Chris Tarrant at the Chiswick Book Festival 2023

Image above: Chris Tarrant; Photograph Bridget Osborne

‘It’s Not a Proper Job’

Chris Tarrant was at the Chiswick Book Festival this year promoting his book It’s Not a Proper job. He was a teacher before he started the media career which led him to present ITV children’s show Tiswas (1974 – 81), his Capital Radio show (1984 – 2004) and Who Wants to be a Millionaire? (1998 – 2014). Imagine being one of his students. I bet his classes were a riot.

He belongs to the benign and silly school of broadcasting, along with Sir Terry Wogan, before reality TV introduced a strain of nastiness to live entertainment TV.  Like Terry Wogan he also did a lot of work for charity (Tarrant received an OBE for his work with disadvantaged children in 2004). They were both patrons of the Lord’s Taverners charity.

He told journalist and author Caroline Frost how Terry had “stitched me up like a kipper” on a night out supporting the charity.

“Terry was one of the kindest, funniest, silliest men. He was in his seventies and I was in my sixties and we both did early morning radio shows – I was on at 6am and he was on at 6.30am. We were at the Savoy, all done up, and started in on the port and brandy. It got to something like ten to three in the morning and girls were saying ‘come on, it’s time we went home’.

“I felt dreadful the next morning. I somehow managed to get to the radio station and get through the show. The only thing that was keeping me going was that somewhere on the other side of London was an older man [Terry was eight years older] no doubt in worse shape than I was, also having to get through a live radio show.”

He found out a few weeks later when he saw him next that had not been the case.

“Oh didn’t I tell you?” asked Terry nonchalantly, “I had the week off”.

Images above: It’s Not a Proper Job; Chris Tarrant with Lenny Henry on Tiswas

Gone fishing

Tarrant claims that he does not hang out with celebrities much. In fact what he likes best of all is to be on his own, fishing. He has been known to go in to work on his early morning show after spending all night fishing. Even at the very start of his career when he was desperate to get into the business, he managed to push the start of his first contract with ATV back the end of the fishing season.

“I was a night security guard for a little while. I wrote to every TV company in longhand, as you did back then, this ridiculously brash, arrogant letter saying: ‘I am the face of the seventies, this is your last chance to snap me up’.”

Both ATV and Yorkshire TV asked him for interview: “to see what kind of weirdo had written this letter” and they both offered him a job. He accepted ATV’s offer but wrote back: “I’d love to join you, but I am just finishing off this screen play’.

“Nonsense, I was fishing! It was my first ever, ever contract and I kept coming up with excuses and putting it back. If you look at the contract, March 14th was the end of the fishing season, and March 15th was the date on the contract, having been offered the job the previous October.”

He was offered a job as a news reporter but very quickly gravitated to the lighter stories.

“I interviewed a man who had a pigeon on his head for three days and nights and a man who walked from Worcester to Evesham with four ferrets down his trousers. I did a soot juggler and an upside-down beer drinker. I loved it.”

From there is seemed like a natural progression to Tiswas.

Tiswas was live, it was anarchic – we had kids swarming all over the studio, tripping all over stuff and crying. It just got sillier and sillier.

“We had the cage, where we put adults and covered them with gunge and soot and pies. There’s a video of Lenny Henry and me and the crew just chucking buckets of water over the audience and people running down to get water thrown over them.

“Would we get away with it today? No, which is a shame.”

Just the best job, with the best people

OTT, aimed at adults and broadcast at midnight on a Saturday night, was even more outrageous.

“We were roasted by the press and by the critics but we had a massive audience. It was all live and some of it was very, very good. Some of it was absolute rubbish.”

The ratings were enormous but they had so many complaints eventually they took it off the air.

He stayed with Capital Radio for 20 years, despite offers from BBC Radio One and offers from radio stations in America, because:

Capital Radio was the best fun. The team was great and I still have mates from there. We travelled the world. We went to Australia for a week four times a year. I love the live-ness of it. It became a huge London cult thing for people to do their party pieces live on air.

“There was a bloke who said he was going to throw himself out of a window and land on the awning of a market trader’s stall below – and he did. He said he was going to jump, he jumped and that was it, we heard no more, until the stall owner rang up about 20 minutes later – ‘is that that Chris Tarrant?’ – wanting damages.”

Tarrant is a big Status Quo fan and the show was famous for having nothing but the best musicians – Paul McCartney, Phil Collins, David Gilmore from Pink Floyd, Rick Parfitt from Status Quo and David Bowie.

“Bowie was a huge star then. I was expecting a huge entourage of Americans and ‘you can’t ask Mr Bowie about this, you can’t ask Mr Bowie about that’ but he came on his own; turned up in a mac, and someone called him up and said he had seen him on a bus, and from then on everyone was ringing up saying they had seen him on this bus route or than bus route. I was sitting there with this god talking about buses.”

As the conversation turned to Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, “there were an awful lot of people who wanted it to fail” Chris Tarrant told the audience at ArtsEd.

“It was seen as decadent and psychologically damaging. We were asked if we would have a counsellor on hand. We did 700 shows in 15 years, not once did anyone say they wanted a counsellor, but it was just considered un-British to give away so much money.”

They weren’t sure if the show would be a success at the outset, but:

“By the end of the first programme we realised what a brilliant vehicle it was. It was real, live drama … The next morning I had to go and do some interviews and as I walked up the hill a lorry drove up behind me, the driver wound down his window and shouted ‘Hello Chrissie. Phone a friend?’

“It’s been shouted at me every single day ever after. I still get it.”

Image above: Chris Tarrant signing books at the Chiswick Book Festival; Photograph Bridget Osborne

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar