Tuesday 23 October 2018

Quiz show king didn't want to be a millionaire

Lady luck has smiled on Mr Light Entertainment who is now focussing on his true passion -- making movies, writes Eoghan Williams

MERV Griffin, the legendary Irish-American who was buried in Beverly Hills this month, set the bar for creating highly profitable TV quiz shows, with Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! But Paul Smith, the Irishman who last year sold the international rights to Who Wants to be a Millionaire? for €155m is one of the few people who have come close to matching Griffin's quiz show fortune.

Griffin was a "whirling dervish of a showman", described in one obit as a "one-man-conglomerate" (he earned a footnote in Hollywood history with the first 'open-mouthed' screen kiss, sang the number one mock Cockney hit I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts, and later became a hotel magnate, with St Cleran's, Co Galway, in his portfolio).

Smith on the other hand, is self-effacing and "never set out to make money".

Whatever his intentions, Smith is now established as one of Ireland's wealthiest 100 individuals, valued at €70m. His personal stake in Who Wants to be a Millionaire? sold for £27m (€40m) last December. Two arms of Complete Communications, the company founded by Smith and which is behind such TV hits as The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna, You Are What You Eat and It'll Be Alright on the Night, were also bought out. The question now is what will Mr Light Entertainment do next.

Make no mistake, Smith is taking time to enjoy his new multi-millionaire status. He has commissioned a 100ft motor yacht to be built in the top Italian yard, a far cry from the plywood dinghy his brother sailed as a child in Cultra, Co Down. And he and wife, Sarah, have just returned from a holiday touring the vineyards of Bordeaux, a surprise present from Jasper and Hazel Carrott. "It was a lovely, lovely experience," the Belfast man says.

Smith's friendship with Carrott began in the late 1970s when Michael Grade, then director of programmes at LWT, asked him to go and watch the comedian's live act with a view to putting him on TV. At the time Carrott was on the comedy club circuit and occasionally stood in for Kenny Everett on radio.

"I have such a clear memory of being in the car with my girlfriend, my now wife, and turning on the radio and saying: 'Who the hell's this?'," Smith recalls.

"Jasper made the error of believing that spontaneous-sounding radio was being delivered spontaneously as distinct from being prepared very carefully in advance. So he was trying to do this show spontaneously and falling absolutely flat on his backside.

"So, I went along with great trepidation and almost certain that I wasn't going to like it -- and left almost ill with laughter. I was just aching with laughter. I went back to Michael and said: 'Sign him!' And we went on to have four really successful years and when I was setting up Complete Video in 1981 and we wanted some finance, I thought, well we've been writing enough cheques to Jasper so I know how much he's being paid, so I'll ask him to give us some money, and he willingly did so and he remained a shareholder until he sold out last year."

Smith had decided to set up his own production company in preparation for the launch of Channel 4 in 1982. Complete Video's first programme was TV Scrabble, presented by Alan Corran. The programme ran for two seasons, alternating with Countdown.

"There came a point where Channel 4 had to decide whether it was going to be Scrabble or Countdown for the next 25 years. Sadly, they chose Countdown."

At that time, Channel 4 was Complete Video's sole customer and, being Channel 4, they tried to spread the work out evenly between the fledgling production companies. Smith branched into post production in order to generate more income and nearly went bust in the process.

"I had no business experience whatsoever, because I did not think that it was my job to have business experience as distinct from sales.

"The financial controls were less than timely and accurate and we got to a point where I was told to put the company into receivership and I refused to do that. We borrowed from all the shareholders and we had to remortgage our house and all that. It was the most humiliating experience of my life sitting with the Inland Revenue trying to persuade them to give us a six-month moratorium on paying tax that was due to them. Ever since then I can promise you I have looked at the accounts every month and analysed them carefully."

Later, it was Smith's company that was bailing out the big boys. Six months after ABC began showing Millionaire he was in Los Angeles to check on progress. The programme has been credited with single-handedly reviving the ailing network. "The two co-chairmen of ABC and various other assorted executives were walking towards us along a corridor. As they were about 50 feet away from me they all knelt down on the floor and bowed. I mean it was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but nevertheless you don't do that unless you mean it if you are a network executive."

