Chris Tarrant has been a broadcaster for more than 40 years. He hosted TV programmes Tiswas and Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? and spent 17 years at the helm of Capital Radio’s breakfast show. He looks back on his life and career. 

...thinking my parents abandoned me

One evening, when I was less than three years old, my parents went to the cinema and left me in the good care of Esme, who lived in the flat upstairs. But I woke up in the middle of the night and I can still remember my confused panic and fear when I couldn’t find my mother. 

The moment when my parents walked back through the door, with my mum wearing a white coat and my dad in a smart suit, is still so clear in my mind. I was an only child and my parents, Basil and Jean, rarely left my side.

 

…our house was always full of soldiers

Dad’s friends would gather to chat about the war. It seemed to me that the ones who talked the most had done the least, while men like my dad, who had seen unimaginable horrors, were usually the quietest. They were a different generation and kept things to themselves—it was too painful to revisit. 

My dad was in some of the most significant campaigns of the Second World War, including the D-Day landings and brutal fighting in Cleve, and was one of the last men off the beach at Dunkirk. My mother didn’t even know he’d been at Dunkirk; I found that out much later when I researched my book about him, Dad’s War.

 

…my father's scars

Three weeks before peace was declared, a land mine blew up his jeep. His arm was badly injured but a brilliant surgeon managed to save it, taking huge skin grafts from his stomach to patch it up. When we went on seaside holidays and Dad took off his shirt, people would give him funny looks. It didn’t phase me at all; to me those scars were his badge of courage. 

Mum believed her place was in the home. So dad went to work and her job was to look after him—shining his shoes, straightening his tie, cooking breakfast and fussing over the tiniest bit of fluff on his suit.

 

…my grandmother chasing my grandfather with a frying pan

They used to fight like cat and dog. But when my grandmother died, after 62 years of marriage, Stanley Tarrant was devastated. He even tried to get into her grave at her funeral, which was awful to witness. Stanley was one of my best friends; he taught me to fish, which has remained a lifelong passion of mine, and he’d show me birds’ nests and badger sets.

He gave me my first book on railways when I was eight years old. We always chatted on the phone and then one day—he was 86 by then—he said, “I’m getting married again but she’s a lot younger than me so try not to be shocked.” Why he chose me as the family moral arbiter, I’m not sure, but my heart sank until I asked how old she was and he said, “She’s 74.” Peggy put another ten years on his life and we all loved her.

 

…dangerous lifts back from school

Our maths teacher used to drive me and my friend home and give us extra tuition. He had a beat-up old Vauxhall and the only warmth came from a paraffin heater he’d put in the back with us. The fumes were terrible, but if we tried to get air he’d shout, “Shut the window, lads!” Imagine if that happened nowadays—he’d get ten years inside!

 

…being a long-distance truck driver

During student holidays I’d deliver lawn mowers all over the country. I was built like a gorilla then so it was no problem loading the truck by myself early in the mornings. I was quite shy so I loved being on my own on the road, stopping for a bacon sandwich along the way.

 

…writing to every television company in the UK

and telling them, “I’m the face of the 70s—this is your last chance to snap me up!” After stints as a teacher (the toughest job I ever had) and in the Central Office of Information, I thought telly might be fun. Most of the companies turned me down—“We’ll keep your letter on file”, which we all know means the waste-paper basket— but ATV offered me a job as a regional reporter; my first step on the presenting ladder.

 

 

…having the best fun of my career

Presenting Tiswas was brilliant. We were just a bunch of youngsters mucking about. We’d write the script on beer mats in the pub the night before the show; we didn’t want to change the world, we just enjoyed being a bit silly. I’ve done many after-dinner speeches throughout my life and, without fail, the first audience question is always about Tiswas. I think you can even do a university thesis on it now!

 

 

…my proudest award win was the Sony Radio Academy Awards

I won the Gold Award for career achievement in 2001. We hadn’t inherited a format when I started presenting in 1987 so we had to be innovative. The idea of having a central “ringmaster” DJ with his gang was brand-new then, and we became London’s most popular breakfast show. It was all about spontaneity. I used to turn up and think, What are we going to talk about this morning?

 

…walking around telling everyone about the birth of my first child, Helen

It was a miracle. I know that babies are born all the time but when it actually happens to you personally, it feels really incredible. Having six children is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I hold the memories of them growing up very tight. I’ve got five grandchildren now; they call me “Silly Old Grandpa”.

 

 

…giving away £1 million

It’s a weird and wonderful feeling to know you’re about to change someone’s life. It was two years before I handed over the first £1 million cheque on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Yet at the point when I’d asked Judith Keppel if that was her final answer—and nearly 14 million people were waiting in suspense to see if we’d got our first millionaire — I said, “We’ll take a break.” That was fun.

 

…the night the "Coughing Major" won

Charles Ingram was convicted of deception in the courts, but on the actual night I didn’t hear fellow contestant Tecwen Whittock’s coughing amid the other studio audience noise. I did think the major was rather mad though and certainly not very clever. For a start he’d used up two of his three lifelines very early on. And he kept going on about how he wanted to buy ponies for his daughters.

So when I asked him if he wanted to play for the £1 million, I reminded him that the £500,000 he already had would reduce to £32,000 if he got the question wrong. The major was the only person who’d got that far who said, “Yes, yes, let’s play,” straight away—and I remember thinking how irresponsible that was to his family. But of course he knew he’d get the question right.

 

…being in a falling helicopter packed with dynamite over the Canadian Rockies

Filming Extreme Railways around the world has been wonderful but there have been some scary moments. This one time we’d helicoptered up to see how they prevent avalanches falling on railways. I had to chuck a stick of dynamite out of the door and watch it explode. When we turned to do another drop the clouds closed in, the windows went white and an alarm went off.

I’ll admit to being pretty scared, knowing that the jagged peaks of the Rockies were just below us, so I asked what the noise meant. Our pilot said, “We’re going down too fast.” Which I took to mean, “We’re crashing”...seconds later the clouds cleared and I’ve lived to tell the tale.

 

…the wonderful smell of the trains in Japan

Honestly, they smell of lavender or something. When have you ever got on-board a train in the UK and said, “Oh, this one smells nice”? Never, because they all smell bad. Those Japanese bullet trains are incredible. One time we clocked going 208 miles an hour and our coffees weren’t even shaking. And every single one gets there exactly on time—to the second. They’ve got something right there.

 

…learning my limits

I had a stroke on a flight from Bangkok in 2014 and was rushed to hospital. I’m forever grateful to all the people who helped me. The consultant told me that when I came into the hospital, he’d thought that I’d be spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. That really spooked me. So I’ve kind of grown up a bit now; I don’t drink whisky, I’m careful with my diet and I don’t work as hard as I used to.

 

 

…reminding myself of the good things in my life

I can see how lucky I’ve been and how important it is to enjoy life and cherish the precious moments, like when your children are young. Life does rush past pretty quick and you don’t want to miss it. 

 

Chris Tarrant’s Extreme Railway Journeys (John Blake, £20) is out now

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