Who Wants To Be A Millionaire (ITV, 1998-2014)
For many years, there were restrictions on the amount of money you could give away on British game shows. It seems a surprise now but as late as the early-90s contestants couldn’t win more than £5,000. But at the end of the 90s, these restrictions were finally lifted, meaning that shows could now give away as much as they liked.
This led to the inevitable of taking the idea to the extreme, why not create a game show where the star prize is a million pounds? What a good idea. A show was planned called Cash Mountain where contestants would have to answer 21 questions of increasing difficulty with increasing cash values starting at £1, and going all the way to £1,000,000. After some changes, the show was renamed Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and cut down to 15 questions. As well as the top prize, the show was also sold on the idea that contestants could see the options before they decided to gamble, so they could safely walk away with their money whenever they didn’t know the answer.
When the show launched on ITV in 1998 it practically became an overnight success. The show could be seen as the ultimate pub quiz machine, see a question with four possible answers and choose the right one to move up the money ladder. There was also three lifelines that could be used once if contestants got stuck which to led some famous catchphrases.
The way ITV scheduled the show was rather clever. Instead of showing the episodes weekly, they were shown daily for about a week. And with a contestant’s game able to continue into the next episode if they ran out of time, viewers didn’t need much persuading to come back the next day and see what happened and ITV were thrilled to have a huge hit on their hands.
One of the reasons for this was Chris Tarrant, who I think was an excellent choice of host. In the early-90s he used to host a feature on his Capital FM Breakfast Show called the Birthday Bonanza. The way he used to tease the contestants as to whether they had won the prize or not was remarkable, and this technique was used to great effect here with Chris superbly hosting the show and adding to the tension when needed. He was also helped by pioneering ideas such as the set design, graphics, and the terrific background music which created the right atmosphere and helped the show be such a success.
The idea really was that anybody could take part. There was the old saying “they’re only easy if you know them”, and people who always seemed to know the answers at home were encouraged to have a go. They would realise that actually being in the studio is a totally different experience. Would they be able to provide the answers when actually being in the chair and playing for the money? Would they be able to concentrate with Tarrant’s elderly face staring right at them? It was fascinating finding out.
For a few years the show was receiving very high ratings and the format was sold around the world, along with there being lots of merchandise including books and board games. They eventually found their first contestant who went all the way but although it was a great moment it did seem that the only way was down after that.
Changes started to be made to the show. After a while the number of questions was reduced to 12 and the money amounts altered, plus another lifeline was introduced. There were then endless celebrity specials and sadly the show stopped being the talk of viewers. The worst part was when they added the against the clock nonsense and barely any contestants could get themselves past the £50,000 mark. Even Chris Tarrant began to feel fatigued and when the show finally ran out of steam last year most people didn’t think that it was the wrong decision.
It was a great shame because Who Wants To Be A Millionaire revolutionised the game show genre and it must be remembered just how exciting the idea was at the time. Just about every game show made since owes a debt and it was a show that I always enjoyed watching that deserves to be remembered as one of the most successful of its era.