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Topless Sophie prank that Tarrant regrets

Newly-wed royal bride Sophie Rhys-Jones accompanied her husband Prince Edward on a visit to Ireland yesterday. Noreen Taylor talks to TV presenter Chris Tarrant who explains how that topless picture of her was taken

Chris Tarrant does not want to change his mind. Yes, he certainly can and will answer the question. Just why did he pull up Sophie Rhys-Jones' t-shirt, exposing a breast which led to the infamous picture? This finally surfaced in The Sun 11 years later, a short time before the woman was due to marry Prince Edward.

Tarrant is confident and calm, as if he knows this is the moment to explain his un-gallant action for the first time. After a deep breath, he replied: ``It's not something I'm proud of. I know I shouldn't have done it. There was nothing sexual about it. It was a pretty stupid, thoughtless thing to have done, and I'd rather it hadn't happened. It's not as though I make a habit of such behaviour. I mean, don't think I'm the type who goes around mooning.'' But wasn't there another agenda?

That one in which Mr Capital Radio, the ultimate fun fascist, demanded that all the girls around him join in his outrageous pranks or be branded as party poops and, worse still, find themselves out in the cold?

``Nah, nah, nah. The world isn't like that. Eleven years ago I was just another jock, in fact the junior D, and we were all having a giggle. You'd be wrong if you thought Sophie was a young girl being forced to tolerate my stupid jokes.''

He has not spoken in public about the incident since he laid into The Sun on the May morning it published the picture, and launched a blistering attack on the woman who sold it to the paper, his former colleague, Kara Noble.

At the time he told his listeners: ``There is a nasty piece of dirt in my mouth.'' But it wasn't his dirt he was talking about, just The Sun's and Noble's. Although he had been responsible for the original indiscretion, his spin ensured that he emerged as Mr Clean, almost as hurt and humiliated by the betrayal as Sophie.

He says: ``When the picture was published, I thought, I've got to answer something so vicious and inexplicable. I mean, the kids and the house were under siege from the media. After my statement on the morning show I was amazed at the number of faxes and e-mails I received in support.

``I still don't know why she (Noble) did it. She was never a bread head, never into money. As far as I was concerned she sent Christmas cards and had gone off to do her own thing. So what was eating away at her?'' He shakes his head, mystified. ``Anyway, it backfired hugely on her. She lost her job and, like James Hewitt, she's now regarded as a cad and a traitor.''

Tarrant, however, remains a firm chum of the Earl and Countess of Wessex. ``Spoke to them a lot throughout the whole thing. Edward is used to the press, so they were very sympathetic.''

But you decided not to attend the wedding? ``Nah, nah, nah. Wasn't like that. When were going through my diary I realised I'd be in Canada during the wedding, so I rang them and said, `I can tell you now that I can't come,' so the invitation was never sent. For me to have gone would have meant an unnecessary side show.''

Matter-of-factly he says: ``I've known Edward for years, ever since he agreed to substitute for Leslie Crowther at the Lord's Taverners. Great guy! Great speaker!''

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Not unlike Tarrant then, who makes his fortune as your ordinary, hugely matey, fun guy. ``I'm not depressive or complicated. I don't go home at night and relax with Tennyson or Wagner. With me it's more likely to be Stone Roses.

``When people say, `Why don't you want to move on and present Newsnight or Panorama,' I say, `because I know what I do well'. I'm a lighthearted person who's not into deep stuff like politics or self-analysis.

``Of course, things get to me and make me sad, like after my divorce from my first wife when I was heartbroken at the thought of losing contact with my two kids. I drove thousands of miles form London to Warwickshire every weekend to give them a cuddle, and then promptly fell asleep in the chair when I got there.

``I used to say to the kids, `Would you rather see Daddy less often, when he's not so tired?' They used to say, `We don't care if you're sleepy, we just like to see you.'

``Basically, though, I'm a country bumpkin. Fly-fishing, badger-watching at weekends when we're at our house in Warwickshire is what really thrills me.''

Neither of these pastimes is responsible for propelling the former English teacher, who once lived in a mini-van, into the forefront of radio and television.

Now 52, his career as King of Gunge started off with the 70s show Tiswas, and led to what has become a relentlessly gruelling schedule that starts at 5am when he rises for his Capital Radio morning show, and ends with whatever TV show he is recording.

Although he shrugs and likes to claim, ``I just drifted into things,'' hard work has catapulted Tarrant to his invincible position as presenter of television's most highly rated quiz show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? in which nervous contestants gamble thousands of pounds on answers while chummy Tarrant tantalises them with one of his infuriating catchphrases: ``Are you sure that's your final answer?''

He also fronts Man O Man, in which groups of hysterical women dunk men in water. Then there is Tarrant on TV, a compilation of bizarre foreign film clips. Low budget, high on ratings and laughs no wonder he's popular with programme-makers.

On the road to success, way back, there was a macho booze'n'groupies period: 60 cigarettes a day, 20 beers and supposedly four women a night. Since then he has settled down with his second wife, the Norwegian journalist Ingrid Dupre, whom he met when working for TVam.

He describes Ingrid as a beautiful, intelligent, independent woman who just once got up to cook him breakfast. ``First morning of the radio show, she did the works. Bacon, egg, toast all laid out before me. We just looked at each other, me grateful that she made the effort but with the mutual understanding that this was a one-off gesture.

``Ours isn't a complacent relationship. In fact I'm amazed after 15 years at how deeply it matters and how much it eats into me when things are not good between us. I thank God for it. Once, when she was angry with me, she told me she didn't listen to my show but switched to Tony Blackburn in revenge.''

He admits to feeling guilty about the amount of time he spends away from home. ``Sometimes, when I have a week off and I'm doing the school run, there's a part of me that thinks I should cut back on work and enjoy what remains of their childhood. And I probably will do less in the future.

``The reason I've always worked so hard is simple I have a really good time. And let's face it, getting up at five is no big deal when you have to climb in the back of a great fat Mercedes and the driver is waiting with a cup of coffee.

`The people having a hard time are the poor bastards I pass standing waiting in the rain at bus stops who are going off to jobs with no satisfaction and little pay. That's why I can't stand grumblers on TV and radio complaining about their early hours.''

He comes across as an amiable sort, a man in control yet someone intent on you liking him. There is none of the edgy insecurity detectable in so many television personalities because, as he claims, ``I don't give a toss. It's only television! It's only a radio show. The fat cats can't play political games or pressurise me because I believe life goes on. After all, what I do is not incredibly important. It's only a laugh.

``At the same time I get annoyed when people suggest that I should be above giving people a good time. Sod them, I say!''

* Who Wants To Be A Millionaire returns to ITV next Friday, September 4

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