Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Jeremy Clarkson feels the hate
TV Review: The new host – self-aware, regretful, helpful – doesn’t seem quite himself
The world was a different place in 1998. The Good Friday Agreement gave us hope for lasting peace in Northern Ireland. The US president was embroiled in a sex scandal. Jeremy Clarkson left Top Gear to make it as a chat show host. The new Nokia 5510 came with a game called Snake. Two students set up a small tech company called Google. And a million pounds was a lot of money.
Within this cultural maelstrom, people tended to while away their free time watching complex quiz shows, with a particular alchemy that transformed knowledge into glory.
University Challenge gave students buzzers and a collegiate sense of honour. Mastermind let Mensa-grade experts sweat it out for the grand prize of a cutglass bowl. And then along came a show that didn’t want to give you that.
A simple, achingly stylised, money-grubbing exercise in psychological manipulation, presented by an ebullient DJ who learned to keep a poker face, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? provided the viewer with a ladder towards a million pounds, built on multiple choice, general knowledge questions.
If the questions proved too difficult, a series of easing lifelines was available, from asking the audience, losing two of the four options, or phoning any friend not too occupied with Snake.
Over the next 16 years, it created just five millionaires (not counting one disqualified for cheating, and including one who was already rich), but mushroomed into an international franchise that would forever changed the way people estimated their certainty. (I’m 90 per cent sure about that.)
Now, for its 20th anniversary, WWTBAM? (ITV, Sat-Friday, 9pm) is back for one nostalgic week, presented by millionaire reactionary Jeremy Clarkson.
From its earliest moments, as the show’s famously immutable format yields to some new tricks, this announces a curious contradiction: a programme willing to advance with the times, presented by a man who will never ever change.
“Literally no one in the world knows what these are anymore,” Clarkson tells his first ever contestant, gnawing on his words, holding out a cheque for £1,000. Ripping it apart faster than he would a Top Gear producer, Clarkson now explains that the money will be transferred electronically, which is sensible, at the expense of a visual element.
For that, though, we still have the set – a yawning void of darkness, alleviated by hopeful ribbons in magenta and blue, where the answer buttons glow gold and green – and, of course, the endlessly fascinating, quintessentially British display of human struggle and excruciating public failure.
“I really want to say Rey,” one contestant says, angling desperately for a hint.
The surprising thing about Clarkson, for all his bloated curmudgeonry, is that the man really wants to help.
So much so, in fact, that a new lifeline, Ask the Host, even allows him do precisely that, or, as with last night’s broadcast, the precise opposite.
When a contestant he repeatedly refers to as “a policeman-woman” (Whatever next? Women prime ministers?) asks for his assistance identifying the hat featured in Magritte’s Son of Man, familiar to anyone who has ever seen a postcard, Clarkson goes with “beret” – because France.
“So, I have just cost you seven grand,” Clarkson realises, as her winnings crumble. “There’s a horrible, horrible cold atmosphere,” he reports. “I can feel the word ‘hate’ being stencilled on my back by the audience and I don’t blame them.”
C’mon, Jeremy, surely you must be used to that by now. It’s a rare thing, though, to see Clarkson recognise and even regret the consequence of his actions.
On the evidence of the new series, he may appreciate that Britain now looks as conservative as he does. Most contestants cap their hopes at way below the million pound mark, at which Clarkson recycles the same joke (Example: “It’s not called who wants a new loft conversion!”).
In these Brexit times, though, it’s hard to suppress the schadenfreude – (a) rueful delight, (b) guilty pleasure, (c) cordial regret, (d) innocent shame – of seeing so many contestants, the host squarely included, undone by the merest appreciation of European culture, from the name of Greek gods to the hats in Belgian art.
For the show, once called Britain’s most successful export since the Beatles, that isolation has consequence for the prize itself.
Adjusted for inflation and the declining British pound, a winner in 1998 would now be worth £1.73m. But it’s not called Who Wants to be a Millionaire Nearly Twice Over?
So today, in the utterly unlikely event someone goes all the way, the show will electronically transfer an amount that is worth much less. Some quizzes have all the luck.