Chris Tarrant is one of the best-known faces on British television. His current high profile is very obviously attributable to the phenomenal success of the quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, but his career was already in great shape long before Millionaire ever appeared on our screens. After leaving Birmingham University, where he read English, Chris worked for some time as a teacher. Despite having a respectable job, circumstances left him nearly homeless and for several months he actually had to live in a van near the school where he worked. Legend has it that he even received mail addressed to ‘161 GLO, Sprules Road, London SE4’, the number being the vehicle’s registration.
Eventually Chris tired of teaching and began to look for more inspiring employment. He set his sights on a television career, but his approach to job hunting was unorthodox to say the least. The trademark enthusiasm and energy that remain such a visible part of his style today were channelled into a letter writing campaign. Chris wrote to television companies insisting that he was “the face of the 70s” and pretty much threatening that they risked losing him and the fantastic opportunity he represented unless they acted quickly. Astonishingly, this bizarre and arrogant approach worked, and Chris was invited to audition for Midlands TV company ATV.
The rest, as they say, is history, but a couple of high points do bear special mention. In the mid-1970s Chris became a cult hero, fronting Tiswas on Saturday morning television. Although officially a children’s show, Tiswas achieved remarkable popularity amongst adults, and the show endured well into the ‘80s. Chris continued to enjoy great popularity when he moved to London’s Capital Radio, where he made the coveted breakfast show slot his own from 1987 to 2004.
For a man who has no great interest in cars, Chris Tarrant is certainly a great source of number plate stories. The tale of Chris’s 161 GLO postal address is widely circulated on the Internet, and is featured in the Wikipedia article about him. Chris’s love of fishing is also a matter of public record, and it was that which brought about our interview with him at Elstree Studios, where he was filming new episodes of Millionaire. The idea of a personal number plate quite appealed to Chris but he didn’t want anything too obvious or egocentric.
“I never particularly wanted anything like CT 1 or CT anything for that matter. It’s a bit too flash and I don’t particularly want everyone driving past to know it’s me. I do know people who have personal number plates: Tarby, Paul Daniels, Diddy (DJ David Hamilton) and, of course, my old lady. I do know quite a few actually. I remember a bloke years ago, he was called Colin Tailor and he had a number - CT something – and he asked me if I wanted to buy it for £500. I said no, not really – but it would be all right now, wouldn’t it? But I do have this great love of fishing, and it sort of seemed that a fishing themed number plate would be really good fun.”
A personal number plate for a keen angler… That was quite a challenge, even for the UK’s largest car registrations dealer, but Regtransfers had number plates that Chris thought were just right: CHU 8B to represent one of the most popular freshwater fish, the chub. As we give him the plates, Chris doesn’t think that all his family and friends will see the appeal quite as he does. “I’m sure they will go, ‘Oh for Christ’s sake, you’ve finally flipped haven’t you’. Ingrid (Chris’s wife) wouldn’t know one end of a chub from another. She’ll have no idea what it is!”
The fishing isn’t just a peripheral interest for Chris Tarrant, it is a major obsession – a real passion. “It started when my granddad took me fishing on the Thames for perch when I was about four. I was hooked for life.” Chris keeps a straight face as he delivers the pun. “And my dad was a keen fisherman as well, so I have always fished.
“I can’t imagine my life without fishing. I have met lots of people who have become really good, close friends over 30 or 40 years. Ingrid says that most of my mates only ever talk about fishing, but I think that’s good! Surely better than talking about television and radio and the rather unreal world I inhabit for a living. So, most of my mates - my hard-core mates - are fishermen.
“I just love it all. I fish on the rivers in this country a lot. I fish on the Kennet a lot, I fish on the Avon a lot. There’s always some sort of fishing rod in my car, telescopic or whatever, so if I’m filming for a couple of weeks, well, if I get finished early in the evening I can just drive off and fish. There’s always somewhere you can go, and it just chills me out.”
So, an experienced angler must have some great traditional style fisherman’s tales, mustn’t he? “I’ve caught some very big carp. I caught a 30 pound carp in 1976 when nobody was catching big carp. That was a huge fish and I caught two of them that year, and it was unheard of. They’re a lot more common now.”
