Chris Tarrant: The all-rounder

With his own production company now in full flight, Chris Tarrant can pursue his own interests... even if it means uncomfortably close encounters with polar bears. Raymond Snoddy meets the busy broadcaster who can't seem to stop
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Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is the puzzle magazine to accompany the world's most popular televised game show, which he presents and which starts its 18th series this Saturday. The company behind the magazine, Seven Publishing Group, realises that Tarrant - or "the man himself" as he is described - has a widespread public appeal that has been a key to Millionaire's phenomenal success.

So too do ITV bosses. When ITV wanted someone to host its star-spangled show to mark the network's 50th anniversary this month, it turned to Tarrant, unquestionably one of the most familiar faces and voices in British broadcasting. The show, Avenue of the Stars (to be shown next Sunday), will be a tribute to the great moments of British entertainment and the stars who created them.

The programme will also feature memorable moments of comedy and drama such as Laurence Olivier's portrayal of the death of Richard III, John Cleese doing silly walks, an audience with comedian Billy Connolly and an example of Tommy Cooper's "Just Like That" brand of magic.

"It's another chance to give myself a bit of an edge, to try things. It would be very easy to say 'No. No. I only do Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.' I could go back into my cocoon. So once in a while it's good to extend yourself," says Tarrant who is still savouring the pleasure of not having to get up every day at 5am for the Capital Radio breakfast show he presented for 17 years.

The cast list for Avenue of the Stars is expected to include Ken Dodd and Lord Attenborough, two gentlemen well known for talking "just a bit", especially when they are on live television.

"Obviously being live you absolutely have to have a beginning, a middle and an end and make sure you come out to the second on time. If the bookings for Ken Dodd and Richard Attenborough are confirmed, that's a bloody nightmare. Doddy will still be going on when the credits roll," says Tarrant with a laugh. The show, tied in to this month's 50th anniversary of ITV, will name the first 100 who deserve to receive a "star" as chosen by a panel of judges that includes BBC chairman Michael Grade.

Tarrant extended himself a little more than expected earlier this summer when he went off to the far north of Norway to make a film about polar bears. As he approaches his 59th birthday next month, after a lifetime in broadcasting, he has decided to set up his own television company for the first time - Chris Tarrant Television.

He says he simply wanted the freedom to be able to do programmes that really interested him, such as ... middle-aged man goes off in search of polar bears.

"It's not about wanting to make more and more millions. It's because I want to control certain aspects of my new career," says Tarrant, who financed the production himself. He hopes ITV will schedule the programme over Christmas but, if not, then someone else will have the opportunity.

The television presenter has been fascinated by bears since childhood, and was impressed by the grizzlies he saw in Canada on a fishing trip. Tarrant found his polar bears all right but the encounter could have been a lot closer than desired. As he and his crew filmed a fine specimen from an inflatable boat they thought they were separated from the bear by deep ocean. It was only on the way back to the mother ship when the oars touched the bottom that they realised that they were on a shelf with only three feet of water. Instead of simply snorting in anger the bear could have rushed them.

"It could have been 'the posthumous award for broadcasting goes to Christopher Tarrant and crew'," he jokes.

He took a stills photographer to Norway and his latest book, Tarrant on Top of the World - in Search of the Polar Bear, will be published next month to go alongside previous publications such as Tarrant on Millionaires and Carp Tales.

The next Tarrant wilderness spectaculars will involve heading off to Rwanda in search of gorillas and, after that, pandas.

"What's happened if you like, is that I have been a wage slave for many, many years. I now feel I can take the time in my life to do things I have always wanted to do. Take a financial gamble and it will be all right because I am doing it from a certain position of strength," he explains.

While he is enthusiastic about both Avenue of the Stars and polar bears it is sport, and cricket in particular, that rouses the real Tarrant passion. In fact, this interview was conducted on a Test Match day when Tarrant continued with a seamless account of his life and times while watching the cricket on a television set out of the corner of his eye.

