, not only because of his love of his father but also because he has now found out so much. ‘He was my best friend for fifty years,’ Tarrant sighs.
It is my turn to ask my million pound question: what makes a good television presenter? ‘You have to be yourself. The great ones, whether you like them or hate them are very much themselves. No one is like me because I’m kind of weird.’ He says the same is true of radio. Obviously talent and charisma come into it, but in an industry that is immensely competitive he can hardly stress enough that you’ve got to be who you are. ‘And also pester everyone until you get what you want.’
Tarrant is obviously a tough cookie. He’s suffered the massive intrusion that comes with celebrity status, when the Daily Mail splashed his affair all over the papers in 2009. Nevertheless he remains upbeat as ever. ‘I have a lovely life. I don’t actually work that hard and when I do I really enjoy it! I’ve met everyone I’ve ever wanted to meet. I’ve had a fantastic time.’