It’s 20 years ago today since Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? first appeared on British television screens. Hosted by Chris Tarrant, the show, which was created by David Briggs, Mike Whitehill and Steven Knight, caused an immediate stir, with the biggest prize fund UK viewers had ever seen. It was quickly syndicated all over the world, with versions of the show popping up in India, Russia, Romania and China among other places. At its peak, in 1999, the UK version was watched by more than 19m people a week. The show’s format with its “lifelines”, “ask the audience” and “phone a friend” encouraged maximum audience participation and sparked lively debate. Who would be your friend on the end of the phone? Divorce rates trebled and families fell apart as people revealed that they thought all their loved ones were too thick to be trusted with the job.
The show’s brilliance was in part because it made winning a million look utterly achievable. Those early round questions were so easy. You could quickly get to £16,000 without even knowing how to pronounce your own name. From the safety of the sofa, it didn’t look difficult at all. We howled with disbelief and derision when someone couldn’t answer a simple question about geography, only to find ourselves utterly stumped moments later by a question about the 1957 FA Cup.
“You see,” said grandad. “You’d want me to be your phone a friend now, wouldn’t you?”
The first contestant to win a million was John Carpenter, who took home top prize in the US edition. The first British winner came in 2000. She was Judith Keppel, landscape gardener and a distant relative of the Duchess of Cornwall. Her win was not without controversy however. Though Keppel was obviously a brainbox, there were rumours that the show had been rigged in order to draw viewers away from the final episode of One Foot In the Grave, which was airing over on BBC1 the same night.
Prize wise Millionaire was pretty much self-funding. To get on it, you had to call a premium rate line. In the 24 hours following Keppel’s win, ITV received more than 130,000 calls, netting a cool £69,000 from just a day’s worth of hopefuls. The cost of those premium rate phonecalls seemed like a bargain with the average winner in the year Keppel scooped the jackpot only going home with around £80,000.
In all, five contestants took home UK Millionaire’s big prize. The last of the five was quiz enthusiast Ingram Wilcox, who correctly answered the million pound question in 2006. The show continued with no more big winners until Tarrant announced his retirement and Millionaire officially ended in 2014.
Earlier this year, seven episodes of Millionaire were aired to celebrate the show’s 20th anniversary. Jeremy Clarkson took Tarrant’s place in the hot seat. Though the revival was deemed a success, in contrast to the show’s peak audience of 19m the Clarkson episodes pulled in only about a quarter as many viewers per show. Of course, it’s rare for any programme to rival 1990s viewing figures now that there are so many more channels and entertainment systems vying for the audience’s attention, but is it also the case that a prize fund of £1m just doesn’t seem that exciting anymore? Can you even say “one million pounds” without coming over a bit Austin Powers’ “Dr Evil”?
These days, to have the same spending power £1m would have bought you back in 1998, you would have to win at least £1.7m. Is even that much money a truly life changing amount these days? The average London flat will still cost you almost £500,000. Got a couple of kids? Sending them to university then setting each of them up with a studio flat in Zone 6 won’t leave you much change for that mansion in Barbados. Maybe a chalet in Solent Breezes, Hampshire, with a view of the Isle Of Wight will have to do? Even there a two bed lodge that you can’t even use all year round will set you back the best part of £200,000. Yes, it definitely costs a lot more to feel properly rich these days.
Long before Millionaire hit our screens, the best way to get rich quick was with the Football Pools. In 1962 Keith Nicholson won £152,000 (the equivalent of more than £3m in today’s money) and his wife Viv promptly announced their plan to “spend, spend, spend”. The Nicholsons did exactly that but soon became an object lesson in how money can’t buy you happiness. After Keith was killed in an accident four years after the win, Viv was declared bankrupt. Her attempts to regain her wealth included recording a single called “Spend, spend, spend” and appearing in a Manchester strip club singing “Hey Big Spender”. She was fired when she refused to take her underwear off. She subsequently joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses and graced the cover of The Smiths’ single “Heaven knows I’m miserable now”.
More recent sudden millionaires from the lottery have also fared badly. In 2012, Adrian and Gillian Bayford won £148m. They split up shortly afterwards. Meanwhile Dave and Angela Dawes, who took home the UK’s fourth biggest win in 2011, were sued by Dave’s own son for a share of their new fortune.
Colin and Chris Weir pocketed nearly £162m in the UK’s biggest ever lottery win, instantly becoming two of Scotland’s wealthiest people. They launched The Weir Trust, to support Scottish charities and local community groups but they also spunked £3m on supporting the unsuccessful “Yes” campaign in the Scottish Referendum. Let’s hope they don’t wish they’d just bought more cars.
Most notorious of all the unlucky lottery winners is binman Michael Carroll, who won almost £10m while on parole. Carroll quickly splashed the cash on cars, a mansion and a demolition derby track. Eight years later, he was working as a binman again.
As lorry driver Les Scadding, who scooped £45m while recovering from cancer admitted, “It’s OK playing golf and having a life of luxury but believe me it does get boring.” To which the rest of us say, “only the boring are bored, Les”.
However miserable some of the Lottery’s previous winners seem, around 70 per cent of the UK’s over-18s still take part on a regular basis. More than 50 per cent of us play at least once a month. A quarter of us take our chances with scratch cards. Even the Queen has had a flutter, winning £10 on the very first National Lottery draw back in 1994.
Here’s a tip if you spend your life dreaming of a lucky draw and a garage full of Ferraris. More than 10,000 people pick the numbers 1,2,3,4,5,6 every week. If those numbers were to come up for a £100m jackpot, the winners would just about be able to afford a top-of-the-range Fiat Panda a piece.
With poor Viv Nicholson in mind, every time I buy a lottery ticket, I try to tempt the gods by saying, “this week’s jackpot is more than enough to ruin anybody’s life”. Thus far, they haven’t offered me the chance to prove myself right but maybe one day I’ll get unlucky.
Christine Manby has written numerous novels including ‘The Worst Case Scenario Cookery Club’
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