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“They left me in limbo, not knowing my fate": What it's like to win - ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’

With the show making a triumphant return, could you hack it in the arena?

“They left me in limbo, not knowing my fate": What it's like to win - ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’
Tom Victor
10 May 2018

Few quiz shows in the last 25 years have developed as strong a cachet as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

A documentary about the infamous Charles Ingram episode - in which a former army major won the top prize but was later found to have cheated his way to the top - was event television on a par with Who Shot Phil?. Ingram’s disqualification spawned headlines, legal battles and even a play, Quiz, which opened in the West End in 2017, while countless contestants were made a great deal richer by the time they’d finished with Chris Tarrant. . 

However, while plenty of people won life-changing sums - more than 100 contestants walked away with six-figure sums during the show’s original run - just five made it through the final question and won the top prize. 

QUIZ: Are you smart enough to win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Now, after four years in the TV wilderness, Millionaire has been rebooted with one big change – Jeremy Clarkson replacing Chris Tarrant as the question master.

Will the change of scenery bring about more seven-figure winners? We spoke to Pat Gibson, the fourth person to ever take home the top prize, to see what made TV’s most lucrative quiz show also one of its most challenging.

Since reaching the million-pound question with two lifelines still in hand, Gibson, from Galway in Ireland, has become something of a recurring TV quizzer.

He is currently a regular panellist on BBC Two show Eggheads, and has also won Mastermind, but nothing quite compares to the high pressure and high intensity of Millionaire, for which a fresh casting call has been issued.

“The key aspect of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was that you could not afford a single mistake when answering,” he notes.

“There were not severe time constraints, so speed was not an issue, as in Mastermind, but the knowledge that any error would be terminal caused a great deal of pressure.”

When you add in the deliberately overdramatic nature of the show, something only exacerbated by the studio lights and music - even for Gibson, someone who had competed in countless competitive quizzes before - the TV aspect turned everything up a notch.

Even the most comprehensive preparations can only set you up for the questions asked, and this may be why so few have taken home the top prize: you can be confident about an answer at home, even certain of it, but unfamiliar scenery can rid you of that assuredness.

There’s always something you’re not entirely ready for. In Gibson’s case, what caught him off guard was a surprisingly high chair – the producers really do think of any possible way to unsettle you.

“The high stool on which you sit was even higher and more precarious that I had expected,” he says.

“The show was pre-recorded, so, when I answered an early question with just a touch of apprehension, I was surprised when Chris Tarrant promptly called an ad break and disappeared off set.

“This left me in a sort of limbo, not knowing my fate, with a tense crowd watching me, a solitary figure, with a slightly uncertain immediate future, perched centre-stage on a very high stool.

“It felt like a very long time.”

We might all be confident we could at least win a tidy sum when faced with general knowledge questions, but chances are our knowledge isn’t as broad as we think.

All it takes is one gap for you to turn to those three lifelines, and if your phone-a-friend has that same gap then you’re on very thin ice, but is it even possible to revise for a show like Millionaire?

“You have to be a little philosophical and trust in what you already know and hope for some luck on the day,” Gibson acknowledges, and that’s certainly an attitude which has served him well over the years.

Quizzing is still a hobby for him, something he says he might treat similarly to how a keen runner might treat marathon training, and it helps when preparation and enjoyment aren’t too far removed.

“I read the papers and take notes of the really interesting items - it is satisfying if, months or years in the future, the question surfaces and you can deal with it.”

However, there are some go-to categories; the areas which won’t always come up, but which are important to bone up on if you want to hold your own in the general knowledge world.

“Obviously monarchs, flags, capitals and chemical elements are very useful,” he says, “However, while knowing such ‘listy’ material will certainly do you good, it will not provide any guarantees of success.”

Indeed, Gibson’s run from £32,000 up to £1,000,000 only featured one question relating to monarchs, flags, capitals or chemical elements - and even that wasn’t the kind of ‘listy’ thing you can learn by rote.

Memorising the names and order of British monarchs can be useful a lot of the time, but it won’t tell you which king wrote a famous denunciation of smoking – the £125,000 question on that 2004 episode of the show (it was James I, in case you were wondering). Sometimes a question will arise where, not only do you not know the answer, but you couldn’t have conceivably readied yourself for it.

The breadth of topics and one-strike-and-you’re-out intensity perhaps explains why so few have won the million: only five have won the prize, not including Ingram, who was later found guilty in court of conspiracy to cheat.

Even quiz experts, who have competitive quizzing results to their name, have fallen short. These include Mark Kerr, Gibson’s ‘phone-a-friend’ who helped him correctly answer the million-pound question but only took home £250,000 when playing on his own.

Kerr was eventually stumped by a Shakespeare question, and it was one you either know or you don’t, much like the literature question on ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling For Snow’ which saw The Chase star Mark Labbett leave with just £32,000.

Labbett, best known for The Chase, got the £64,000 question wrong on Millionaire

Gibson is still quizzing, not just on Eggheads, and even someone as successful as him can be haunted by wrong answers in the past.

“There are certain items that I have got wrong several times,” he admits.

“I have offered ‘Chuck Norris’ (martial artist and actor) several times when ‘Chuck Connors’ (actor and sportsman) was needed. Different people! When will I learn?”

Chuck Norris, not to be confused with Chuck Connors

Haunting wrong answers aside though, Gibson did end up walking away with the big prize - but what did he do with the winnings?

“I refrained from buying a racehorse’s hoof and did not make any big purchases right away,” Gibson says.

“I think I still have a piece of the blue and silver glitter that descended on me after Chris Tarrant, after building the tension for ever, finally revealed that I had won.

“No doubt about it, it was an extraordinary experience.”

Eggheads airs Monday-Friday at 6pm on BBC Two

(Images: YouTube/Who Wants to Be a Millionaire/Rex Features)