Who Wants to be a Millionaire

Saturday, September 4, 1999 by

This could be your last chance to catch an empty-the-pubs television programme. Who Wants to be a Millionaire is event-telly, it’s on the agenda of workplace and playground conversation, Chris Tarrant is the Bernard Quatermass of the ’90s whether you like it or not. And you probably don’t.

But with the great mass of viewers being ever more fractured by satellite, digital and cable programming it takes something special to unite us all nowadays, and get us swearing in unison. This could well be the last programme that does it too, so I reckon you should enjoy it while it lasts.

There’s more than a soupçon of guilt attached to watching Who Wants to be a Millionaire; you can’t quite shrug off the feeling that really you should be partaking of something more nourishing – something classy. And there’s so many reasons not to watch it. So many reasons why ‘Millionaire should be bad. Taking the most embarrassing first, put these four factors ofWho Wants to be a Millionaire in order. Remember, fastest finger first: A) It’s hosted by Chris Tarrant. B) It’s on ITV. C) It’s a gameshow. D) It’s about greed. Yet, and yet, we watch. Initially perhaps, with that sense of superiority, that irony which permits you to look in on Blind Date orGladiators. But within a couple of episodes you’ll be having your tea in front of the telly. Because the thing is, although you may not like to admit it, ‘Millionaire is actually good television. It’s soundly crafted, with tension that grabs you by the jaffas and inexorably squeezes them tighter and tighter. There’s jeopardy and there’s cliffhangers. And there’s irrational prejudice.

And the greatest of these is irrational prejudice.

As with Late Night Poker, ‘Millionaire provokes a subterranean monologue of bile within the viewer, and it’s great fun. To set yourself against a contestant because of his coarse punch-the-air mannerisms. To declare, as we are introduced one after the other to the detritus of humanity who ‘phoned in to be on the programme, “He’s on the dole. He’s probably a social-worker. Middle manager. Dole-ite. Middle manager. Receptionist. Benefits fraudster …” Or, of course, we may root for a contestant for reasons just as arbitrary. Who wasn’t urging on Jonathan Green tonight as he made his way to the £250,000 simply because he was a fireman and he looked quite presentable? Decent bloke. Go on my son! You can’t help but get involved in ‘Millionaire, taking some sort of stake in the unfolding narrative.

Of course, there’s other factors at play here as well. Others that result in your complete absorption into the programme. We can’t underestimate that wish-fulfillment factor. Just like an unhappy 1970s prepube on the borders of adolescence fantasizing about “breaking-out” and becoming one of the Tomorrow People, we sit and watch Who Wants to be a Millionaireshadowing every step the contestant makes, wondering what we would do if we were in that place. Wishing we were. It’s Jim’ll Fix It telly.

Like I said, Who Wants to be a Millionaire is event-television and yet curiously The Event has yet to happen. I want to be there when someone does win that million. That, of course, is what we’re waiting for, and that above anything else provides the programme with its momentum. And we’ll stay with it as it trundles along. We’ll be waiting. Waiting to be a part of that event before we naff off back to our middle management jobs, or return to defrauding the Benefits System.


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