Chris Tarrant – In Conversation

For over forty years writer and broadcaster Chris Tarrant has remained on the forefront of British entertainment whether on radio or television. Starting his career as a newsreader for ATV Today in 1972 alongside Bob Warman and Anne Diamond, Tarrant quickly became comfortable in front of the camera and thrived on the fast paced style of live television. This was the era when Breakfast television was still considered a new phenomenon and daytime TV was merely a pipe dream. Tasked with covering the more light hearted stories, Chris found himself traveling all over the country in the quest to get right to the heart of a story. For a young broadcaster this was an invaluable introduction to the world of television and gave Chris the basic tools and techniques for a life in British broadcasting.

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Just two years later, the ATV Network Limited launched the long awaited children’s entertainment series which would attempt to rival the BBC’s Multicoloured Swap Shop. Originally hired as a producer on TISWAS, it wasn’t long before Chris was promoted to presenter alongside Sally James and Lenny Henry. Being the only member of the team with broadcasting experience, it fell to Chris to anchor the programme. Yet it could be said that this was about as far removed from the serious nature of ATV Today, instead it was unorganised chaos and the only structure came when they were forced to adhere to the commercial break format. Going up against Noel and Swap Shop was an enjoyable experience for all the TISWAS team but they soon became conscious that there was a significant geographical divide between them. Generally, children from the south tended to favour Swap Shop while northern kids would opt for TISWAS. For over eight years Chris, Lenny and Sally welcomed the biggest stars in the world to join in the fun which centred around allowing children to get one over on adults. Classic sketches including Lenny reading the news with Trevor McDonald have become part of the national psyche and despite his considerable accomplishments, TISWAS remains the first subject that people are eager to quiz Chris about. It’s clear that this remains one of his greatest achievements in a long and glittering career.


Not content with conquering the art of television, Chris joined Capital Radio in 1984 initially chairing the Sunday luncheon programme before replacing David Jensen on weekday mornings. From March 1987 until April 2004 he presented the breakfast show to critical acclaim which frequently beat his major rivals; Terry Wogan and The Radio 1 Breakfast Show. To present a daily radio show for over fifteen years and consistently be in the running for the most listened to show in the country is no mean feat. This is testimony to Chris’s talent as a broadcaster in breaking down the discourse of presenter and audience and make it feel extremely personal to each and every listener. As a Breakfast presenter, you have specific responsibilities which are unique to early morning radio such as traffic updates and newspaper reviews. Therefore it falls to the Breakfast presenter to make seamless transitions between each item and while others see this as an infringement on their individual style, Chris relished the opportunity to make his links as engaging as possible. Despite his vast television credentials, this remains one of Chris’s greatest achievements.


Maintaining his television presence in 1991, Chris inherited Clive James’ On Television and thus launched Tarrant On TV which celebrated the bizarre and wackiness of television around the world. Attempting to always find the fine line between gentle jostling and xenophobia, Chris saw his role as merely a reporter tasked with presiding over the footage. Any derogatory observations were completely created by the audience and for over ten years this was the winning formula of the series. This was one of the first programmes to explore alternative television from all over the world and gave an insight into how other countries tackled different types of entertainment. In an age before YouTube, Tarrant On TV became one of the only outlets for hilarious, outrageous videos and spawned a whole host of replica shows including the BBC’s Commercial Breakdown, yet they failed to recreate the magic of Tarrant’s original show. Maybe because of Chris’s unique connection with the British public?


A switch to the BBC in 1994 to replace fellow DJ Mike Read for the early evening Pop Quiz was new territory for Chris as for the first time he wasn’t part of the production team. Despite being surrounded by some of the biggest music in the world, taking over an already established show was something that Chris found difficult. For Chris to feel at home on a show, he’s required to take charge over every aspect and being merely the new presenter, the dynamics didn’t work. After just nine episodes, Chris decided to call it a day on Pop Quiz and promptly returned to ITV for the Saturday night game show Man O’ Man. This was a dating show which was years before it’s time with the same philosophy as Tinder but with a lot less anonymity. Each week ten eligible bachelors would stand beside a swimming pool hoping to impress the lucky girl. As merely an observer and commentator, Chris found it extraordinary to see how women behaved when coming face to face with the subject of their sexual desires. If they could conquer the final round and outdo model Kevin with a display of moving their muscles in time with this music then they would be in for winning the all important star prize. So important that we’ve forgotten what it was! Despite its bizarre format, Chris loved doing Man O’ Man and was sad when it came to an end in 1999.


Just a year before the final series of Man O’ Man, Chris’s producer at Capital, David Briggs came to him with an idea for a new game show. Fifteen multiple choice questions with four possible answers which led to a substantial jackpot giveaway. They had already played around with a similar format on the radio show but now were looking to launch it on a wider scale. Who Wants To Be a Millionaire was first broadcasted on the 4th September 1998 to huge audiences as everyone sat intrigued as contestants chosen by who had the fastest finger, attempted to answer questions under a significant spotlight and tense music. Adhering to ITV’s commercial break structure, Chris realised that he had the power to prolong the tension by going to a break when someone had just said “final answer”. At first the producers were extremely apprehensive as to how easily the contestants would answer all fifteen questions. Yet when they were under pressure of being live on television in front of a studio audience, spotlights and music, it was so difficult to find the right answer.


Just five people went on to claim the jackpot, the first being Judith Keppel in 2000 who went on to be a successful television personality in her own right, appearing on BBC2’s Eggheads. Yet it wasn’t just the general public who thought they could win the jackpot. Over the years an array of stars from Alan Sugar, Carol Vorderman to Alex Ferguson and Paul McCartney had the chance to test their general knowledge and attempt to win a million pounds for their chosen charities. By the show’s sign off in 2014, more than 1,200 members of the public sat in the hotseat with prize money totalling £7,782,000.


In 2017 Chris found himself back on the road in Channel Five’s Extreme Railway Journeys. For this he travels all over the world experiencing how other countries use railway systems and there’s more to come in 2018. It was a great pleasure catching up with the great Chris Tarrant and long may he reign over our airwaves.