Indeed, the greatest reaction of all from Tarrant came not when he was asked about the press or the future of ITV but when a young public relations woman had the temerity to switch from Channel 4 to Sky News. He threatened with mock seriousness to grab her by the arms and legs and throw her out the window if she did it again.

Tarrant, who played cricket at school and for his local team, was at Trent Bridge with his son Toby on the nail-biting Sunday when England just managed to win the fourth Test. The two also had tickets for yesterday's performance at the Oval.

"I like it all. I just love sport but I must say I just like sport at the sharp end. I can't really be bothered very much with amateur boxing or county cricket. I just like the real drama. The great sporting moments just grab at you," he says.

He has experienced over years of broadcasting the effect of sporting victories - and defeats - on the national psyche. On the morning after a great victory the callers to his radio programme are elated. More often they almost have to be scraped off the floor as, for example, when Brazil beat England in the World Cup.

Tarrant was in a similar bleak mood last week when he heard that a bid he was involved with for the commercial radio licence for the Solent region of Hampshire had failed and instead gone to Canadian-based international broadcasters CanWest.

He had failed to impress Ofcom, the communications regulator, with three previous attempts, in Manchester, Belfast and Edinburgh but really believed that the Solent bid had had a chance. It was financed by Celador, the company behind Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and apart from Tarrant himself had a line-up that included Sir David Frost, Esther Rantzen and James Moir, the former controller of Radio 2.

"Very disappointing. I would have thought we were superbly equipped to handle that region. We know it pretty well and I'm not sure a bunch of Canadians do," says the veteran broadcaster who heard the bad news a day late. He'd been busy making two editions of Millionaire back to back.

The group has been trying to win a licence only for a year or so and it's likely that it will keep on trying to impress Ofcom, the body that awards the licences.

Tarrant does allow himself just one barbed prod at the regulator. "With Jimmy Moir at the helm as well as me, there's probably something very strange about the selection process if we can't get a radio licence. Oh well. Onwards and upwards," he says, irrepressibly cheerful.

As for the rest of the time, things are pretty normal for Chris Tarrant. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? may be long past its 19 million peak but it can still rack up very useful audiences of around seven million for ITV, not to mention all the spin-off merchandising and the magazine.

Tarrant on TV is still bringing audiences clips of some of the wilder eccentricities of television from around the world. "I was viewing this very morning a quite appalling tape of a man cutting off his testicles. You have to watch it," he says.

Are you going to show it on Tarrant on TV?

"God, yes. God, yes, because it's fascinating and a lot of the time you are saying I can't believe this is going out on prime time television in Sweden or Tokyo," says Tarrant.

But isn't there a bit of irony involved when you say 'isn't this absolutely awful' and then go and show it yourself as entertainment?

"Of course, completely," replies Tarrant, without missing a beat before continuing: "My previous producer always said we were there to learn."

One lesson is that there is still no uniform television culture and that what is acceptable in various places - even within the European Union - vary greatly.

In Britain, for example, it would be impossible to show cruelty to animals but testicles being cut off are quite a different matter. Ploughing through the tapes from all over the word shows that Japanese television is still the most extreme, with Korean coming up fast, and now Holland is even more extreme than "the mad Swedes".

His unusual viewing habits have convinced him that however much maligned, British television is not bad at all.

"I know it's flavour of the month to say it's crap, it's tasteless, it's lowest common denominator, it's dumbing down but I tell you see a lot of the other stuff," says the man who knows.

Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is back and Tarrant is contracted to do at least another year. It might even last longer than that because it is, he believes, a fantastic game. The key to its success around the world in 112 countries is its simplicity.

The Celador approach has been to insist that wherever in the world the show is aired "there will be basically a man like me in a suit who does all the stuff including often catchphrases such as 'phone a friend' in English in the Russian or Japanese version".

Celador says this is the thing that works and this is how you should do it. "I'm quite sure the Japanese version would like to put snakes down people trousers but they can't," he says.

The most memorable edition of the programme obviously involved the coughing army major Charles Ingram ,who was given an 18-month suspended sentence after being found guilty of trying to cheat the show out of a million pounds.

