Chris Tarrant, photographed by Nathan Pask, www.nathanpask.com
Chris Tarrant is the Midlands schoolboy who grew up to become one of TV’s biggest stars over five decades. But all the while, he’s kept a cheeky secret from the world – which he reveals here for the first time!
It was a risky question to ask Chris Tarrant, who in his earlier life had been responsible for the iconic slapstick kids’ show that was Tiswas. “‘Tell us something about yourself that we won’t find anywhere on Google!”
We all know about Chris the tip-top radio DJ, and Chris the main man for 16 years of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? (Phone a friend anyone?) So, we asked the question, and after a brief pause, followed by a “well that’s an interesting ask”, Chris was ready to reveal one his best kept secrets – and we should have expected that it would be suitably crazy. “How about I tell you that I can take my pants off, without removing my trousers,” he said.
Really? “Absolutely,” he replied. “It’s a trick that I learned when I was at school, and I’ve only ever seen one other person do it – and that was Mr Bean.” We thought better than ask Chris for a demonstration! And we also steered cleared of probing further whether the school in question was King’s School, Worcester, where he was a boarder before graduating in English later from the University of Birmingham (his son is also a product of the uni, by the way).
Safe to say, the magic-pants trick is not mentioned in Chris’s new book, It’s Not a Proper Job, which has just been published in paperback and looks back at his 50 years in showbiz. Not so much an autobiography though, says Chris, more a recounting of some of the amazing people he has got to work with and know well. People like fellow Brummie legend and Tiswas partner in crime Lenny Henry. And the wild and wacky things he, and they, got up to in the Seventies hit show, which started off being just for kids but rapidly became hugely popular with grown-ups too.
Before you reach for our e-mail address to inform us that Chris isn’t a born-and-bred Birmingham boy, after all his years working in the city for the old ATV network which produced Tiswas, he considers himself a fully adopted Brummie – as do we. He has a star on Birmingham’s Walk of Stars and was made an honorary citizen of the city.
Chris says: “I’ve always had a real affinity with Brum and Brummies. It’s a wonderful city with really generous people. I know the popular opinion is that Brummie humour is a bit odd but I think it’s really warm and somehow self-deprecating. I get back to the city as often as I can. I was there not so long ago to meet up with some old mates, like Jasper Carrott and Nick Owen, at a tribute celebration to ITV’s local presenter Bob Warman who retired last year after 50 years. It was a lovely occasion with some great memories and people. I owe everything that has happened in my career to my start in Birmingham with ATV and Tiswas, and I’m very proud to have my star on my own bit of pavement on Broad Street in Brum too.”
Chris actually began his broadcasting career as a newsman. “It was all very serious stuff, covering the Midlands for the ATV Today programme,” he says. “I got the job after writing to loads of TV companies with the classic line: ‘I am the face of the 70s, this is your last chance to snap me up.’ And despite that crass line, believe it or not a couple of the TV companies came back to me, and I liked ATV best.” After being given the task of reporting on many of the left-field ‘human interest’ stories (man eating lightbulbs, man eating live frogs, man walking for charity with four ferrets down his trousers, etc) Chris was picked as the perfect potty candidate for a new kids’ show called Tiswas – and the rest is history.
“They were great times,” he recalls. “As were my years working at Capital Radio and on Millionaire.” Chris fronted the quiz show for 700 programmes, attracting a peak audience of just shy of 20 million viewers – numbers today’s TV planners can only dream about – before deciding to step away in 2014.
“I decided I had kind of had enough. I know everyone works hard, but over many, many years, I had worked bloody hard with very early starts and long days – from the beginning with Tiswas, through being on radio and then with Millionaire. With everything really. I have not retired as such, but lockdown made me think of things in a kind of sombre way. I said to my missus Jane, all the filming budgets have been cut. Then I began to think, well I’m not going to die from this new Black Death afterall and started thinking I’d like to do some different things.
“I’ve just done something with Alan Titchmarsh and I’m writing a new book, believe it or not it’s about bears! Last year we did this thing in Alaska to prove how close you can get to polar bears. They’re amazing creatures and I’m fascinated with bears. And of course, there’s all the attention on them because of the effects of climate change on their habitat.”
The title of Chris’s book, It’s Not a Proper Job, perfectly sums up his view of his career and life. He says he’s enjoyed “every single second of it”, whether it was mucking about with Lenny Henry, Sally James, Spit the Dog and a Who’s Who of guests on Tiswas, broadcasting for so many years on radio or ‘asking the audience’ on Millionaire.
“I’ve been bloody lucky to do what I’ve done,” he says.