Aug 5 2010 By Kate Whiting
Confident, laid-back and oozing charm, Chris Tarrant doesn't seem like the sort of guy who is easily surprised by anything.
But even he was left a little open-mouthed by the news that his globe-spanning gameshow format, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, had been picked up in Afghanistan.
"It's weird, because you can't imagine any sort of normality in war-torn Afghanistan, but apparently there is, and there's a need for some sort of real world of watching TV," he says, speaking fast. "It's surreal," he adds, looking astounded.
Millionaire, which begins its new run on STV next Tuesday, is arguably the most successful gameshow of all time and Tarrant is back at the helm for a 12th consecutive year in the UK, making him the longest serving host of a format which is made in 116 countries around the world.
"Nobody expected the extraordinary international success," says Tarrant, dressed down today in jeans, trainers and a blue polo shirt and jacket and lolling back in his chair.
"If you'd asked me [about it] back in 1998, I would have said, 'It's quite good this one, we'll get three years out of this'. It's just been a phenomenon," he adds, carefully pronouncing each syllable.
This year, the well-known format has undergone a bit of a makeover and Tarrant is clearly excited about it. The 'Fastest Fingers First' round has been scrapped and instead, players make it to the hot seat through a casting process, which apparently gives even more players the chance to win big cash prizes.
A ticking clock has also been introduced, with just 15 seconds for the £500 and £1,000 questions, and a 30-second time limit for the following questions, up to £50,000.
It adds more drama and tension to the show, says Tarrant, who has filmed the series already. It also has another crucial advantage, he adds.
"It's stopped people wittering early on and going, 'Oh, I don't know Chris, I'm not sure'. I'm like, 'COME ON!'" says the 63-year-old.
"We've never had a time limit before, but we found that a lot of people were occupying the chair, but not really giving a lot in terms of audience interest, so hopefully this has changed that."
Besides the now familiar lifelines, 50:50, Ask The Audience and Phone A Friend, there's a brand one called Switch.
"It's the first time we've added an extra lifeline and it's something we'd been toying with for ages," says Tarrant.
"Let's say you get a question for £50,000 and we say, 'You're an intelligent woman, here's your question: fishing'. And you go, 'Oh not bloody fishing, are you mad? I'd like to switch Chris', so we get rid of it and you get another question. It may be that up comes the writings of Jordan or whatever and you think, 'That's even worse than fishing', so you take a chance at that point."
This time, all the contestants have been chosen from an audition process, which Tarrant describes as "interesting" but it's a far cry from X Factor.
While he is not allowed to discuss any of the contestants, Tarrant does admit that Britain's economic troubles seem to have encouraged more people than ever to apply.
"The auditions were packed! What's interesting is that 12 years down the line, £1 million is probably worth even more or certainly as much as it was in 1998. If you'd asked me in 1998 would £1 million be enough as a big top prize in 12 years' time, I'd probably have said, 'It would have to be £5 million by then'.
But the sad reality is that £1 million is even harder to win and accumulate now. Normally everything goes up and what's happened now is that all the prices have gone up but everybody's money has stayed the same or gone down. A lot of people at the auditions were saying, 'I was made redundant, so why not?'"
Tarrant has slowed down since his days juggling Millionaire and Capital Radio's Breakfast Show, which he left in 2004, but he's not ready to retire yet.
"It's a bit of a drug because I enjoy it - and that'll get you every time," he says.
"I'm still doing all sorts of stuff, I've just done a fishing app and I didn't even know what an app was!
I had to ring my kids and Toby said, 'It's well cool, dad.' "I don't want to work too hard though, work has to fit into my life, which is why I can't sign any long-term radio contract. I love doing radio, I can play my old hippy tunes, I'm better-looking on radio, but I can't do it week after week, certainly not at six in the morning."
Instead, twice-divorced Tarrant is spending time combining his favourite pastimes, fishing and travelling, and catching up with his four kids.
"I literally fish all over the world, I was in Canada last week, fishing in theYukon.Toby and I play cricket a lot together. We're going to China in about a month's time because he's going to university, so I said I'd treat him to a one-on-one holiday before he goes away. I'm kind of manic, but when I'm on a riverbank, I calm down."