Weaver's Week 2018-08-12

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Chris Tarrant

Everybody's Equal

"Chris Tarrant must die," the rock writer's manifesto as expounded by Stuart Maconie in 1994. He was profiling the anarchist-pop duo Shampoo, and the future Round Britain Quiz regular was talking a complete load of rot. Shampoo could not exist without Chris Tarrant, or someone like him. He provided the "mainstream", giving space for Jacqui-and-Carrie to be "alternative", and for Stuart Maconie and all of the other Rok Blokkes something to pose against. {a}

Ten years into his tenure at Capital Radio, Chris was an institution. He was well-paid – Capital's paycheques were over £1 million a year. He had regular television work, plenty of time for fishing, and he was utterly mainstream. Everyone knew of Chris Tarrant, everyone had an opinion of him. Better to be thought a ubiquitous nitwit than to be forgotten. Just ask the current Home Secretary. {b}

Pop Quiz (1994)

Pop Quiz

By tradition, BBC tv's Pop Quiz is hosted by a Radio 1 DJ. In 1994, Radio 1 was going through an experimental phase. Steve Wright in the Afternoon was going out in the morning, Danny Baker talked on the weekends, Emma Freud had a daily programme, and John Peel was going out in daylight hours. This is not the Radio 1 we're familiar with! A light quiz about pop music was not in the brand's style, partly because the brand was still confused.

Who could they tap? A well-known television face who also happened to spin some records? Step forward Chris Tarrant, a man who by now needed no introduction, even if the pop stars did.

Some pretty decent names, though. One episode had Mark King from Level 42 (ask yer dad), dance diva Kym Mazelle, celebrity sister Dannii Minogue, Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden, and soul star Edwin Starr. Oh, and Aaron Poole from Worlds Apart, a third division Take That.

Pop Quiz The set is pink and purple, very 1994.

Pop Quiz is an entertainment programme that happens to ask questions about pop music. Most selections is made to the stars' strong points – so Kym Mazelle will get questions about Diana Ross and Toni Braxton, Bruce Dickinson will be asked about Deep Purple, and Aaron Poole will try to name all the members of Take That.

Chris Tarrant gets into the swing of the show, he asks the questions and makes a token effort to keep the rules – "this is meant to be a solo round", but he would rather let the stars shine. Quite right: nobody much cares who wins and who loses. On another episode, Jarvis Cocker of Pulp spent most of the programme slagging off pop's heritage, before he cleaned up on the quickfire buzzer round. It's a way of being a star. We're here to see entertainers entertain, and Chris is right to let them get on with it.

By 1994, Chris was the Capital Radio breakfast presenter. He hosted weird clip programme Tarrant on TV, and he popped up on some panel shows. He also hosted another programme.

Man O Man

Man O Man

"This show will fly like a piano," warned an advertising agency after previewing the first edition. We're reviewing part of a shorter run in 1998; the 1996 series was rightly criticised as a 40-minute programme shoehorned into a one-hour slot.

Years before Paddy McGuinness was suspiciously sexist, Chris Tarrant was almost lewd on prime time television. Ten young men put their egos on the line before a large audience of young women. And their mothers next door. The one most appealing to the audience will win a motorbike, everyone else will cool off in the Man O Man pool. {c}

In the first round, Chris introduces the contestants, and asks them to describe themselves in five words. "I'm tall, cool, and ready to reveal all." Confusing eight and five? Not a good look. Anyway, the first challenge is disco dancing, each of the ten lads has a short solo on stage. Modelling how it should be done are the Man O Man dancers, and the house band. Equipped with a voting keypad borrowed from Everybody's Equal, the three worst performers are going in the drink.

Man O Man And if you'd like to push him in the pool, call 0898...

Three down, seven to go, and it's Chris Tarrant's storytime. The contestants are to pantomime a silly story, freeze in position once their turn has come to an end, and then perform a short burst of Riverdance. It's comedy, it's gentle humiliation, but it's not exploitative. We're judging the contestants on their personalities, not their looks or their assets.

"We have two special guests," promises Chris. Goodness, it's Melinda Messenger and Philippa Forrester. They've been given the results of the audience vote, and will make two young men look like drowned rats. Much to Chris's disappointment, they cannot drown his nemesis Roland Rat.

Coming up next is Major League Snoggage, a lesson in how to give a girl a kiss she'll never forget. And by "kiss", they mean "on the side of the neck like a vampire", or "pick her up and cuddle", or "wrestle to the floor like an animal". Or just a long, romantic, lean in.

Man O Man Cue the romantic music! Cue the swelling strings!

And there's Major League Songage, declaring their love in a song. Mercifully, it's a karaoke classic, not one the gentlemen have written themselves. Good singer, good dancer, energetic performance, "Angels", or just flat and dull. After the ad break (just one commercial break in this 45 minute show), two must have their dreams doused by guest Liz Dawn.