Chris hits his stride, and tales of the hunt emerge with great enthusiasm. “The biggest fish I ever caught on rod and line was a 200 pound halibut off the west coast of Canada. It was like playing the monster of the deep and it just beat me up - completely beat me up - for about an hour and a half. My body, my biceps, my chest, were literally battered black and blue. In the end I didn’t particularly want the 200 pound halibut, but I thought, ‘I am not going to let this bloody thing go’!”
“We finally got it to the surface and took a load of photos, but then we just took the hooks out and put it back. They all thought I was crazy, and said, ‘We can’t believe you’re putting a fish like that back!’, but what was I going to do with a 200 pound halibut 8000 miles away from home? I do like halibut to eat, and a nice little 30 pounder would have been great, but this thing was ridiculous, so we put it back. So, in the end they all cheered and were proud of me for doing my bit for conservation. In fact, we put most fish back these days.”
Fishing has been an important and constant feature of Chris’s life since childhood – something which has, no doubt provided some stability and reassurance at the various crossroads in his winding career path. Considering how much of a fixture he seems to be on our TV screens these days, it comes as something of a surprise that Chris was less than confident that he would have a long-term television career – despite the bluff and bluster of the cheeky letters that earned him his first audition. “I didn’t really expect or intend to stay. I certainly didn’t think they would want me to stay very long - and when you consider that I’ve been doing it for 30-odd years now, it seems quite weird! “I was so laid back about it. It was like, ‘Oh well, I’ve done driving lorries, I’ve done painting, I’ve done hod carrying, I’ve taught for a year… so this year I’ll try being on the telly or something!’ It really was very much like that.” One of the causes of Chris’s early uncertainty about his move into television was how unsuited he seemed to be for news reading, which was one of his first roles. “I’m sure I wasn’t a very good news reader, and not a very good reporter. I would interview politicians, mayors and councillors and I’d be thinking, ‘I don’t like you. Your lips are moving, so I know you’re lying…’ I’ve never really changed my mind on that. In fact, I think I would have just disappeared if Tiswas hadn’t come along.”
Tiswas was a phenomenon, and it was with that vehicle for his anarchic sense of humour that Chris became a household name, and a cult TV hero to children and adults alike. “It came out of nowhere, and for me it was like manna from heaven. It took off and just went through the roof, becoming this huge cult programme. I suppose it was like being one of the Goodies, or the Python team, or the Not the Nine o’ Clock News lot, or whatever. It was great; we just came to know each other so well. I mean, Sally James is godmother to my kids and I’m godfather to one of hers. I see Lenny Henry quite a lot. John Gorman still lives around. Bob Carolgees is on the phone quite often. He’s another fishing nut!
“So we just went through this weird experience together, it was a bit like being in a band, we kind of grew together and saw all this huge public recognition. Yes, it was like being in a band - we were all young and pretty, and girls were swooning all over us. Seriously, God, it was hell! “We used to do the road shows. The tours were like rock concerts and we sold out everywhere. It was fantastic. As soon as we finished a series about April, we would go straight on the road for about 30 nights, and that was brilliant. They were great days, and when I actually left, well, I just smelt of custard, my whole body smelt of custard, my car smelt of custard!”
Why did Chris leave Tiswas? After all, it really was an astonishing success. “I never got fed up with it, I just felt it was time to move on. I wanted to get away from that children’s presenter thing because once you get stuck with that it is hard to shift it. Ant and Dec have managed it, Philip Schofield’s done it now - but it took him a long time. A lot of people sink without a trace. So we wanted to move on while we still could. I’m still very fond of Tiswas, and I have great memories of it.”
The move from children’s television took Chris a bit further than he had anticipated. In fact, for a while it took him away from television altogether. “What happens is that there are some phone calls that completely change your life. The one about Tiswas was obviously one. It was like ‘we’re doing this little show on Saturday mornings; would you be interested?’ That completely changed the direction of my life. Then in 1984 I had a phone call from a radio station I was only vaguely aware of. It was Capital Radio in London and I was still working in the Midlands, so I didn’t really know it. I’d never done radio. I’d never been on radio. I’d never been in a radio station. I knew Kenny Everett quite well and I knew Aspel, but I thought, ‘I just do telly, that’s what I do’.
