When Chris Tarrant started making television, there was no such thing as a CAT scan. We had no idea that Forest Elephants were a species. There was not and never had been a woman on Earth named "Madison". Then, in 1974, this little notch appears on a timeline and all that changes.
From the hit anarchic ITV kids' TV show Tiswas, through to the colossally popular Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, each Tarrant show, in not-always-so-obvious ways, represents the values of the zeitgeist of a certain moment: be that Millionaire's endorsement of the risky capitalism of the neoliberal era, or Man O Man's celebration of changing gender roles and sexual liberation. From fashion sense to commercial value to language, you can learn a lot about what is going on in the world from whatever Chris Tarrant is up to. For example, right now, he is up to railways.
Chris Tarrant's Extreme Railways has been on for the past four years, with a new series coming soon. It's marketed as a show about trains, but never commits to this concept, contorting at the behest of Chris Tarrant's attention span. In one episode, for example, Chris is traversing the plains of Patagonia on a historic railroad. Halfway through, he learns of a vague conspiracy theory from some old guy suggesting Adolf Hitler fled here after the Second World War. For the rest of the episode, Tarrant completely derails the show to chase the ambiguous ghost of Hitler. The fact that at, any given moment, he could take a piss off a train in Cuba or get trollied at an Alaskan open-mic night is in-keeping, you could argue, with the current jump-the-shark feel of global politics. Anyway, it certainly resonates with audiences, bringing in up to 2 million viewers a show, even though it's on Channel 5.
"We were in the middle of the show when all hell broke loose in the audience. One woman was screaming 'You fucking cow!' and another girl was streaming blood because she'd been hit over the head with a stiletto."
I speak to Chris on an ashen, arid morning. I'm in my bedroom, he's yelling, "I have no idea what I'm doing, by the way!" to compete with the roar of his engine as he drives along the M4.
In the opening few mintues of conversations, he calls Paul McKenna, Lenny Henry and Michael Aspel "bastards" for their deception in throwing his surprise 70th birthday party. Hearing him shout bastard is a thing of beauty – he throttles the plosive. But this is true with a lot of his language: he says things that aren't particularly prescient, but – because it's Chris Tarrant – sound like potential catch phrases.
For example, a few years back, when Chris was on the way to Capital FM to record his breakfast show, a young man tried to mug him. "It was pitch black on a February morning, 5:40AM," he explains. "This guy comes out of a doorway and said, 'I want your wallet, man,' and I went, 'You what?' and he said, 'I want your wallet.' And I remember saying to him, very clearly and articulately, 'It's half past five in the bloody morning. It's absolutely freezing, I left my wife in bed and I'd much rather be asleep next to her. I left my kids without saying good morning to them. I'm only here to earn money. Why the fuck would I give it to you?' And he just said, 'I want your money, man,' so I shouted…" – Chris increases his volume – "'…you're not getting my money, now fuck off!' And he just ran away. It was only as I walked into the Capital FM building that I said, 'I think that guy just tried to mug me.' And then you go all cold, your heart starts beating, because he could have had a knife or anything!"
Imagine that: being able to belittle a man into not mugging you with the sheer gusto of your gob.
But you can behave that way when you're Chris Tarrant. He's a man responsible for so much pop culture, he doesn't even remember it. It takes a long sigh to recall his swimming trunks gameshow Man O Man, an impossibly 90s pre- Take Me Out dating gameshow. It took place in some sort of Amazonian alternate reality where peacocking males are ruled over and humiliated by an audience of drunk, rowdy women.
"I love Man O Man! When Millionaire started, I still had sort of a year on the contract to do Man O Man. People were saying to me, ' Millionaire is so huge' – which it was when it first started out; it just blew everybody away – 'Why are you still doing Man O Man?' And I said, 'Because I absolutely love it!'" I can hear Chris slapping his leg, laughing. "These poor guys, standing there in skimpy little swimming trunks with 500 drunken women from all over the country screaming at them. A lot of the guys looked great in the mirror and they had so much ego: 'Yeah, I'm going to win, I'm so cool!' Within five minutes, the women would just reduce them to rubble! For the guys, it was bloody terrifying. I used to love it. I think I should do it again."
"The audience would always arrive having had God knows how many gin and tonics in the pub around the corner or on the bus all the way. I remember once, there was a proper fight. Somebody in their infinite stupidity had booked something like 50 of Glasgow's finest ladies and then sat them next to 50 really tough girls from Essex. So we were in the middle of the show when all hell begins to break loose in the audience. One woman screams: 'You fucking cow!' and another girl is streaming blood as she's been hit over the head with a stiletto, and I was thinking, 'We just got the bloaters in so let's all go to the back of the stairs and let them all kill each other.' It was really bad stuff. Took about half an hour; some of the girls were thrown out and all that. But I just sat back there, thinking, 'This was an extraordinary event!'"
Even in this madness, Chris recognised Man O Man was an indicator for changing societal trends. "I suppose it was one of the first programmes where you suddenly got a whiff of all the years and years of male domination beginning to crumble," he says. "There could not have been a show like that about ten or 15 years before. It was the collective power of women en masse, you know?"
