TV Review from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
If—as many contend—the network TV channels in Britain are to be criticised for the paucity of original drama on our screens, ITV have taken a novel approach to rectify this situation. It is called Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, runs every night for two or three weeks at a time, and is a quiz show. But it majors on drama, and in a big way.
Let there be no mistake about it, this is not a normal quiz show. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has about as much in common with The Sale of the Century as Park Lane has with the Old Kent Road. Whereas Nicholas Parsons used to dangle £1 and £5 notes in front of his lucky contestants, Chris Tarrant has £1,000,000 in an open briefcase locked in a glass cabinet, just so that all the hopefuls may drool at it. Nobody has yet won a million—in fact, nobody has yet come all that close either. But that is not the point. Substantial sums of money have been won, including in the series just finished, where two contestants walked away with £125,000 each, which—Tarrant claimed—was the highest winnings on a TV quiz show or gameshow ever, anywhere in the world.
Because of this the contestants, when chosen from a preliminary round, typically display signs of nervousness and hysteria far in excess of that usually associated with being under the glare of the lights on primetime TV. Indeed, if being in the studio encourages their nervousness, it is the juicy carrot being dangled in front of them which understandably induces the hysteria.
Contestants have to ring up the night before the programme to try and secure a place on the show. It is clear that many who do (and there are apparently hundreds of thousands of them) do so not just because it would be nice to win some money. No, most of these people are clearly desperate and many hint at debts, unemployment, hateful jobs or family misfortune (the latter of which, interestingly, could be the accurate title of another ITV quizshow). They are people on a mission and that mission is called ‘escape from the working class’. It is not Mission Impossible, though practically near enough.
Lord Smugness of Tarrant
All of this is grist to the mill at Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? This is a programme which thrives on getting its contestants to squirm, or beg even. Contestants win money by answering a series of (increasingly difficult) questions but are liable to lose most or all of it on the elucidation of the first wrong answer. It is, without doubt, a game where contestants are always best quitting while they are ahead. Even so, some contestants are so desperate they will actually guess at questions they do not know the answer to in the hope of doubling their money. Many later live to regret it.
All big money answers are met with a series of grimaces, winks and off-putting questions by the programme’s host, Chris Tarrant. Tarrant is a quiz show host never willing to simply tell a contestant they are right or wrong. He has to milk every occasion to the very utmost, so much so that many of the contestants show visible irritation with him. Put it this way—if ever the Sun drops its sponsorship of the programme, the Milk Marketing Board would be the obvious replacement.
Despite one of two flaws in the format (the half-an-hour editions are far too short given the amount of milking Tarrant engages in) this an entertaining and dramatic TV programme. It is highly watchable TV, that is if you like that sort of thing. What is sickening about it is that grown men and women should feel the need to have to prostitute themselves in such a way, winning money through their own humiliation on national television—having an over-zealous DJ teasing and taunting them as they desperately try to pay off the bills.
There are many words to describe capitalism and this is a programme which has illustrated beyond reasonable doubt that ‘the undignified society’ is one of them. With its bright spotlights, dramatic music, big money and question format it is exciting stuff at times—thrilling even. But in the dignity stakes it is one step up from eating a bucket full of pigs` bladders on The Word. And then, frankly, only just.