Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was the Perfect Quiz Show

An ode to the quiz show in its purest and best form.

Note: a shortened version of this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).

If you’re anything like me, you may have been spending this past week watching the return of ITV’s classic quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? for a set of special 20th anniversary shows/full-on back-to-basics-ish reboot (delete depending on whether more of these turn up again in the next six months).  Growing up, I loved myself some quiz shows.  Old quiz shows, new quiz shows, plain quiz shows, quiz shows with all the bells and whistles…  If I wasn’t tuned into Cartoon Network, you can bet that I had put the television onto Challenge or whatever National Lottery-branded game show BBC One was running that Saturday night.  They really appealed to the way that my brain would retain seemingly useless information, and my desire to always learn and know more.  Whilst the pageantry, production values, and hosts with bellyfuls of charisma stoked my performative attention-hog side – to anybody reading this whom I forced to play quiz games with myself as the host when I was younger: I am truly sorry.

Of them all, though, Millionaire was the ruler.  In fact, for those who didn’t at least go through adolescence when Millionaire was first on and at its peak, a generation for whom game/quiz shows have largely gone out of vogue or (in the case of something like HQ Trivia) moved online into the realm of apps, it could seem absolutely insane that a show like this was not only a phenomenon, but a goddamn national institution here in Britain.  At its peak in 1999, it averaged 19 million viewers a week, by 2003, that number had dropped to a still-impressive average of 8 million, and the format has been sold to more countries than I have fingers and toes.  Millionaire revolutionised the quiz show, instigated a resurgence in the genre in America, and even had an official soundtrack album!  For a quiz show!

I have always loved Millionaire, and always will, but it wasn’t until I sat down last Saturday night to watch the new Jeremy Clarkson-hosted specials/reboot that I fully realised why Millionaire took over the popular consciousness so completely.  It is because, for roughly half a decade from 1998 to 2003, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was the perfect quiz show.  That’s not just rose-coloured nostalgia talking, either.  There is a reason why Millionaire was sold to foreign countries not as a format, but as a complete package with certain ironclad rules that could not be broken, and it is because, in almost every respect, Millionaire was the perfect end product of the quiz show.

Before we can talk about Millionaire, though, a quick refresher on the landscape that Millionaire entered into.  Millionaire’s big hook was right there in the title, the promise of £1 million to be won, and a not-insignificant amount of money could also be won on the way to that million.  At the turn of the century, £1 million was a nearly-inconceivable amount of money for most people, genuinely life-changing, but it was also, by far, the biggest potential prize haul of any game show or quiz show running at the time, primarily as a result of the lingering after-effects of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.  This kind of format very rarely paid out actual cash, preferring instead to offer “fabulous prizes” such as household appliances or holidays or speedboats.  If shows paid out cash, the sums were paltry; correct answers during a game of Blockbusters, for example, were worth just £5 each.  Pure quiz shows, such as Mastermind or Fifteen to One (arguably the closest antecedent to Millionaire), were instead about the bragging rights of knowing more than your fellow contestants and you’d only win something if you lasted until the end of the series – even then, only an expensive-looking piece of pottery.

Meanwhile, game shows tended to use trivia as an accentuating feature to the show’s format rather than an integral part of proceedings.  Technically, shows like Bullseye, Big Break, and Strike it Lucky were quiz shows, since answering questions were necessary to keep playing and earn points, but the prizes were often won through other means that made usage of each show’s gimmick – playing darts in Bullseye, pocketing snooker balls in Big Break, pressing buttons in Strike it Lucky.  They were either busy, jovial, light-hearted affairs or stuffy, dry, academic pieces, such as Fifteen to One or Mastermind or (no matter how droll a quip Jeremy Paxman could muster up) University Challenge.

What Millionaire provided, then, was both a reduction to the wild bloat that had consumed game shows by that point in time, and a revolution to the suffocating dryness that made up most quiz shows of the day.  The format broke things down to their bare essentials.  One player at a time answered fifteen multiple choice questions, each of which were worth double the value of the previous question (bar two), with three lifelines to help out – 50:50 removed two random incorrect answers, Phone a Friend allowed the player thirty seconds to call one of their friends for help, and Ask the Audience got the studio audience to collectively provide their input.  Two safety nets at the £1,000 and £32,000 marks, no time limit to answer, and the ability to walk away at any time with the money they have currently won.  It is quizzing at its most basic foundations, and stripping things back to those after a decade of ever-more complicated premises was genius in of itself.

