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'I thought ... Jaysus I won't be here again': 20 years on from the Irish Who Wants To Be A Millionaire

We take a look at the good, bad and the bizarrre of Ireland’s TV past every Wednesday in The Tube.

Gay Byrne on Henry Street at the announcement of the show.
Gay Byrne on Henry Street at the announcement of the show.
Image: Graham Hughes/Rollingnews.ie

THIS OCTOBER WILL mark 20 years since the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire hit our screens. 

The show has been revived in the UK in recent years, and even the subject of the recent hit ITV drama Quiz, but its Irish edition enjoyed only a short time in the limelight. 

Just a year after he’d finished his 37-year stint on the Late Late Show, Gay Byrne was chosen as the host and it arrived with much fanfare.

An RTÉ news report the day before the first episode aired on 17 October 2000 remarked that the format was simply “the biggest TV game show in the world”. 

At that time, it wasn’t an accolade given lightly. 

Two years before, ITV in the UK had begun airing the show. The simple format – 15 questions with four possible answers each and a escalating scale of tantalising cash prizes – proved a huge hit.

Hosted by TV and breakfast radio stalwart Chris Tarrant, it would attract an average of 19 million viewers in the UK during its late-90s heyday. 

Backed by a huge sponsorship deal from Eircell, RTÉ and Tyrone Productions hoped to replicate the success of the quiz show in Ireland.

00016504 Producer Moya Doherty with John Mc Colgan pictured at the announcement that Eircell, the mobile phone operator, would sponsor the gameshow Source: Paul Sharp/Rollingnews.ie

RTÉ’s Anthony Murnane remarked in his news piece in October 2000 that “it’s glitzy and the prize money is big… but it wasn’t always that way on Irish TV”. 

To be fair, a £1 million cash prize was a far cry from the likes of Quicksilver (“Stop the lights” anyone?) and Murphy’s Micro Quiz-, which had appeared on our screens in the decades prior. 

With the high stakes and the high reputation the show already had, the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was a ratings hit.

The Irish Independent reported that 1.2 million people tuned in for the first show, over a million people more than watched the Champions League (Arsenal vs Lazio) that night. 

Three in every four households in the country watching TV that night watched Gaybo pose the questions. 

The first ever contestant on the show was Celbridge teacher Des O’Connor. 

The Irish Times reported that he successfully navigated questions on Man Utd and the voice of Bart Simpson before getting stuck on the £32,000 question. He opted not to risk it on the Guys and Dolls question and left with a cheque for £16,000.

Also on the same show, Dubliner Rachel Brennan left with £1,000 and a bunch of flowers on her 22nd birthday. 

“It was great, but when you get that far you couldn’t help be disappointed,” she told the paper. 

Off to a good start, the Irish version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire looked set to kick on steadily from there. Over its two-year run minor controversies occasionally made headlines, and crucially no-one ever won the top prize. 

Familiar face

Before he was a well-known actor and presenter, Simon Delaney was one of the few who made into the hot-seat opposite Gay Byrne for a chance at a million pounds. 

He was trucking along well before running into a roadblock on the £32,000 question.

At this stage, according to the rules of the format, you could take the £16,000 you had and walk away. If you gave an answer and it was right, you’d move up to a guaranteed minimum of £32,000. If you went for it and got it wrong, however, you’d drop back to £1,000 and your day was done.

In Delaney’s way for a cool £32k was a question about Feng Shui. 

105 Virgin Media Television New Schedules Simon Delaney took a punt and lost out on Feng Shui Source: RollingNews.ie

He recalled the experience with Mario Rosenstock on Today FM last year.

“I reached that question and said, ‘you know what Gay I’ve had a lovely day, I’m gonna take the sixteen grand and I’m going to take it’. He said to me ‘well have a little think, what’s your thought process’.”

The actor said he believed it was the arrangement of a living space to give an aura of peace and harmony which drew “oohs” from the audience.

“I thought jaysus, I won’t be here again, I said balls, I’ll play it.”