Man O Man Let's cool him off.

Throughout the show, Chris is the master of ceremonies. He whips the crowd up, saying they are loud and lairy, and keeping the atmosphere just where he wants it. He introduces the segments, but doesn't comment on anyone's performances. Indeed, there's no comment from anyone, just results. We're having fun, we're being entertained by the young men, don't distract us with boring chit-chat.

Sadly, boring chit-chat comes next, as we meet the mothers of the remaining three contestants. Embarrassing anecdotes, embarrassing lines. Then the final three are asked questions by the star panel. "When you're with your girl, and she sees something that makes her bum look big, do you tell her that?". "In the pool!" shout some of the audience when they hear something they don't like.

"We've seen the guys, but there's some things we haven't explored at all. Let's go for Hunks In Trunks." The three remaining men wear some long shorts, and take posing lessons from Ace off of Gladiators. The contestants prove to be a little less fit. And after all of this, we find out the winner.

Man O Man The finalists do some pull-ups.

From the start, Man O Man was entertainment. Young men were asked to do silly things – silly, but not degrading. They might be mildly embarrassed, they might look a prat on network television, but that's all. Good clean fun, and we found it a darned sight more entertaining than Paddy McGuinness's Phallic Lift.

Man O Man explores the gap between what women want, and what men think they want. All the good-looking guys get in the drink, all the arrogant lads cool their ardour. Winners tend to have charm and personality. Chris Tarrant hit just the right note. It's a fine line between too tacky and too prudish, between treating the competition too seriously and sending it up completely. Chris Tarrant is able to steer the ship between these two whirlpools, so that most people remain dry.

Man O Man The audience were enthused and/or drunk.

Around this time, the BBC went a'courting again, suggesting that Chris Tarrant host their Wednesday lottery "entertainment special". An hour-long programme, when most people are only interested in seeing some plastic balls move. The tabloid press summed up in a quote attributed to 'a BBC insider', "Chris has got the perfect personality for this kind of show. We want it to be big and loud – just like him. He is our main target." In a charity stunt, Tarrant turned down £50,000 to pose nude. "We don't want to show you that."

On Capital Radio, Chris Tarrant continued to rule breakfast. He saw off the challenge of Cliff Evans, until the ginger producer's ego self-combusted. He survived Kara Noble's defection to Heart 106.2, and decided not to employ his wife Ingrid as the weather girl. Capital rewarded him with a £1 million per year contract.

It helped that Capital had a consistent and polished sound, predictable from morning to night. Top-drawer presenters, like Pat Sharp and Doctor "Neil" Fox, made sure each minute was fun. Listener interaction was a key element of the fun, and the station was filled with phone-in competitions to win small sponsored prizes.

Occasionally, they'd give away serious amounts of moolah, such as Chris Tarrant's "Double or Quits" contest. Always a master of crowd control, Chris developed a wicked way to raise the tension, he'd turn a general knowledge quiz into compelling radio.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire

All of Chris' talents were shown on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The most influential game show ever, the most widely-shown game show ever, and one of the greatest game shows ever. None of it would have happened without Chris Tarrant.

You know the format. Fifteen questions, three lifelines, you can walk away whenever you want. A right answer will double your prize, right up to a cool One Million Pounds. Do you want to leave, when you could double your prize?

Who Wants to be a Millionaire

Chris knew how to pace this show. He knew how to stall for time, how to put doubt into people's heads. He knew how to make people sweat, how to make them perspire in the unfamiliar studio, how to put that slightly damp sheen on the forehead. He knew how to get the audience involved, how to get them shouting at the telly, because the viewer knew more than the poor unfortunate in the chair.

Chris was an absolute tease on Millionaire, he could look at someone and his face would give no clue. Right answer? Wrong answer? Chris's face was a complete blank, we could read anything into it. And he told a compelling story, pulling the audience – and a contestant – from tonight's episode into tomorrow's.

The rest of the format was excellent, it had been honed to perfection. Forced risk, high stakes, and that soundtrack. Before Millionaire, we only heard music during the title sequence and between rounds, now it was everywhere. Goodness, we were watching the hockey world cup last weekend, and at moments of high drama, they played one of the "Lights down" cues, a Pavlovian response to make even more tension.

And there were the catchphrases. Phone a friend. Ask the audience. Is that your final answer? But we don't want to give you that. You could have walked away. We'll take a break. Chris Tarrant is responsible for all of them, and they all arose spontaneously and naturally.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire became television legend. A-list celebrities played – Alex Ferguson took time off from his football, Paul Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft!!! McCartney appeared with his wife Heather Mills McCartney. The jackpot was won, mostly by future Eggheads. There was a fraud case, and the show clocked up series after series after series.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire The Royal Mail agreed: Chris put his stamp on the show.