But the true genius, and the reason why Millionaire became an institution, was in the presentation and how every facet of the show, from the sets to the lights to the music to the structure of the game, transformed a straightforward trivia session into high drama.

Let’s start with the mechanics of the game.  Fifteen questions, split into three segments marked at each third.  Straight away, that’s a classic Three-Act structure for anybody who is able to make it to the £1 million, easing the player in with some softballs before things get properly serious, with both safety zones not only arriving at the exact thirds of the journey, but also at the perfect points to provide a sense of risk to each question.  £1,000 is far better than nothing and a decent chunk of change in its own right, but it’s also a far enough of a drop from £16,000 to make a wrong answer feel devastating, whilst £32,000 functions the same way for the proper Big Money stretch in the final third.  Initially, the constant doubling of money doesn’t seem like much, but it very soon adds up as one starts jumping from £8,000 to £16,000 to £32,000 then £64,000.  Technically, the progression between questions never changes, failing at £125,000 only wipes out the same amount of progress as failing at £4,000 would, but we can all agree that a drop of £3,000 is much easier to swallow than a drop of £93,000.

Lifelines could ease the pressure of the player somewhat, but their usages are largely situational and can frequently hinder as much as they can help.  50:50 will almost invariably leave one with the two answers they were stuck between anyway, your Phone a Friend can be just as stumped by a question as you are, and even Ask the Audience can lead to split votes on trickier questions.  The onus, then, is largely on the player knowing the answers or, if they don’t, how smart they are willing to play.  A wrong answer, after all, doesn’t cost a life or throw the question to another contestant.  It ends the game, pure and simple, and costs a lot of money in the process.  The contestant, of course, can walk away at any time with the money they have, but the simple, uncomplicated binary “correct/not correct” nature of Millionaire’s structure, coupled with what is a relatively short journey where the £1 million is theoretically always within reach – it’s not rocket science why the host will frequently mention that a contestant is “just [x number] questions away from £1 million” – and the lack of a timer preys upon a gambler’s mentality.

The lack of a timer is often the most contentious and mocked part of Millionaire in many a household – I can attest to many an episode being soundtracked by myself and my family yelling at the contestant on-screen to just answer the friggin’ question already – but it is the lynchpin to the show’s entire feel.  Every part of Millionaire is designed to be accentuated by or reinforce the lack of a timer, because the point of the show is to force the contestant into their heads and doubt themselves.  In an episode of his online series Pretty Good, writer Jon Bois compares the time he was almost mugged at knifepoint in the middle of the night to the one time he played Poker at a casino and why the latter was far scarier to him than the former.  The mugging lasted a split-second, so he acted on impulse (admittedly stupidly) and ran without giving up his wallet; the Poker lasted seven minutes, so he got stuck in his own head, marinated in his own dread, recklessly gambled his money, and lost everything.  By his own admission, that’s not a great 1:1 comparison, but it gets at what Millionaire intended to do: take the isolating pressure-cooker idea of Mastermind, slow it down, and, y’know, have it mean something.

Cue the show’s presentation.  Two monitors and two chairs in the centre of a colosseum-like studio, so all eyes are on the host and the contestant at all times.  As the questions go by and the values go up, the surrounding lights become dimmer, the audience starts to disappear into the dark, the contestant starts to feel ever more alone, and the screen with the question becomes ever more inescapable.  For the player, the world outside ceases to exist and all that’s left are the question and the money, an ever-present reminder of what one has to lose.  The music mirrors the lighting, particularly with the utterly genius decision to base it around a throb that becomes more pronounced the further into the game one gets, as the key keeps raising ever higher and each additional layer accentuating it begins to disappear until finally, at the £1 million question, there is only a drone and the throb, intended to mimic the player’s own heartrate.  Even something as simple as the cheques the host would periodically hand over served the purpose of increasing the pressure, since now the player has something tangible and physical to lose with every additional rung climbed.

