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'I'm not nervous on TV, my wife says I am a bit psycho'

Published 20/08/2016

Giles Coren
Giles Coren
Giles Coren

Quiz shows run in the family for Giles Coren and the self-confessed 'swot' will be in his element as question master for ITV's new 500 Questions. He tells Gemma Dunn why brains will help, but won't guarantee victory.

Food critic, writer and TV presenter, Giles Coren already has many strings to his bow. Now, he's about to add another, in the form of 'ringmaster' for ITV's brand new prime-time quiz show, 500 Questions - and the outspoken 47-year-old is certain he's the right man for the job.

"I'm a past winner of The Weakest Link," he quips. "It was the first time I appeared on TV and it was a (journalists only special) edition 13 years ago. I won £11,500, which, distressingly, I had to give to charity. I have never quite got over that."

Not one for airs or graces, Coren, who has made waves as a columnist and restaurant critic for The Times and contributed to various publications, including Tatler and GQ, is set to make a splash when the entertainment series, hailing from US channel ABC, kicks off.

An intense battle of brainpower that will test even the smartest of cookies, 500 Questions will, as the title suggests, see a relentless stream of demanding questions that require intellect, strategy and stamina, fired at contestants.

There's no help, no hints, no multiple-choice, and one very simple rule: never get three wrong in a row.

"They haven't really done anything like this since Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? In each episode there are 50 questions that are quite difficult; if you get three wrong in a row, you're out," London-born Coren explains.

"The person still there at the end wins all the money (£500 for every right answer, with a maximum total of £25,000).

"So, a really clever person - a super-boffin - could know 47 of the answers, but still go home with nothing and, likewise, a normal person like you and me might only know 17 or 18, but if you got them in the right order, you could win. I know the answers before, because we have to go through the questions to ensure all of the various pronunciations are right. And that's a good thing, because it stops me being a show-off. If I knew one that they'd got wrong, I'd want the whole world to know."

He likens his style to the more combative Jeremy Paxman than a gentle Alexander Armstrong (who happens to be Coren's brother-in-law; his wife Esther Walker's sister, Hannah Snow, is married to Armstrong), and says: "When the contestants express a wrong answer, I will give them an incredulous expression."

Indeed, the self-professed "swot" is the first to admit he feels let down by a lack of knowledge."I'm always disappointed when they don't know about books. We had a fella come on who had only ever read one book, and he was proud of it!" says Coren, who studied English at Oxford and lists his "quiz-level specialist subjects" as art, literature, politics and history. "I am aware there are such people, but it's not really good enough. Quite often they don't know the answer to quite simple book questions.

"But, by the same token, I don't often know the answer to pop music questions and I'm not very good on geography, so we've all got our strengths and weaknesses."

One element he can't identify with, however, is the nerves that arise from being on TV.

"Believe me, presenting the show is as pressurised as appearing on one. I'm being paid to do it and if I don't do my job - if I forget how the game works or get the questions wrong - it's a calamity.

"But those things don't make me nervous. My wife thinks it's because I am a bit of a psychopath."

Rather than the task of asking the questions, the pressure, he says, comes from "standing there in a sharp suit with make-up on, looking as nice as you possibly can with everybody staring at you".

He's keeping things in perspective, though. "Being paid quite big money to ask questions and make jokes - that strikes me as an awful lot better than having a proper job."

If he should ever have doubts, Coren has plenty of industry heads to turn to. As well as Armstrong, his sister Victoria Coren presents quiz show Only Connect.

However, despite "having a family loyalty to watch them", quizzes are strictly off the table at festive family get-togethers.

"We've all had enough by the time Christmas comes around. What we tend to do is read out the beginning of the joke in a Christmas cracker, and then we have to guess what the end of the joke is. It's fun."

But while finishing a few "corny and predictable" gags isn't a problem, penning another novel might be.

Having had his debut, Winkler, panned 10 years ago (he later explored its downfall in Sky Arts documentary, My Failed Novel), Coren has firmly put a sequel on the back-burner.

"Writing is a different beast from other things," he says, appearing reflective.

"I did it because I've always wanted to be a novelist and I thought it was an important thing to do, but in terms of the time, it's pretty punishing. It takes years, and then no one might read it.

"So, if people like 500 Questions and ITV want more of it, I don't think you'll see another novel."

500 Questions, ITV, Monday, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph

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