Eventually, Tarrant had to give up on the boys in their swimming trunks, as Millionaire became a behemoth. Can you think of any other gameshow hosts who have been quoted in the House of Commons by the Prime Minister ("Can I ask the audience?") or by President George W Bush in the Senate, or inspired an Oscar-winning international blockbuster like Slumdog Millionaire? Bake Off, currently Britain's biggest show, averaged 13.8 million viewers an episode during last year's series. At its peak, Millionaire was doing 19 million week-in, week-out, with international variants playing in 160 countries.
It's a phenomenon that even Chris struggles to fathom the extent of, although he believes its rise and subsequent fall are bound to the era of New Labour and globalisation. The best way to understand this is by looking at what happened when they tried to bring it back a couple of years ago: it didn't work, and Chris has a theory about why.
"Times were really tough for a lot of people a couple of years ago, when we did the reboot, and they still are. When we started, people were saying, 'Come on, it's the only chance in my life for me to win a really big amount of money – I'm going to go for it, Chris!' and all that. When we did the second wave of 'normal people' contestants rather than celebrities, they were sort of going, 'Okay, Chris, I've won £5,000 or whatever, I'm out of here.' And you say, 'You were very bright, you could have gone further,' and they reply, 'Yeah, I'm not going to risk it.' That was definitely a pattern. It's quite interesting."
The show gave away just £80,000 in three days, which, in Millionaire terms, is minimal. "You can't blame people for taking it, you know? Because if I go, 'Oh, you've got to brave it!' and they then lose it, you're Mr Bastard. Mr Bastard is not a guy you want to be."
Chris' stint on Millionaire has come to be defined by its biggest scandal: the coughing major, Charles Ingram, the British Army Officer who appeared on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire in 2001 and almost conned Tarrant out of £1 million. "You would never expect a serving British Army Major to come on a show and make off with one million quid!" says Chris. But does he, on some level, respect the audacity of the whole thing? "I don't know whether I respected it, but we were all absolutely amazed by it. All we did those days was say, 'Please turn your phones off!' I went home happy that night, thinking we'd had another winner – I hadn't got a clue." He continues to discuss how he was nearly fooled by "such a naff scheme". "On the night, it was like a madhouse – you couldn't hear anything going on. It wasn't like the audio in the Martin Bashir documentary. I'd see him again. I need to."
I'm surprised Chris wants to rekindle the relationship. What does he still have to say to Charles Ingram? "I haven't seen him for 20 years. The last time I saw him was in court. I've read a few articles about him and the other problems he's had. And we just thought that would be a fantastic one-on-one with a live audience. But I can't get anybody to pick it up. I think they're all frightened of him. It would be a huge TV event, you know? They'd buy it in America and everywhere. It just had a massive worldwide interest, because it was such an extraordinary event. I'd love to get one-on-one and just ask him, 'What the hell did you think you were doing? Were you cheating?' I mean, he would deny it, but I think it'd be fascinating. A fascinating piece of psychology, but I don't think anybody would touch it with a barge pole."
Chris is both entertained yet evidently a little haunted by the whole thing, as if it was the moment he realised Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was a show about money, not about hope.
Tarrant is still managing to speak with the nation, albeit on a smaller scale. So what does he see as the message behind Extreme Railways? What does it tell us about our times? "It's about the way some people live. It's about how desperate people's lives are. Some of the parts of Burma, we met people who'd never, ever gone out of their village. And they were brutally poor; incredibly poor. And yet they enjoy their lives. I think one of the things about railways, if you get on a train you do find – as you come into Paddington, or wherever – you look into people's windows in a way that you just can't do in a car or any other way. Somebody said to me, 'Railways look into the soul of the country.' I always thought was rather a pompous statement, but it's true. You think: 'Oh my god, there are ten to a room, you can see what they're watching on TV, what they're eating, how they live, how they dress, how they sleep.'" Chris continues. "I just thought they'd be something I did, tucked away on Channel 5, but they've done incredibly well. People seem to love them. Actually, I suppose they are quite educational with a small e? I've learned a hell of a lot about countries that I just didn't know before."
Our time is coming to an end – or at least, Chris needs to start consulting the sat nav. But before he hangs up, I still need to ask, why did he abandon his show about railways to search out Hitler?
"I just asked the question of this guy: what famous people have come on the line? And he said, 'Oh, there's been quite a few American politicians, a lot of South American politicians, a lot of South American footballers… and Adolf Hitler. And I was like, 'What!' It was just extraordinary. You know, when you think of all the Nazis who definitely did get to South America. You think: 'Why wouldn't he, the most powerful Nazi of them all, want to get away?' And the guy said he arrived, middle of the night, in a submarine somewhere south of Buenos Aires – they were so detailed – and he shaved his hair off, shaved his moustache off; and you just thought: 'Bloody hell. That could… That could actually be true!' We're kind of thinking about doing a follow-up programme."
After 25 years of watching him boss Saturday night TV, I know one thing: that Chris Tarrant Finds Hitler is a show I'd want to see.