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Television: Tarrant contest

The only person making millions from Chris Tarrant's TV show `Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' is the former `Tiswas' custard king. But, as E Jane Dickson discovers, he still helps his daughter with her paper round. Photograph by Dan Burn Forti
When you hear Chris Tarrant's voice drifting through a partition wall, it somehow doesn't occur to you that he might actually be in the building. Tarrant's excitable tones, persistent as traffic, are part of the soundtrack of London life. As the star of Capital Radio's top-rating breakfast show, "Chrissy Wissy" has been drifting through partition walls since 1984. So when the man himself appears, filling the door-frame in a sharp-shouldered suit and lamenting the tightness of his schedule, it's a bit like the Marlboro Man climbing down from the poster and asking you for a light.

"This isn't for your benefit, you know," says Tarrant, flapping his hands at his immaculate tailoring. "I'm reading the lesson in Guildford Cathedral at 4 o'clock."

We should have seen it coming. Jagger goes jogging. Alice Cooper plays golf. And now we have Tarrant, sometime bad boy of the airwaves, doing voiceovers for the heavenly host. Respectability, the newest rock'n'roll. In Tarrant's case, it is the final stroke in a subtle image realignment. Once wild and "wacky" in the way that only disc jockeys can truly be, Chrissy Wissy, in his latest incarnation as host of ITV's Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, now comes over as a cross between Magnus Magnusson and Robin Hood.

Based on Tarrant's popular Double or Quits radio quiz, Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, which started a new series last night, is ITV's answer to the National Lottery. By correctly answering 15 general knowledge questions, contestants, could, theoretically, go home with pounds 1m cash in their pockets. The higher the stakes, the trickier the question. In the first series, which went out last September and attracted viewing figures of 10.5m every night, contestants stuck at the pounds 64,000 mark. The big prize money is certainly in place, raised by the revenue from the premium-rate phone lines jammed by would-be contestants, but so far, the only millionaire has been Tarrant, 52, who bagged a reputed pounds 2.5m to present eight new series, plus seasonal "specials" over the next two years.

"There is a danger in this day and age that we all get lost in the media image of the huge amounts of money that everyone is earning," warns Tarrant, sounding more and more like a trendy vicar. "We're always hearing about the vast sums that footballers get or the h-u-u-u-ge sums that a disc jockey gets or that journalists get paid. And at the start of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? everyone was getting lost in this `million thing'. But, actually, pounds 8,000 or pounds 16,000 is a serious amount of money. Let's not forget that, for Gods sake."

He has a point, and there is a hellish compulsiveness about watching contestants break out in a sweat as Tarrant, like one of those weird characters in Jacobean tragedy who comfort and torment by turns, draws out the drama: "No, I actually am their friend," says Tarrant. "I really want to give that million quid away. The contestants are, like, `All my problems are about to be solved. Or not.' One poor girl couldn't even drink her glass of water because she was shaking so much. And I'm sitting there thinking `Well, all I can do for you is just help you through this.'"

There is an argument, of course, that the really friendly thing would be to make the big-money questions easier, but Tarrant is quite offended by the idea. "It is an intelligent game. During the first series people kept saying `you've got to dumb it down', and I said, `No way.' It would look ridiculous. I mean, they have quizzes on GMTV where it's like `how many "c"s are there in the word "cat''' - and you win a holiday in Barbados. I think that's belittling the audience and I won't do that."

It's a far cry from the old Tiswas days, when contestants came staggering off the set with baked beans in their pants and custard in every crevice. The anarchic Seventies Saturday morning kids' show is remembered fondly by the type of thirtysomething who really cares that Magpie was cooler than Blue Peter. The big names of the day queued up to make arses of themselves with Tarrant as the demented master of revels. He has recalled, in the past, how he once proposed to the up-and-coming Sheena Easton after writhing with her in a vat of custard. These days, however, the very mention of the yellow stuff brings him out in a rash.

"I haven't been near a pie in years," he protests, head in hands. Lowering his voice to testimonial pitch, he is the very picture of a reformed addict. "For eight years," says Chris Tarrant, "my life was custard. I smelt of custard, my car, my wife, my kids all smelt of custard. When we all left Tiswas to go our separate ways, we were sick to death of it."

Old rivalries, however, are not forgotten. In the arcane lexicon of Seventies teen style, you were either a Tiswas person or a Swapshop person. It was a tribal thing. "The complete opposite of us in those days used to be the Multi-Coloured Swapshop with Noel [Edmonds], when Noel was young." says Tarrant. "Although," he cannot help adding, "Noel looked exactly the same, with the same haircut and beard as he does now. He used to be like the squeaky- clean show, as opposed to the children-crying-and-covered-in-green-slime show. But now you turn on Noel's House Party and there's the gunge tank and all these buckets of slime and you think, `Hang on, Noel. We all grew out of that and you've sort of grown into it.'" Tarrant's face, as he delivers this little broadside is a picture: the nearest you'll ever see to a grown man miaowing.

It must then be galling for such a delicately competitive spirit to be sitting in Freud PR's building that is hung about with the triumphalist sneer of Chris Evans, who has taken Tarrant's famed "zoo" format and turned it inside out, to astonishingly lucrative effect. (Evans liked his morning slot on Virgin radio so much that he bought the station.) Celador, the production company that makes Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, shares the hipper-than-hip Freud PR with Evans, and front- page stories about the Ginger One are plastered on every available surface.

"I don't normally do any PR through Freud," explains Tarrant. "Evans pays them a fortune every month to do lots and lots of stuff. It is strange to sit here surrounded by pictures of Evans, but," he adds, a touch pettishly, "if Evans came to the agency I use, he would sit there surrounded by pictures of me. I've done so many so-called `radio wars' it's like, `Oh God, not another one.'

"Certainly, radio is much more competitive now than it used to be. When I started, I think there were five stations and now there are 36 or something, with more coming next year. But Capital continues to dominate. Virgin and Radio One are still a long way off, and," says Tarrant, banging the table in statesmanlike fashion, "by God, let's keep them there." "The trouble is," he goes on, unable, despite himself, to stop picking at the subject, "that I don't actually listen to other stations. I'm really sorry, but when I go home, after being up at 5am, I don't want to put three hours of Chris Evans on just to see what he's up to and I can't imagine Evans saying `No, no, I won't drink any lager today because I've got to listen to three hours of Tarrant on Capital.' But write what you like," says Tarrant magnanimously, "I really couldn't give a toss."

He certainly shouldn't. With a pounds 1.1m-per-annum deal with Capital struck at least until the millennium, and longer if he wants it, plus revenue from his share in the menswear chain Made In Italy and his other TV shows, Tarrant on TV and the staggeringly fatuous Man O Man, Tarrant is now one of Britain's highest paid entertainers. But the work ethic he inherited from his father, Basil, who climbed his way up from tea-boy to managing director of a tin-box company, remains strong. He recently admitted to ferrying his stepdaughter Fia about on her paper round in his Mercedes because it was raining. Family holidays, with his second wife, Ingrid, and their six children are spent fishing on the Scottish borders.

The one cloud on Tarrant's horizon, the one thing that really seems to get his goat, is the charge of gravitas, of his sober-suited standing in the public eye.

"There is no gravitas" he says with read-my-lips finality. "I keep hearing this word," he says, looking anxiously down at himself, as if dignity might have settled like dandruff, "but," he concludes, reassured, "I'm just the same geezer"