Three wise men, a star and a miracle

The extraordinary birth of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, the quiz show worshipped by a nation

Brian Viner
Thursday 23 December 1999 00:00 GMT

This is, in part, a story of three wise men, a star and a miracle. The three wise men are David Briggs, 50, and Steve Knight and Mike Whitehill, both 40. They are the creators of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? - which is an ITV quiz show, for those who have spent the last 12 months orbiting Mars. But then, perhaps the show has already reached Mars. It has reached Malaysia.

This is, in part, a story of three wise men, a star and a miracle. The three wise men are David Briggs, 50, and Steve Knight and Mike Whitehill, both 40. They are the creators of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? - which is an ITV quiz show, for those who have spent the last 12 months orbiting Mars. But then, perhaps the show has already reached Mars. It has reached Malaysia.

The star of our story is Chris Tarrant. And the miracle is that a show casually devised in a wine bar in Covent Garden, and rejected again and again by British broadcasters, has transformed the face of television, not just on this side of the Atlantic but in America, too. Bill Carter, highly respected media correspondent of The New York Times and a man not known for hyperbole, calls the advent of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? "the most significant development in American television in the last 10 years".

Let us begin the story not quite at the beginning. On 8 April 1998, Paul Smith, the 51-year-old head of a small, fairly successful production company called Celador, set off for an appointment with David Liddiment, ITV's director of programmes. He took with him four envelopes stuffed with cash.

The first contained £250, the second £500, the third £1,000, the fourth £2,000. As things turned out, if he had been mugged on his way to the appointment in Gray's Inn Road, primetime would have looked very different indeed - and, in America, ABC might never have leapfrogged NBC and CBS to become the top TV network in the most competitive market on Earth.

Not many heads of production companies take cash-filled envelopes to meetings with powerful TV executives; at least, not many admit to it. But Smith reckoned it was the only strategy left to him. For some time he had been hawking around the quiz show - provisionally called Cash Mountain - devised by Briggs, Knight and Whitehill. Marcus Plantin, Liddiment's predecessor, was one of the many industry suits who rejected Cash Mountain.

But Claudia Rosencrantz, ITV's head of entertainment, liked the idea and pitched it to Liddiment shortly after his arrival. Liddiment was intrigued by the notion of letting the contestant see the next question in advance. But surely not the multiple-choice answers, too? That was going way too far.

Smith's mission on 8 April was to eliminate Liddiment's misgivings. Boldly he asked the ITV boss, whom he barely knew, to empty his wallet on to his desk. It contained £230 in cash. Smith then asked him to stake his own money on the game, and if he lost it, not to claim it back as a business expense. Liddiment agreed and added an IOU to make it up to £250. Smith duly plonked his £250 envelope on the desk, took out his by now rather dog-eared flip-chart and unveiled the first question:

What would an Aborigine do with his wurley? Would he:

a) eat it?

b) hunt with it?

c) play it?

d) live in it?

Liddiment opted to phone a friend - Rosencrantz. Then he asked for 50-50. Eventually he plumped for answer d). He was right. He had doubled his money.

So Smith took out the £500 envelope and offered him the next question. What was the length in feet of the Titanic? Liddiment pondered whether to ask the audience - in the shape of the secretaries outside his office - but eventually decided to stick with his winnings, which he later gave to charity. Looking back, he could afford to.

Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? - as it was quickly retitled - has garnered audiences of up to 20 million, which has helped trigger off a series of bonuses for top ITV executives. The process will continue apace on Christmas Day, when the show dominates the ITV schedule. On that 8 April, however, Liddiment simply wiped the sweat from his brow and tucked £500 into his wallet. The most successful quiz show in the history of television was born.

It had been conceived three years earlier, in that Covent Garden wine bar where, as was their wont, Briggs, Knight and Whitehill were merrily discussing quiz-show formats. In the Eighties they had worked together at Capital Radio, coming up with ideas for Chris Tarrant's Breakfast Show. They were now employed by Celador, writing jokes for Jasper Carrott and trying to dream up quiz formats. Two, Gibberish with Kenny Everett and PSI with Tarrant, had sunk without trace into the scheduling swamp of daytime television.

Briggs liked the idea of contestants making life-changing decisions in front of a camera - an uncommon scenario in TV light entertainment, in which the nearest thing to a momentous choice was which celebrity to ask for help on Blankety Blank - Wendy Richard or Joe Pasquale? He was also attracted by the notion of doubling contestants' winnings as a way of reaching a huge sum of money very quickly.

But they would need help, otherwise they might quit too soon. Knight and Whitehill decided to add "lifelines" and toyed with various options. Perhaps contestants could consult a panel of well-known brainboxes, such as Carol Vorderman, Patrick Moore or even Stephen Hawking? Or reject a question and ask for a replacement? After much debate, they settled on the three lifelines now indelibly inked into popular culture from Manchester to Minnesota to Malaysia - 50-50; ask the audience; and phone a friend. As for the all-important job of building up the tension, there was only ever one serious contender: Tarrant.