Tarrant says that he knew something was strange but couldn't work out what Ingram was doing. Most contestants who reach £500,000 in prize money pause for a long thought when Tarrant inquires whether they are going to take the money or risk losing £486,000.

"The only person of all the contestants I have shown a million to - and it's only relevant afterwards - who didn't even flinch was the Major because he knew he was going to play," Tarrant recalls.

The suspicions mounted when a young researcher was told to "fuck off" when he tried to visit Ingram's dressing room where a huge row was under way. Tarrant believes it was about the Major going too far and drawing suspicion on himself. A win of £250,000 might have passed off without arousing suspicion.

By 2.30am on the morning after the recording "a completely knackered editor" spotted the pattern of coughing from a member of the audience associated with correct answers, and by 4am the fraud squad was called in. "I think he has caught us all napping. Since then we have really had to tighten up a lot," says Tarrant.

Despite his new interest in polar bears, gorillas and pandas, Tarrant's career has been marked by long-standing loyalty to both people and programmes. He stayed at the children's programme Tiswas, which established his career, for seven years and at Capital Radio for 17. He has been doing Tarrant on TV, which he inherited from Clive James, for 15 years.

"I am actually quite surprised and delighted to hear how loyal I am," says Tarrant, who adds that he has always moved on when it has felt right for him.There has been the odd turkey or two over the years. His favourite was Cluedo.

"It was an absolute stinker. We were moving the audience over every half hour to stop them from getting bedsores," he recalls.

After leaving Capital he thought he might go back to the microphone again after reminding his kids who Daddy was, spending more time with his wife and getting in some fishing. Sixteen months on it's looking much less likely.

"I had a fantastic time in radio. I loved every minute of it and I left when I left," he says.

But what actually is it that he does that might explain his multimillionaire success?

"I never think about it. I clearly have something that is very marketable but I haven't tried to analyse it. It would probably be a bloody mistake," he says. He does not think he is much good at telling jokes. He would not claim to be an all-round entertainer doing the "song and dance stuff" like Bruce Forsyth. He specialises in telling larger-than-life anecdotes and essentially being himself.

The cheeky chappie of Capital Radio combined with the English honours graduate of Birmingham University?

"Half a brain cell," he laughs in response.

In 2001 he won a Sony radio award for his "unique relationship with his listeners". "Yes. That's the job actually, isn't it," he concludes.

He believes there is a sort of hiatus in commercial radio at the moment. The Tarrants, the Evanses and probably soon the Wogans and the Steve Wrights will shuffle off from the microphone and the fear is all the companies will think about is record rotation and focus groups.

"There is a danger that we will get away from personality-led radio because it's too expensive. The test of great radio is sitting in a traffic jam somewhere in London in the middle of the afternoon and remembering something that Kenny Everett said 20 years ago or something I said. I could not tell you a single record that Kenny played but I remember his jingles, his nonsense, his madness."

Tarrant also has a message for the bosses of commercial television. He hopes they have learned the lesson that the time for reality television may be drawing to a close because "in the main the public is bored shitless by it".

He says he "can't be doing with reality television" and loathed "from the bottom of my soul the first series of Big Brother and haven't watched any more". He does, however, make an exception for Ant and Dec and I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here.

"ITV should get back at what they are best at, which is making great television programmes. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a well-made programme," he says, tongue in cheek.

Tarrant is obviously not short of the odd million or so and has been carefully investing his money in property over the years, but he has never gone down the Chris Evans route of owning and then selling the company to become mega rich.

He was under pressure when he was 35 or 40 to set up his own company, but he says that he wanted neither the risk nor the aggravation.

"Wage slaves like me and Wogan and Aspel and co have sort of done all right and you do let the companies take the strain," he says.

Is there anything in his career he regrets, apart perhaps from the row when an old picture of him in the back of a taxi with Sophie Rhys-Jones was sold to The Sun just before her wedding?

"No I bloody well don't. It is a case of what you see is what you get. I've had a bloody good run. I have thoroughly enjoyed myself and I had such a craic with people for 30 years," he insists.