I’ve just been over to Dan’s “The Quiz Addict” blog, and saw that Dan has posted about the end of “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?”. I did catch the story in the papers during the week, but will admit that it had temporarily slipped my mind. Still, it might be nice to put on record my thoughts about the show.
I’ve been a viewer, a contestant and a phone friend (unused) in my time. As a viewer, well, as a viewer while I could appreciate just how popular the show was, and just how good an example of the big budget big prize prime time quiz show it was, this genre was never my favourite. If I get my criticisms out of the way first, I prefer shows with a lot more questions, and where it doesn’t take such a long time to get to really interesting questions. I’m not interested in learning about the lives and personalities of contestants. But then, to use a phrase I’ve used on a number of occasions, the show was never really aimed at people like me. What I will say is that as an example of the genre it’s a work of beautiful simplicity – and that I do mean as a compliment. There was little new about the idea of answering questions for increasing amounts of cash – indeed it’s a gimmick that goes back to the first week of ITV in 1955 with Hughie Greene’s “Double Your Money”. The use of the three original lifelines, now that was something a little different, and the really clever thing about it was the way that it dovetailed so neatly into the gameplay of the show – on less skillfully constructed shows everything can be dominated by the gimmick. As for Chris Tarrant, host throughout the show’s long run, well, could you imagine anyone else presenting it? The host of any show has to take a share of the blame for its failure, and conversely also deserves a slice of the credit for its success. And Chris, God bless ‘im, has had his share of turkeys in his time. Remember “It’s not what you know “? No, not many people do. But his particular style of gently humourous bonhomie proved perfect for Millionaire.
What you shouldn’t underestimate is this show’s importance in the history of the TV quiz show in the UK. As many people know it wasn’t actually the first show to offer, or to give away a £1 million prize in the UK, but it was the first to offer such a prize as a matter of course. ITV’s decision to show the first couple of series on consecutive evenings across a week made it into event TV, and an instant smash hit success. 5 people won the £1 million first prize, and the first, Judith Keppel, probably owes her place among the Eggheads, and as a consequence national celebrity to her success on the show. Over 100 countries bought or licensed the show, a record for a British format. Back home, the show, for a while, revitalized the moribund prime time big money quiz show, and a number of shows rode in on the back of its wave of success. Some of them were decent, watchable shows – The Vault and The Syndicate spring to mind – and some of them weren’t – I’ll say just one word here – Shafted. None of them had the appeal or staying power of WWTBAM. If you’re looking for a lasting legacy, I guess that it would be the serious amounts of prize money that can be won on teatime shows. With rolling jackpots even BBC shows, for example the smash hit Pointless and Eggheads, can end up giving jackpots of £20,000 and over. Ditto the Chase on ITV. Compare this with even as recent a show as, let’s say “The Weakest Link”, where a winner might be lucky to take away much more than £3000.
As for my own personal experiences, well, as a phone friend there really isn’t a lot to it if you don’t get called, and I didn’t. I went off Tarrant when he put my photo up and said that I was a Christopher Biggins look alike. Basically you’re told to sit by your phone, ring around friends and family and tell them not to ring you for the duration of the recording of the show, and if anyone else rings, get them off the line pronto. Sadly I knew the answer to the question Richard needed help with, but he asked another friend who didn’t. At least he had the sense to quit there and then while he was ahead.
Which is more than I can say for myself. The basic fact is that I gambled on a question that I should have known for £32,000 and I got what I deserved. or rather, I got a lot more than I deserved, since I walked away with £1000, which is a darned sight more than I walked away with on all the other shows I played in. My son Mike and I were treated royally throughout the day, and I have to say that in those terms only one other show came close to looking after you quite that well. Looking at it rationally, I went there with nothing, and came away with £1000 when I could have left with nothing, then it was a fabulous, fabulous experience. Except that you can’t quite forget that if you’d been a little more sensible you’d have come away with a very significant sum of money. But if I were to tell you that I lose any sleep over it, then I’d be lying. My mistake, my fault, get over it. I did.
So, farewell then, Millionaire. In essence, it doesn’t matter what I, or anyone else say about the show. It is a highly significant, if not seminal quiz show. In fact it will be remembered as an extremely important and successful TV show full stop. And that’s not a bad epitaph for any show.