Speaking on Desert Island Discs in 2002, Chris intimated that he would leave Millionaire before it came to the end of its life – and that might be in a year or two. By the time he did close the show in 2014, Millionaire had long stopped being a regular series, and only existed as special programmes. While the producers made many baffling decisions, Chris Tarrant remained a constant, wringing every element of tension from the game, egging the contestants to consider their options, and always making the best television he could.

What are Chris Tarrant's qualities? He is bossy like a school teacher, he'd march up to the set and suggest "this is going to be fun" – but he never said it in so few words. We quickly learn that he is to be trusted, when Chris suggests that something is going to be fun, he is correct. Chris is always sarcastic, hyperbole is his greatest friend. He never takes trivial things too seriously, he'll puncture pomposity when he can. So when Chris is serious about something, he must mean it, and we pick up on his cues.

And, of course, Chris will empathise with other people's emotions as much as he leads them. Chris pays close attention to what's going on, he has a laser-like focus on the task in hand, on the contestant opposite him. Coughs from the audience won't register on his radar, such is his concentration. He's a little unpredictable, he might amplify the contestant's emotions to the viewing audience, or he might ridicule them a little; but he'll be sure everyone leaves having had a fantastic time.

After Millionaire

Tarrant on TV continued to air bizarre clips from around the world. Chris was given a Special Recognition honour at the 2000 National Television Awards, and a Lifetime Achievement gong at the 2006 Comedy Awards. He was appointed OBE in 2004 for charity work, including homeless charity Centrepoint and children's charity Swings & Smiles. In his personal life, things were less rosy. Chris went through an acrimonious divorce from his second wife Ingrid, and was reported to have paid over £10 million for her share of their fortune.

Chris hosted some other game shows during the Millionaire years. The Great Pretender (ITV, 2007) was a bizarre one. The first half of the programme was a straight quiz, albeit one where no-one knew if their answers were right or wrong. At various points in the show, the contestants could vote one of their number off the show, perhaps for doing too well, perhaps for being a complete deadweight. The quiz element found a winner, the person who answered most questions correctly.

The Great Pretender Are they right? We're not going to give you that information.

And then the second half of the show was very different. One by one, the players would spend some time alone with Chris. They'd talk about their time in the quiz, review some right and wrong answers, and how they reacted to the other players. And they'd find out if they were "The Great Pretender", because the aim was for the others to find the best player and relieve them of their money. It's very much a show of its time, the insecure end of the aughts just before the financial crash, when no-one believed anything was true any more.

We remarked at the time that Chris Tarrant held this show together, and turned it into something almost worth watching. How did he do this? Chris knows what questions to ask, he is able to tap into a contestant's head and get them to spill their thoughts. And he has the most inscrutable poker face, we couldn't tell what he was thinking – years of Millionaire had drummed that fact into everyone's head. Though The Great Pretender didn't get a second series{d}, it helped to demonstrate that straightforward quiz shows could work in the teatime slot. Somewhere around here, they have the idea for The Chase.

The Great Pretender Who leaves? Join us after the break.

Guessing game It's Not What You Know (Challenge, 2008) wasn't his finest hour. Players were to try and predict whether a celebrity panel would get questions right or wrong. The show was stretched out like old chewing gum, and held together by little stings of music that got in your ear like a microscopic wasp. Chris could bring excitement to the opening of any envelope, but even he struggled with this mess. See the Week's review.

"As dumb as a mug of mud. If I were to put it in a nutshell, I would have to use a coconut." - Caitlin Moran

The Colour of Money

Not even Chris could save The Colour of Money (2009, one episode unaired). It's what happened when Deal or No Deal tripped over, banged its head on the ground and thought it was Numberwang. We watched this show.

The show was a guessing game, twenty sealed boxes contain numbers from 1 to 20. To play, you pick one of the boxes, and guess the number inside. If the number you guess is lower than or equal to the number inside, add the guess to your total; if the number you guess is higher, you get nothing. After picking ten of the boxes, if your total is at least an arbitrary number between 50 and 80, you win that many thousands of pounds.

The Colour of Money

The Colour of Money was an emotional journey for the players, who brought friends and family into the studio with them. Sob stories set the tone, tugging at the heartstrings before we knew these people from Eve. Almost everyone cried, everyone found the experience intense.

Everyone, that is, except for the viewers. Yes, The Colour of Money had us shouting at our screens, but we were shouting "Oh do get on with it" and "Where's the remote" and "Isn't that silly celebrity dancing on the other side?"

The tension in the studio might have been unbearable, but the tension on screen was absent. After the sob stories, we had oodles of "Coming up!" and "Previously!" segments, when all we wanted was to get on with it. Chris tried to patch up the programme, he knows how to get people to talk, but we just weren't feeling anything.