Millionaire has now been shown in over 100 countries, although in Ireland it ran for just two years. "It had the best host it could possibly have," Smith says. "I'm not certain that Gay Byrne could bring the same tension to Millionaire as Chris Tarrant, but he brought other things to it. What he brought was the great affection of the Irish people. He's a lovely guy and a delight to work with, but I think it's very, very difficult because there are very few countries in the world where two versions of millionaire can be compared. People in Ireland have the benefit -- or not -- depending on how you look at it, of getting UK television and I think there was a comparison made and it was a very, very difficult act for Gay to follow."

Of course no one has made more money out of the show than Smith himself, but making money was not his primary motive. "You don't sit down on a Monday morning and ask 'how am I going to make lots of money', you sit down and ask 'how am I going to make a compelling show'. The show comes first and having the idea and watching it succeed is incredibly heart warming. But yes, the money has come in handy."

Smith is now reviewing his life, working increasingly from home rather than his office in Covent Garden. He has moved 'downstairs' to an office following the sale of two arms of Complete Communications. Two of the three remaining arms are also for sale.

But unlike Merv Griffin, Smith has no plans to retire now that his days in television are coming to an end.

"The only major part left is the film division and that would be my greatest passion. I think I've put television broadly behind me now," Smith says.

"It's a very, very exciting time for Celador films. We have three films just about to go into production.

"The first is a movie called Slum Dog Millionaire, which is being shot entirely in Mumbai. It's directed by Danny Boyle. They don't come any better than Danny Boyle in terms of directors."

Smith is getting passionate now. "It is a look at the conditions that slum children have to endure while growing up in places such as Mumbai and Delhi and so on. And it's also a love story. But the plot is primarily that a kid of 18 or 19 is on the Indian version of Millionaire.

"He gets to the final question and the show runs out of time, so he's coming back the next day for this final question -- and the producers think he's cheating, because they can't believe that a child from the slums could possibly have the breadth of knowledge that he has.

"So he is interrogated by the police in a rather brutal fashion, which is apparently the way that they treat these kids over there. And the child explains through flashbacks how he came to have all this knowledge through all the experiences he's had in his life. So it's a look at contemporary India through his eyes in parallel with a love story and all that intertwined with him being on Millionaire."

Smith has to be reminded that he has a lunch appointment at the Woolsey. That doesn't stop him launching into a description of Celador's other new films. He is particularly excited by one on the relationship between Martin Luther King and Lyndon B Johnson, which will be directed by Stephen Frears and is "the best screenplay I have ever read". Frears also directed Celador's first film, Dirty Pretty Things, which was nominated for an Oscar.

Smith is utterly without pretension (jeans appear to be his office wear of choice), but he gives the firm impression that Celador is in line for high accolades in the world of film.

By the end of the year, Smith will have all but left TV. He has, however, just taken up a directorship in a production company, Waddell Media, which is based in Holywood, Co Down. But his motive for attending board meetings in "the other Holywood" is to give him "a structured reason" to get back to Ireland. "I just adore Ireland," he says. "I'm Irish and proud of it and would never ever want to forget my heritage nor allow anybody else to forget it."

As a schoolboy in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution -- known as Inst -- he played gigs all over Ireland, including regular slots at the Stellar Ballroom in Mount Merrion in Dublin. At one stage his band, the Corsairs, were supported by Them, Van Morrison's band. Smith launches into another anecdote.

"You're allowed to laugh at this: I loved the Shadows -- Cliff Richard's backing group. Over the years I've got to know the Shadows and they were doing a farewell tour and I had this idea that I would blend every aspect of nostalgia in my life into one moment and I called a guy called Chris McCabe who used to be the rhythm guitarist in our band and who is now very senior in the Northern Ireland Office.

"I said: 'Look, the Shadows are doing a farewell tour and they're playing the Waterfront in Belfast, do you want to go and see them?' I said we could go for dinner with the Shadows afterwards if Chris arranged a restaurant.

"So, after the show we arrive at this place called Dean's -- and it's where my father used to have a gents' outfitting shop. I just burst into tears. I was with the Shadows in my father's shop. Brilliant.

"At the end of dinner, Chris took me aside and said: 'You mustn't tell anyone this, but I'm going to be given a CBE in the Queen's honours list on Sunday.' So, sure enough, on Sunday there was my old mate's name in the paper: Chris McCabe CBE.

"And then I read down the page -- and all of the Shadows had been given OBEs! I was the only person at dinner that night that wasn't about to get an award."

Do not be surprised, however, if Smith's office doesn't remain without a major award for long.

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