It’s all about making the player dread, taking a simple task – do you know the answer to this question, you don’t have to answer if you do – and allowing them to dig their own graves purely by turning up the pressure.  You or I might choose to walk away at £8,000 if we don’t know the answer within seconds, but we haven’t been given the opportunity to sit in a hot seat in a small studio, with the lights down low but aimed directly at us, the music booming, knowing that we can double that £8,000 in an instant if we could summon up the nerve, and nobody telling us to hurry up and make a decision.  The show is devastatingly simple in structure and design, but it’s that presentation which makes the crucial difference.  At the height of the show’s success, critics would try to label it “elitist,” a show designed for the already-rich to become even richer based on previous winners and the difficulty of late-game questions, but it’s really not.  Anyone can win because all you need is the purity of knowledge and an ability to cope with pressure, both universal skills that can manifest in anybody regardless of social class.

Plus, that’s where host Chris Tarrant came in.  Tarrant was the exact captain that a show with the feel of Millionaire needed.  He wasn’t aloof and impersonal like William G. Stewart, but he also wasn’t all buddy-buddy and star power like Bruce Forsyth.  He wasn’t mocking and often cruel like Jim Davidson, but he also never went full cult leader like Noel Edmonds later would.  Tarrant was authoritative but playful, removed enough to not give too much guidance to the player but clearly invested in their journey as evidenced by the occasional between or mid-question banter – another positive of the lack of a timer, the constant pondering out loud from a contestant allowed the viewer to get to know them better than any pre-game intro could.  Not above a well-timed quip but also never callous or cruel.  Little wonder ITV first ended the show when Tarrant decided to retire rather than search for a replacement.

In its prime, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was perfect.  In structure, in form, in presentation, in execution, nobody has come close to matching or bettering it in the years since.  However, Millionaire ran for a long time – it wasn’t actually cancelled until 2014, but the show did effectively cease making non-Celebrity instalments from 2011 – and even perfect things need to change in order to keep viewers from getting bored.  But, regardless, every change diluted the simple perfection of Millionaire a little more.  From 2007, the number of questions was reduced from fifteen to twelve (accompanied by a rejigging of question values), disrupting the Three-Act structure of the show’s journey and greatly reducing the necessary easing-in of each contestant.  Far worse was the decision in 2010 to import the clock from the American version, now forcing the player to answer the first seven questions against a time limit.  A move ostensibly designed to speed up the game for the viewers and make it more exciting, it instead removed the slowly-marinating pressure integral to the feel of Millionaire, encouraging fast impulse choices rather than agonising doubt, changing the game entirely.  Even more, its disappearance in the final stretch of the game instils the idea that everything beforehand is an easy question, something to plough through to get to the truly hard stuff, which goes completely against one of the show’s old adages, “they’re only easy if you know the answer.”

The anniversary shows have ditched all of the changes made late in the original’s run and they’ve been fun to watch, as a result.  But certain other attempts to update the format have only further cemented my belief that the golden age format was perfect and may never be replicated again.  Making the second safety net a non-fixed point of the player’s choosing works as another ingredient on the pressure-cooker, designed to encourage gambling, but it undoes the clear Three-Act structure of a fifteen-question ladder.  Clarkson’s been surprisingly enjoyable in the host role – particularly since the new Ask the Host lifeline forces him to have to treat other people as people and deal with consequences to his actions head-on, both of which have clearly been alien to him based on how this has been going – but he too often acts like somebody at home watching Millionaire rather than a host.  Multiple times, my Mum has made a comment about what’s going on only to have Clarkson repeat it almost ad verbatim seconds later.  Even little things like the lack of graphics with the amount won at the bottom of the screen after each correct answer, which results in too much dead space in the subsequent wide-shots, nag at me.

Still, it’s the closest Millionaire has been in a long time to that rarefied place it once resided, and even the show at its worst couldn’t take away from the perfection it once attained.  Who Wants to be a Millionaire? was exported worldwide, inspired countless imitators and wannabes, but it was still one-of-a-kind.  Nobody could replicate the specific magic that show used to have, and rather than lament over the fact we won’t see it matched or bettered again, I’d rather celebrate that it existed in the first place and welcome the show back with open arms.  For the past few nights, my family have even been arranging our night schedules around its 9pm start time like it’s 2002 all over again.  You don’t see us doing that for Pointless.

Callie Petch, wham-bam-bam, is a dancing man.

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