Unfortunately for the soon-to-be Bachelor’s Walk star, the practice doesn’t translate as peace and harmony… but wind and water.

Delaney left with just £1,000.

“I remember getting out of the chair feeling like I’d just been in a car crash,” he said. “I was devastated. I rang my grandad. He’d been my phone-a-friend and got me on the £4,000 question. The most intelligent man I ever knew, a gentleman.

I was crying… I told him I’d won a thousand pounds. He said you’ve just won a grand. Take it and be happy.

He said it turned out well, as a jeweller’s gave him an engagement ring. He and his then-girlfriend used the £1,000 to fund a New York trip, where he proposed. “Four kids later…”.

Delaney described a touching gesture from Gay Byrne a full 18 years later. 

When Delaney was appearing in a production of The Snapper, the former Late Late Show host was in attendance on the opening night. 

“A day later I got a gorgeous card from Gay, and it said ‘congratulations on Jimmy Rabbitte, it’s a great success’ and he said ‘it’s a good job you got that question wrong all those years ago, otherwise where would we all be’.

I still have it. I treasure it.

Controversy

Simon Delaney may be able to look back relatively fondly back at that time, but the Irish Who Wants To Be A Millionaire occasionally made headlines due to disputes over the questions asked by the host during its short run.

For instance, Dublin man Shane O’Doherty was doing very well during an episode of the show in June 2001. He’d won £64,000 so far, and was aiming for the dizzy heights of £125,000.

He was asked: “Where in the human body is the lunula located – the heart, fingernail, eye or ear?”

gay-byrne-who-wants-to-be-a-millionaire Source: Graham Hughes/Photocall Ireland!

O’Doherty wasn’t sure, so he phoned a friend. His friend was absolutely sure the lunula was in the heart.

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To the contestant’s dismay, Byrne told him that fingernail was the correct answer and he’d just lost £32,000.

It caused uproar. Well-known doctors were asked to go on the national airwaves to explain what exactly a lunula was – and crucially where it was located.

A lunula, in fact, could be found in both your fingernails and your heart. Gay Byrne was absolved of any wrongdoing with a spokesperson for the production company saying he was “just the presenter”. 

If an “honest mistake was made”, the right decision would be made according to Gaybo at the time.

The clamour then came for O’Doherty to be given a second shot. A Sunday Independent telephone poll found that 95% of people felt he should be allowed continue on the show from where he left off.

While he was given a second crack at the whip, he declined to answer the question for £250,000 (Q: Name the Dublin-born Olympic gold medalist who went on to become a nationalist MP for South Kerry. A: John Pius Boland) – which meant he left with £125,000.

We’ll leave it there so

The UK version last a good deal longer than the Irish iteration of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

In fact, it had multiple series each year beginning in 1998 right through to 2008. Since then, it has had sporadic runs before coming back in recent times hosted by Jeremy Clarkson. The US version also had a solid five-year run when it first appeared in 1999.

In the end, despite its popularity, the Gaybo-fronted Irish show lasted just 18 months. 

Sponsorship was one of the main hurdles. 

Eircell was the initial sponsor, providing in excess of what’s believed to be £7 million to cover prize money but that company later ceased its partnership with the show and caused production to be put on hold in 2002.

The National Lottery were said to be in talks to become the new sponsors but between that company, producers Tyrone Productions and RTÉ, no agreement could be reached and that was the end of that. 

The Irish Independent reported in June 2003 that RTÉ had taken the final decision not to proceed with the next series – something not particularly well received by Gay.

He pinned the blame on its later ratings not living up to its early heights because it was scheduled to air directly opposite the UK version of the show. 

“I am very, very sad about this,” he said. “It was a great show and I had great fun doing it.”

How would you have done?

We leave this lookback at the quiz show that graced our screens 20 years ago with the question that faced Roger Dowds – the young Dublin man who got farthest on the Irish edition of the show. 

He walked away from this question, which would have landed him £500,000.

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