The Colour of Money

Chris Tarrant is good with people, he can encourage them to expose their innermost thoughts. This format didn't work for him, there were too many confusing numbers being thrown about and we lost the thread of it. Even re-viewing a show this week, we still find it an impenetrable mess. Maybe if it had been the bonus round at the end of another contest, maybe if it had been for tiddlier stakes, maybe if the publicity hadn't banged on about "This show is the future of ITV!"

Perhaps Chris knew what was coming: in the publicity interviews ahead of the launch, he said, "You can always get it wrong. It's like Hollywood actors receiving their script and thinking: 'This is going to be great.' And then they realise it's an absolute turkey."

The Door A meeting with the people responsible.

There was The Door (ITV, 2010), which asked celebrities to do gruesome and revolting things. It was rough around the edges, but we found it an enjoyable romp. Perhaps it provided the genesis for Release the Hounds and similar shows. Chris's last regular game show gig was as a regular captain on nostalgia quiz Show Me the Telly (ITV, 2013), which this column enjoyed even if no-one else did.

Since ending Millionaire, Chris has enjoyed his retirement. He's indulged his passion for fishing, and has made some documentaries on the subject for Channel 5. He's travelled the world for Extreme Railways, also on Channel 5. Who knows, there may yet be one last piece of genius in the career of this charismatic and hugely watchable presenter.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire

This Week and Next

Ant McPartlin has told us that he's not going down under this year. He won't co-host I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! with Declan Donnelly, he'd rather do what's necessary to recover from his personal problems. Also, he won't be able to make Saturday Night Takeaway, so that show will be rested next year. We wish Ant every strength, and look forward to seeing him when he's ready.

Deaded by the Rangdo. This column confused two Dragons last week; it was Seán Gallagher who contested Ireland's presidency in 2011, not Gavin Duffy, his co-star from Dragons' Den on RTÉ. We regret the error.

Best of the Web We've enjoyed FNORD's recaps of Love Island, a literate and academic take on the show. Here's how they summarise the series:

"The main theme of the show is 'sincerity'. Ironically, this is primarily communicated mostly through how self-evidently fake the show is. [..] Can we trust what we're seeing? Do we believe Love Island's representations of events to be real? And, perhaps most importantly, in as hyper-mediated and blatantly unreal a world as Love Island presents, is true romance even possible?"

BARB ratings in the week to 29 July.

  1. Coronation Street is still number one (ITV, Mon, 7.75m). Love Island remains the top game show (ITV2, Sun, 4.15m).
  2. Behind it comes Who Dares Wins (BBC1, Sat, 3.5m). That's only down 0.1m from its first episode, back in March. Who Dares Wins might be used as schedule filler, but it's reliable and popular. Another winner for Nick Knowles, himself a correct answer on three lists this series.
  3. Pointless Celebrities finished third (BBC1, Sat, 3.05m). Big Star's Little Star returned (ITV, Sat, 2.85m), and beat a filler episode of The Chase With Celebrities (ITV, Sun, 2.8m).
  4. University Challenge remains popular (BBC2, Mon, 2.15m). Catsdown has its audience (C4, Fri, 1.5m), and Blind Date continues to tick along (C5, Sat, 1.1m). Gino's Win Your Wish List is different (C5, Sat, 930,000), and beat The Crystal Maze (C4, Fri, 880,000).
  5. Good scores for Four in a Bed and Come Dine with Me (C4, Sun, both 315,000). Masterchef Junior Us on W (Tue, 230,000) hasn't been hit by their withdrawal from The Cable Corp. Great score for Paradise Run on Nickelodeon (Tue, 120,000), we'll have to give a review.

It's the live final of the BBC New Comedy Award (R4, Sun), followed by a new run of Dragons' Den (BBC2, Sun).

Celebrity Eggheads are here to tax the brain, and Great Local Menu to rumble the stomach (both BBC2 weekdays). Celebrity Big Brother (C5, from Thu) promises a storm, but we know those don't last forever.

Next Saturday has the debut of !mpossible Celebrities (BBC1), a pop master on Big Star's Little Star (ITV), and the last in what we're optimistically calling the "present" series of Wedding Day Winners (BBC1).


{a} The KLF had it right when they advised hitmakers, "Listen to Steve Wright in the afternoon, work out what makes him popular." His show is no less conservative and staid than Maconie's.Back!

{b} Whoever that is.Back!

{c} An idea they borrowed from Turnabout, where the series winner got their revenge on Rob Curling. Shame that never made the edit.Back!

{d} The successful format was Golden Balls, all bluffing and no quiz. It was hosted by his old friend and former Celador boss Jasper Carrott.Back!

Photo credits: Celador / Thames, BBC, LWT, Celador / Carlton, RDF, 12 Yard, ITV Studios.

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