Me - I Want To Be A Millionaire! (part 1)
‘Is that your final answer?’
Those words, so familiar to TV audiences regularly gripped by the nail-biting tension of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, had now become a very real and immediate nightmare. This was the moment I had longed for, yet simultaneously dreaded, for nearly four years. I was actually sitting in that famous hot seat, facing the implacable stare of Chris Tarrant. I had just successfully answered the £16,000 question, and now had to make an agonising decision. Should I play safe? Or should I gamble on my instincts being correct and reaching the safe haven of a guaranteed £32,000 – but, in so doing, risk being wrong and losing nearly everything?
I hadn’t come all this way to turn back now. ‘Final answer Chris,’ I replied, and saw it turn orange....
I had been trying to get on Millionaire almost since it began, back in 1998. I would regularly phone the contestant hotline, answering a simple multiple choice question and indicating my preferred recording date, then waiting to be called back. This is where, for most Millionaire wannabes, reality first sets in. The odds against being selected as one of the hundred shortlisted contestants for each show are immense. But perseverance paid off and, on Monday, September 30, 2002, out of the blue came a call from a researcher at Celador, the production company responsible for bringing the show to air.
My mind was a whirl as I listened to a bewildering litany of rules and conditions for contestants on the show. I knew that my chances of actually appearing were now a more achievable one in ten; but everything hinged on the all-important ‘nearest to’ question that is used to select those who will make it through. My question, when it came, was: ‘What is the area of Barbados in square miles?’ I gave what I hoped sounded like a sensible answer, after which I was told I would be contacted the following day if my answer proved to be one of the ten nearest.
The next 24 hours dragged like none I can remember before. When, just after 4pm on Tuesday, the call came telling me I had made it, my first reaction was to let out a loud whoop, nearly deafening the researcher in the process. She laughed – they’re used to having this effect on people by now. There followed nearly half an hour of detailed instructions, from how to get to the studios to what I could (or, more to the point, couldn’t) wear on camera. Black is out; so is white; so are pale pastels or vivid primary colours; so is anything having a fine striped, checked or ribbed pattern. An impressively efficient set of arrangements had been made, including a chauffeur-driven car to collect me from Watford Junction station and a four-star hotel booked under a false name (to deflect press attention in the event of a big win on the show).
The recording was to take place two days later, on Thursday, October 3. You’re allowed to take one partner, friend or family member with you. Michael couldn’t be with me as he had a dress rehearsal for Annie at Rugby Theatre that night. But I knew my best friend Marc would love to go, so I called him at work on Tuesday afternoon; half an hour of negotiation with his bosses later, and they’d agreed to let him take Thursday and Friday off work.
Apart from working out what to wear, my biggest headache that night and next day was picking my phone-a-friends. You’re allowed a maximum of five; and, while I know plenty of people who are quiz fiends like me, I decided that simply choosing five people with a broad general knowledge wasn’t a good idea. How would I decide which of them to phone if I was flummoxed by a question on, say, history? Better to pick a group of people each covering one or more specialist areas, with as little overlap as possible.
There was an immediate snag. The one person whom I had always known would have to be on the list, in the event of my getting on the programme, was on holiday – staying with Bev and Graham in rural France. Steve Smith is passionate about opera – a subject of which I know virtually nothing - and would be invaluable if a question on that subject came up. As luck would have it, after 12 years in the Vendée, Bev and Graham had finally installed a phone in their cottage that summer, and Steve was contactable. Even more remarkably, when I called I discovered that they would be in on the evening in question. Things were looking up.
After a bit of juggling, my other phone friends fell into place: former colleague Al McQueen (sport); theatre chums Mary MacDonald (geography, religion, women’s literature) and John Francis (medicine, biochemistry); and my old mate from university, Ray Rumkee (whose breadth as well as depth of knowledge is phenomenal but who is particularly strong on history and literature – besides having the dubious distinction of being captain of the team that won the last ever series of the late, unlamented Noel Edmonds’ Telly Addicts).
Next: the big day dawns
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