Briggs, Knight and Whitehill were delighted when Smith came back with the news that Liddiment wanted the show. But the commission still represented a huge gamble for ITV and particularly Celador, which had already suffered a cruel blow when three of its most successful productions, The Detectives, Talking Telephone Numbers and The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna, came to an end at around the same time.

The first series could conceivably cost millions in prize money alone, with no guarantee of decent ratings. Smith asked Liddiment to share the responsibility for bankrolling the first series, relatively small beer for ITV, but a brewery's-worth of potential trouble for Celador.

The media conglomerate Avesco owned half of Celador; the other half was divided between Smith, his wife and his old friend Jasper Carrott. Smith decided that the bleakest scenario was a loss of £1m. He would be liable for half that sum, and reassured Avesco that if the worst happened he, his wife and Carrott would hand over £500,000-worth of their shareholding. He would thus lose control of the company he had founded in 1983. And it would have been no joke for Carrott, either. "Jasper was very trusting," Smith recalls.

For a while, things looked grim. The pilot show, made just 10 days before transmission proper, was a mess. The lighting and music were decidedly iffy.

Tarrant kept saying "call" a friend, instead of "phone" a friend. And in the ensuing days the phone lines - the means of funding the prize money - were much quieter than Smith anticipated. Even though he was selling something that still did not exist, he had hoped that people might call. Yet after an initial flurry of interest, the calls dropped off. "That was when I told my wife and kids that I was taking one of the greatest gambles of my professional life," Smith says. "We live in a beautiful house in Surrey, but the mortgage is funded by Celador dividends. I had to tell my family that we would probably have to move somewhere smaller."

The first Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? was broadcast on 4 September 1998. The problems with the lighting and the music, based around the sound of a beating heart, had been sorted out in the nick of time. And in a stroke of scheduling genius, Liddiment had decided that the first 10 shows should go out on consecutive nights. Millionaire was not quite an overnight sensation, but it was rapidly becoming clear that ITV had something big on its hands. And with more clever scheduling, that something big has grown into a behemoth.

"Apart from major sporting events, it is the ultimate mass-viewing experience of our time," Liddiment tells me. "And it has come at a time when it is fashionable to write the obituaries of traditional broadcast television. In America they are more than half-written."

Ah yes, America. The show was optioned by an ABC executive called Michael Davies, who has the good fortune to be British and had heard from relatives about ITV's new quiz-show phenomenon. Understandably, most Americans cannot believe it originated anywhere further east than New York, and David Briggs himself compares Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? to McDonald's and Coca-Cola: "At least in that its image and format are very carefully controlled. It has been licensed in 51 countries, and every broadcaster is given a Millionaire bible," Whitehill interjects. "Only sometimes we call it the Koran."

We are chatting in Paul Smith's office at Celador. The shelves are littered with awards for Millionaire (including a Comedy Award, which is ironic, because they never got one for writing comedy), and we are musing on the show's runaway transatlantic success. "Never mind taking coals to Newcastle," says Briggs, "we have sold light entertainment to the Americans. We ought to get the Queen's Award for Export."

He is right. Indeed, when Smith visited Los Angeles recently, he was accorded an extraordinary welcome. As he was ushered into the office of ABC's chief, Stu Bloomberg, Bloomberg and his fellow executives knelt down before him and bowed their heads. They had good reason. Throughout the Nineties, NBC's Thursday-night schedule, pivoting around America's top-rated shows ER and Seinfeld, has come to symbolise the network's dominance. NBC's 9pm comedy slot, occupied first by Cheers, then Seinfeld and now Frasier, has for years been considered inviolable. But America's version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? - hosted by Regis Philbin, roughly their equivalent of Richard Madeley, and whose teeth, according to Whitehill, are "beyond white" - has been walloping Frasier in the sacred ratings.

With the thrice-weekly Millionaire as the lynchpin of its scheduling, ABC is poised to win next year's ratings war, and with it, vast advertising revenue. ABC is owned by Disney, which has been having a rough time recently. Briggs, Knight, Whitehill and Smith could yet be the men to give Mickey Mouse his smile back. In the meantime, America's other networks are seriously flustered. "A top NBC programmer told me that he is losing sleep every night," says Bill Carter. Until Millionaire came along, American TV sages reckoned that the quiz show, as a major ratings-grabber, was defunct. But suddenly quiz shows are hot again, while enthusiasm for comedy is rapidly cooling.

In desperation, Fox has come up with a Millionaire lookalike called Greed; NBC has revived Twenty-One (which fell off the air after a rigging scandal 41 years ago); and ABC has bought our own Mastermind format, while CBS has snapped up another British show, the National Lottery bolt-on Winning Lines, from a rich little company, getting richer by the day, called Celador. Yet Millionaire continues to reign supreme over there. And its popularity was bolstered recently with the first $1m winner. Here, there has yet to be a £1m winner.

"When it finally happens, it will be electrifying," says David Briggs. "It will be the television moment you just can't miss." Perhaps it will happen on Christmas Day. That would round off the miracle nicely.

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