Twenty years after it first appeared, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? is back for a brief, week-long anniversary run on ITV —with only a few small amendments to the near-perfect original formula. Along with 50/50, Ask the Audience and Phone a Friend, you also get the option to Ask the Host. Given that the presenter is now Jeremy Clarkson (replacing Chris Tarrant) this is an option as risky as it is amusing.
As Clarkson cheerfully explained in the first show: ‘If it’s 1970s prog rock I’ll probably know the answer. If it’s anything other than that I probably won’t.’ The first contestant to test this theory was flummoxed by a question about which county cricket club is based at the Oval. Clarkson declared that he hates and despises cricket more than any other sport except perhaps golf. But then helpfully ruled out Hampshire for geographical reasons, and hazarded he had a vague idea — 60/40, he reckoned — that it was more likely to be Surrey than Middlesex.
Despite the help of this unexpectedly correct guess, the contestant didn’t get even close to the million-pound mark. (Clarkson was unimpressed by his lack of ambition: ‘You do realise this is Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, not Who Wants To Pay For A New Loft Extension?’) Neither did the next two, both of whom crashed out with just the £1,000 consolation prize — which, as Clarkson sympathetically reminded her, was barely enough to cover her train fare back home from the Manchester studios.
Clarkson is a livelier host than Tarrant — funnier, more inclined to take the piss, and quicker to move on through those tedious low-value early questions that make vintage episodes so excruciating to watch.
The other thing that has changed since the late 1990s, besides our shortened attention spans, is that general knowledge has got much, much more popular. I’m not saying that the nation as a whole has got brighter, just the quizzing elite. There are now many more Judith Keppel-level contestants capable of reaching the £1-million mark. Which is why, I notice, they’ve had to make the questions markedly harder. On the original version, for example, that question about Vitamin B9 would have been at least at the £16,000 level. In the new one, it was wortha measly £4,000.
We watch a lot of quizzes in our household because they’re the only genre that none of us hates. Obviously, we love Pointless, The Chase and Eggheads, as well as more niche daytime ones like the tragically addictive Tipping Point. But our new family favourite is Only Connect which, like so many of the things that have ever been great on TV (from Peep Show to Countdown), spent years trundling on in cultish obscurity before everyone finally realised what genius it is.
One of the things that’s brilliant about Only Connect (whose finale to the recent season 13 was watched by an impressive 2.4 million viewers) is its absolute integrity. Presenter Victoria Coren’s jokes are relentlessly, heroically crap. The question labels are gorgeously pretentious (eye of Horus, twisted flax, horned viper…), the teams shamelessly nerdy, the questions — about making connections between apparently disparate things — fiendishly tricky. And the bits where Coren gets the players to sing are like being broken on a wheel. But this is why we watch. It’s the Jacob Rees-Mogg of TV quiz shows: authentic, admirable, adorable because it so resolutely refuses to be anything it’s not. This is what it’s like inthe gifted and talented classroom, where all the weird kids are finally free to be themselves. Long may it stay that way!
But in this uncertain world nothing is a given, as we’ve seen with University Challenge. For years, decades even, this was the one programme in the week I never missed. Now, I don’t bother. Nor does quiz-obsessed Boy. Nor does the Fawn. Why? Because some fat-headedly right-on producer has got it into his snowflake head that the job of a quiz show is not to entertain and challenge with questions we all like to have a stab at from the sofa at home, but rather to foment social justice.
The questions have all been reconfigured to give them a ‘better gender balance’. So instead of just questions about historically significant males you’ve barely heard of, our time and patience is now wasted by ones about historically marginal females you’ve never heard of. Your starter for ten: ‘Which now unbearable TV quiz programme has been ruined for ever by political correctness?’