Saturday, 26 February 2011

Mundane millions

This piece by me was in the Guardian earlier this week:

It is not hard to see why The Million Pound Drop, the latest series of which ends on Channel 4 on Saturday, has been a ratings success. The format, in which contestants get to hold a million pounds in tight wads of notes, place the money on trapdoors and watch it fall if they get the wrong answer to a multiple choice question, generates some dramatic moments of elation and despair. But it is odd that this exact sum, a million pounds, should retain its symbolic and emotive power. Of course a million pounds is still an awful lot of money, but the word “millionaire”, as both a literal description and as shorthand for a very rich person, was first used in the early nineteenth century, and that was when a million pounds was really worth something. On television, though, a million pounds is always a miraculous, transformative sum that exists in a changeless world where inflation does not exist.

The TV quiz show has long had an unreal relationship with money. The first cash prize to be offered on British television was the jackpot of £1000 on Double Your Money, which began with ITV in 1955. But after the 1962 Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting condemned such extortionate cash prizes as appealing to “suspense and greed and fear”, we had more than thirty years of regulation and restraint. Quiz show prizes were only ever money substitutes suggestive of a genteel consumerism: canteen and cutlery sets, dining suites, music centres and small family cars. The BBC even made a fetish of its rubbish prizes, like the famous weekend in Reykjavik on Blankety Blank. Ironically, a drunken weekend in the Icelandic capital would later become a favourite jaunt for rich bankers.

With the broadcasting deregulation of the 1990s came a relaxation of the rules on quiz show prizes, paving the way for Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Here, though, the million pounds served another useful function: it formed part of ITV’s search for a more middle-class, advertiser-friendly audience, because money can be spent on anything, whereas mobile cocktail bars, mini metros and holidays in Lanzarote have awkward connotations of class and taste.

The problem with these million pound shows, though, is that money is not remotely televisual. Speedboats can be revealed from behind curtains with drum rolls and flashing lights, but money is less substantial, which is why National Lottery winners have to pose awkwardly with outsized comedy cheques. When set against the dramatic amphitheatre, tension music and dimmed lights on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Chris Tarrant handing over a tiny cheque to the winner was always an anticlimax. In The Million Pound Drop, they have come up with the solution of using the iconography of a heist movie, with burly security guards handling the banknotes and locking them away in steel suitcases.

Another problem with these shows is more intractable: since the late 1990s, as governments have become intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich, the number of millionaires has risen to the point where being one is fairly mundane. As the gap between the super rich and even the prosperous middle classes has widened, the word “millionaire” has also become freighted with negative associations. The first New Labour scandal, in November 1997, was over that emblematic sum of a million pounds: the amount that had to be returned to Bernie Ecclestone after the government was accused of unfairly exempting motor racing from the ban on tobacco advertising. And when Who Wants to be a Millionaire began in autumn 1998, it was in the middle of a press campaign against millionaire “fat cats”, although back then it was the chief executives of the privatised utilities, not bankers, who were condemned for their excessive salaries.

Like Who Wants to be a Millionaire, The Million Pound Drop manages to ward off any resentment towards its potential millionaires by existing in an empathetic, non-competitive world of its own. The contestants are mostly young, and need the money to put a deposit on a house, to get married or to pay off student loans. They compete only with themselves and everyone wants them to win this magical amount of a million pounds, although by the time the trapdoor has done its worst they end up with fairly modest sums if they are lucky.

On television, winning a million remains the fulfilment of one’s wildest dreams, the narrative denouement, the end of the quest. In the real world it is nothing of the sort. All the recent evidence, from bankers’ bonuses to the endlessly creative efforts at tax avoidance by an international business elite, suggests that there is one thing the modern millionaire wants more than anything in the world: another million pounds, and then another on top of that.


  1. I was never much enthralled by Hughie Green and "Double Your Money"; I found Michael Miles and "Take Your Pick" more entertaining. I don't recall money being such a big deal in "Take Your Pick"; played more for laughs, and the contestant who ended up with a wooden spoon took it on the chin (metaphorically speaking).

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