“I went down to do a pilot and I thought it was great: get a pile of records, witter on a bit between the songs, in the pub at 2 o’clock - fantastic. So I did the Sunday show for Capital Radio for about three months, called Lunday Sunchtime, and I thought it was a doddle.
“After a year, Nigel Walmsley, the boss there at Capital, said to me ‘We’re thinking of renewing your contract’. Now this would have been 1988. Nigel said that the first year had been very good. He said that they’d like me to do the breakfast show and that they were prepared to increase my salary. I asked how long a contract they had in mind and Nigel said that they’d like to do it the way they do in America – which meant that he wanted me to sign up for ten years. I said, ‘Nigel Walmsley, if you think I will still be doing the Capital Breakfast Show in 1998 you must be mad’. Well in actual fact I left in 2004. They could have saved themselves a fortune!”
Chris is very proud of his time at Capital. “I did seventeen years of it. It was a tough market and we continued to dominate. I loved it… I just hated getting out of bed.”
September 1998 saw the launch of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the innovative quiz show, which has raised Chris’s profile to heights that most TV presenters can only dream of. The show was an instant smash hit and quickly became the biggest British game show of all time. Surely this extra level of fame must have changed Chris. “I don’t think it has affected me at all. People always say to Ingrid ‘Has all this success changed your husband’, and she says, ‘The problem with Tarrant is he hasn’t changed for twenty years!’ I think she says it in a warm way, but I’m sure there are bits of me that she would like to change.”
We have all done that thing where we shout at the television screen when the Millionaire contestant is stumped by an incredibly easy question. How does Chris restrain himself when faced with someone who seems unable to answer very simple questions?“It’s my job, isn’t it – but inside I’m going, ‘you must know that, for Christ’s sake… for three hundred quid you must know that’. But then, sometimes a £300 question will come up and I’m thinking, ‘you poor sod, I haven’t got a clue either’! With me it would be something like computer stuff. My kids would know the answer, but I wouldn’t have a clue.
“The night that Judith Keppel won the first million, the next guy on had a situation like that. I’ve never forgotten this: he was a nice bloke, a young teacher, and at £100 his question was, ‘what must you not throw out with the bath water? Is it baby, potato peelings, shaving foam or the cat?’ and he looked at me and said, ‘I have no idea. I’ve never heard of this in my life and I really, really don’t know’. Well I pointed out that he had three lifelines, but he just didn’t want to use one of them on a £100 question. I told him, ‘Well if you get it wrong, mate, you’re going home!’ He looked at it and went, ‘God, it must be baby, mustn’t it? Baby - final answer!’ He really didn’t know, and he actually went on to win something like £64,000. It was a sweet moment, an amazing night.”
Does Chris find interviews a chore? He must do a lot of them. “No, not really. I think I’m immune to it. I have days when I work and days when I don’t work. So, if I’m Millionairing. I might do ten interviews that day as well as the show. I’ll get here for ten and just do stuff all day; you know, do everything I’ve got to do so that next day I can go off fishing or take the kids out. That way, my other days can just be taken out of the diary and they are free. That works quite well, otherwise there’s always something. “I try and avoid going into London like the plague. I just don’t want to go in any more. What with all the traffic, the parking and the congestion charges, I just don’t go in. Fortunately, I can work from my house hidden out in the middle of Berkshire, or I can work here in the studios.”
So the Regtransfers interview hasn’t been too much of a nuisance?
“Well, for me your service was very organised and very unpushy, which I quite like as I can’t stand people pestering me. We think you might like this, if you don’t, no hard feelings, tell us, and I think you have been organised and the back-up has been really good, so I was happy to do the interview. Although, now you come to ask, your photographer’s a bit strange… “But seriously, it’s been really good. No b*llocks, it’s been great!” Well, what can we say? It’s been great for us too. Thanks very much, Chris!
Interview by Len Stout
Photography by Stan Thompson
© 2006 Regtransfers